“What if the blackface was just part of your costume of a black person?” one lawmaker asked. “Does it count if you did it all the way back in the ’80s?” another wondered. Blackface “was never funny or cool,” chided Thompson’s character, who ultimately concluded that his colleagues were beyond help.
The sketch would have been just as timely a few months before when Megyn Kelly parted ways with NBC after questioning why it would be considered racist to wear blackface as part of a Halloween costume. Or a few months later when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for resurfaced photos and videos of him in blackface. And that, of course, was part of the point. But as the New York Daily News and other outlets later pointed out, “Saturday Night Live” has its own history with blackface — a history that spans most of the show’s 45-year existence.
SNL’s not-so-distant history with blackface garnered renewed attention earlier this month after social media users called out “Tonight Show” host and SNL alum Jimmy Fallon for wearing blackface during a 2000 sketch. SNL, of course, isn’t the only TV comedy to use blackface: Fallon’s ABC counterpart Jimmy Kimmel apologized this week for doing the same while impersonating NBA player Karl Malone on Comedy Central’s “The Man Show” in the early aughts, and several years-old episodes from shows including “30 Rock” and “W/ Bob & David” were pulled from streaming services because they feature blackface. But as a long-standing institution of American comedy, SNL provides a window into a culture that has continued to passively embrace an inherently racist tradition meant to demean and mock black people.
Blackface as entertainment emerged from 19th-century minstrel shows that featured white actors in dark makeup, playing characters who embodied stereotypical depictions of African Americans. It continued well into the 20th century with white performers, including legendary child star Shirley Temple, donning blackface in highly visible roles. Some actors, such as Al Jolson, rose to fame in blackface, which also seeped into children’s cartoons before largely — but not completely — falling out of public favor after the civil rights movement.
SNL, which debuted in 1975, featured white performers in blackface long after that. Billy Crystal wore blackface while impersonating Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1980s, even while acting opposite civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who hosted the show in 1984. National moments of reckoning — such as Ted Danson’s widely ridiculed appearance in blackface at the 1993 roast for his then-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg — also did little to deter the show. More than a decade after Jackson’s hosting gig, Darrell Hammond, who was on SNL from 1995 to 2009, darkened his skin to play Jackson on a recurring basis.
Fallon came under fire in late May after clips from the sketch show in which he is wearing blackface while impersonating former SNL cast member Chris Rock recirculated online. “I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable,” Fallon tweeted. He later apologized on his late-night show, where he discussed the incident with CNN’s Don Lemon, anti-racism educator Jane Elliott and NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who praised Fallon’s “powerful” monologue.
Rock famously left SNL after an early-’90s stint, during a portion of which he was the show’s only black comedian. He landed at “In Living Color,” the far more diverse sketch comedy series created by Keenen Ivory Wayans. “I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to really translate the comedy that I wanted to do,” Rock told Marc Maron in a 2011 interview.
Even when SNL has employed racial stereotypes in an attempt to offer subversive commentary, past efforts often fell flat because of the show’s lack of diversity on- and off-screen. When Oprah Winfrey hosted in 1986, the cold open centered on her pointed refusal to dress up as Aunt Jemima. But the same sketch featured Danitra Vance, then the only black comedian on the show, serving coffee to executive producer Lorne Michaels, whom she called “Mr. Lorne,” while dressed like Celie, Goldberg’s character from “The Color Purple.” Michaels asks Vance what he should do to get Winfrey to play Aunt Jemima. “Beat her,” Vance replies. (In the end, it’s Winfrey who doles out a faux beating.)
In an ironic twist nearly 30 years later, SNL was urged to hire a black female comedian after Thompson told TV Guide in a 2013 interview that he would no longer dress up as a woman to play prominent black women, including Winfrey. A few weeks later, the show — which hadn’t featured a black woman in its cast since Maya Rudolph’s departure in 2007 — controversially featured host Kerry Washington as Michelle Obama, with cast members poking fun at how they hadn’t seen the first lady in “years.”
But even after a concerted effort — following an onslaught of criticism — to add black cast members and writers among its ranks in recent years, the show has yet to publicly grapple with its long history of blackface. The result is an uneven legacy that juxtaposes the show’s occasionally sharp racial humor (ranging from the groundbreaking “Racist Word Association Interview” sketch starring Richard Pryor to last year’s masterful “Mid-Day News”) with recurring missteps around representation and sketches that perpetuate racial stereotypes instead of subverting them. At worst, the show undermines the brilliance of sketches such as “Black Jeopardy,” which is elevated by the insight of SNL’s black staffers, including Thompson, now the show’s longest-running cast member, and Michael Che, the first black comedian to be named a head writer on the show.
Michaels, who also produced “30 Rock,” defended his show’s use of blackface as recently as 2008, when Fred Armisen, who is not black, donned conspicuously darker makeup to impersonate President Barack Obama. Michaels told The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi that the show had auditioned several black comedians — including Thompson, then the show’s lone black cast member — to play Obama but that Armisen had the “best take” on the nation’s first black president.
“It’s not about race,” Michaels said. “It’s about getting a take on Obama, where it serves the comedy and the writing.” Armisen, who is of Venezuelan, Korean and German descent, dismissed the criticism, telling New York magazine, “There’s shading on my eyebrows and plastic behind my ears.” He added that he wore the same “honey color” he wore to portray another black entertainer: Prince.
Eventually, Jay Pharoah, who is black, took on the role of Obama after joining the show in 2010. But critiques endured when it came to how SNL used black cast members in sketches. After leaving the show in 2016, Pharoah recalled nearly losing his job after saying, in an interview with theGrio, that SNL needed to pay more attention to black female comedians. In the end, he told “Ebro in the Morning,” he felt underutilized and too often reduced to doing impersonations of famous black men.
“You go where you’re appreciated. You know what I mean?” said Pharoah, whose SNL contract wasn’t renewed for a seventh season. “And if you have multiple people on the cast saying things like ‘You’re so talented, and you’re able; they don’t use you, and it’s unfair and it’s making us feel bad because they don’t use you and you’re a talent …’ ”
The comedian also noted that the show had yet to name his successor in impersonating Obama in the final months of his presidency, a position it never ended up filling. “Honest to God, no disrespect to them, but I kind of feel like they gave up,” he said.