‘SNL’ lacks diversity in the cast, and in the writers’ room

Kerry Washington, right, stands with cast member Taran Killam during a promotional shoot for “Saturday Night Live." (NBC, Dana Edelson, File/Associated Press)
Kerry Washington, right, stands with cast member Taran Killam during a promotional shoot for “Saturday Night Live.” (NBC, Dana Edelson, File/Associated Press)

Kerry Washington is funny.

The writers of “Saturday Night Live” are not.

This became starkly evident during Washington’s turn as host of “SNL” this week.

The show began with one of its strongest cold opens in recent history, daring to mock itself over the diversity controversy that surrounds it.

The show opened with Washington playing Michelle Obama, who suddenly had to leave so that Oprah Winfrey could visit with the president. Kerry reappeared as Winfrey, then dashed backstage to morph into Beyoncé, while appearing appropriately put out with all the dashing being asked of her.

During the skit, “SNL” superimposed this statement:

The producers at “Saturday Night Live” would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because “SNL” does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future … unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.

But what followed was supremely disappointing. It was as though the show had a quota for verve, originality and wit. Apparently “SNL” writers burned through last week’s stock with the open.

Saturday’s broadcast revealed that the biggest weak spot isn’t the lack of diversity in “SNL’s” cast (though that’s certainly troubling); it’s the lack of diversity in its writing room. SNL has no idea how to write about black women without referencing the same tired tropes that follow us through media.

Forget the obsession with unmarried black women that plagued us in recent years. We’re married, all right: Mammy, Jezebel and big booty ghetto girl are our ball-and-chain. We can’t shake them.

Washington’s first sketch featured her in gum-smacking, ghetto princess drag, sporting a blonde wig that looked like something Mary J. Blige might have rejected in 1996.

Certainly there is truth in stereotypes; that’s why they exist. They’re a useful tool in any comic’s toolbox. But to focus solely on them, with an artist whose talents are as far-ranging as Washington’s, is lazy and insulting. #BlackTwitter was not amused.

Buzzfeed’s Shani O. Hilton pointed out that a sketch featuring Washington as a Spelman academic, poking fun at black America’s unwavering support of President Obama, had already been done — by “SNL” alum Maya Rudolph.

In the hands of a less capable actress, Washington’s turn as a clueless Ugandan beauty queen would have fallen flat. Had Jay Pharaoh or Kenan Thompson played the same role, it would have been patently offensive. Thompson has said that he will no longer dress in drag on the show, and that Jay Pharaoh “doesn’t want to.”

There was more than usual riding on Washington’s performance as a first-time guest host thanks to Thompson. The “Kenan & Kel” alum kicked off a firestorm when he told TVGuide.com that “Saturday Night Live” lacked black female cast members because those casting the show couldn’t find them. Of the show’s 16 cast members, three are people of color: Thompson, Pharoah, and Nasim Pedrad, who is Iranian.

“It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson said. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

The same week Thompson’s comments were published, “SNL” announced that Washington would be hosting the show.

Critics blame an unchallenged, straight white male power structure. Lorne Michaels has been “SNL’s” Grand Poobah since 1975, save for a break from 1980-1985.

Neither “SNL’s” cast nor its writing staff reflect modern America. Instead of nimbly adapting, they have plodded along as though it’s still 1990, and skirted reproach by calling in pinch hitters like alumni Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Rudulph. But as “SNL” and the powers that be become more and more removed from its audience, that trick will yield diminishing returns.

Today’s television viewers are savvy and smart. They have every right to be impatient. The Internet has dissolved the magic that used to disguise “SNL’s” deficiencies. We know uproariously funny black women exist. We know it’s possible to write entertaining sketch comedy that doesn’t rely entirely on stereotypes because there are people who are already doing it. They’re only one click away.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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