His nomination for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series was the first for an Indian American. “I’m very happy but it’s a very specific accomplishment,” he laughingly told USA Today about the historic nod.
More than 90 percent of SNL’s hosts have been white, and only two celebrities of Asian descent — Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu — have hosted the show before, according to IndieWire’s demographic breakdown of all of the show’s hosts (that doesn’t include Fred Armisen and Bruno Mars, who both have some Asian ancestry). Most non-white hosts have been black, IndieWire found.
SNL has faced controversy in recent years over diversity issues. In 2013, the lack of a black female cast member led to executive producer Lorne Michael holding special auditions to hire one. He ended up hiring Sasheer Zamata, as well as Leslie Jones (who was initially brought on as a writer).
Melissa Villaseñor joined SNL this year, becoming the show’s first Latina cast member. Nasim Pedrad, on SNL between 2009 and 2014, was the show’s first female Middle Eastern cast member.
An argument in favor of increased racial diversity in SNL’s cast is that it better positions the show to effectively comment on and satirize pop culture, politics and whatever else is in the zeitgeist at the moment. It can be fraught to mount a Michelle Obama impersonation or present the biting and viral “Black Jeopardy” sketches without nonwhite cast members.
But the hosting gig is perceived differently; the hosts sometimes drive the sketches, but often they just slip into the flow of the show. Hosts come on because they’re plugging some new big project, like a show or movie. Or maybe they’ve just had a major star-making moment (Felicity Jones of “Rogue One” will host Jan. 14, for instance). Or maybe the host has such an outsized personality that he or she serves as a big draw. (Donald Trump hosted in 2015, earning big ratings and terrible reviews; Dave Chappelle’s eagerly anticipated 2016 episode marked his comeback to television.)
So if there are fewer Asians landing big roles or getting opportunities to see their stars rise to A-list status, it follows that there wouldn’t be as many booked to host SNL over the years.
But things are starting to change in Hollywood, as we’ve seen more and more Asians rising through the ranks of the entertainment industry and breaking typecasting molds. There’s Mindy Kaling’s books and TV series; Priyanka Chopra adding to her international fame with her role on the U.S. series “Quantico”; Constance Wu and Randall Park on “Fresh Off the Boat”; and Dev Patel starring in box office smashes.
That doesn’t mean Asian celebrities still don’t face hurdles, such as typecasting. That’s a main plot-point in Ansari’s Netflix series, whose character, Dev, is an actor whose biggest success is a yogurt commercial. While Dev tries to break into bigger roles, he goes to auditions where he’s instructed to put on a fake, exaggerated Indian accent.
Such a dilemma was inspired by real-life experience. As Ansari wrote in the New York Times in 2015, “Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.”
Ansari will host SNL in two weeks, with musical guest Big Sean.