If all went according to plan, yesterday marked the final auditions held by the folks at Saturday Night Live to decide upon an African American female cast member. The plan, however, was not the original course charted for the show; it was instead implemented in reaction to recent complaints over the lack of diversity on the popular late night sketch comedy show. While the most recent uproar may be relatively new, the elephant in the room of racial disparity at SNL is as old as the program itself.
When I was a child growing up in the seventies, SNL had a sole Black male cast member named Garrett Morris. Back then, however, those of us watching at home rarely referred to him as Garrett Morris; we simply called him “the Black guy on Saturday Night Live.” Perhaps as a combination of both a sign of the times and the naïvete of my youth, I recall viewing Morris’ role on the show as a source of pride. I gave little thought if any to the nature of the characters he portrayed, weighing only whether I thought each was funny or not. Usually, in fact, I didn’t find him very funny at all, being more amused by the antics of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Jane Curtin or Gilda Radner. The cast, then referred to as “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (a jab at the then unfashionably late TV time slot that was usually followed by the Star Spangled Banner and four hours of screen static), typically used Morris as a foil for some of the most blatantly racist jokes one could imagine. Morris seemed to gleefully play along, scratching when he didn’t itch and grinning when there wasn’t a damn thing cheerful going on. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I said to myself “hey, wait a minute, that ain’t right.”
First of all, damn I’m old. Second, I never would have thought a thing about the treatment of Morris – or his apparent acceptance of it – if it weren’t for the decidedly more militant approach of the next “Black guy on Saturday Night Live”, some dude named Eddie Murphy.
While one could certainly make a case that Murphy’s antics were a step backwards based on such characters as Buckwheat and pimp-turned-educator Velvet Jones of “I Wanna Be a Ho” correspondence course fame, his head-on tackling of racial issues in other skits was groundbreaking in that seemingly no other Black comedian besides Richard Pryor and, to a slightly lesser degree, Redd Foxx, was so publicly confrontational against the status quo at the time, and Murphy did it on network television. Murphy embodied characters such as a Black businessman who disguised himself as a White man for a day to see what White America is really like when Blacks are not around. Lavish parties were thrown on public transportation and loans were given out freely with no obligation to repay, as “Mr. White” went along for the free ride in the name of research. Another skit saw Murphy as a Reggae musician who penned a song in which he expressed his desire to “kill de White people.” While the sentiment was clearly over the top, Eddie Murphy’s satire gave voice to a repressed rage that had long boiled under the surface in a culture that shunned radical expression by minorities.
Indeed, Murphy famously referred in an interview to his real-life assertion that he would not let the powers that be at SNL “Garrett Morris me”, referring to his refusal to accept diminished screen time and demeaning roles. While one certainly has to admire Murphy’s boldness, for me what was problematic about the statement was what felt like Murphy throwing Morris under the bus instead of showing solidarity with him and gratitude for his sacrifices. Morris, the original Black Guy on SNL, was a pioneer in his own right, and it’s always easier for the second guy who does anything after the guy in front has knocked a hole through the brick wall that obstructed the path for all of us. Murphy’s stance ultimately led to his departure from the program and his launch into even greater stardom. Thank you Garrett Morris.
SNL, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well in the wake of Eddie’s exodus. Chris Rock became the new BGOSNL, and while he portrayed militant characters such as talk show host Nat X, Rock came across as more depressingly disgruntled than funny, and seemed as though he just didn’t want to be there. Although Rock evolved in leaps and bounds as a comedian after leaving SNL, it was clear that he lacked Murphy’s charisma and ease in front of the camera while on the show. Indeed, after Eddie departed, every African American male on the show to this day might as well have been called “Not Eddie Murphy”, or NEM for short.
There was a string of NEMs after Rock, each one seemingly elevating Murphy’s lore as a comedic genius and SNL icon. There was Tim Meadows, most known for his portrayal of “The Ladies’ Man.” Although Meadows had definite moments of brilliance, he never posed any serious threat to Murphy’s throne. Indeed, Meadows and Rock NEM appeared as a tandem for a stretch, adding to the legend of Murphy, who went on to become the most successful stand-up comedian in history.
There was Tracy Morgan, a very funny guy in his own right, but in, well, a not funny sort of way. Morgan, known for his role as Hustle Man of the sitcom Martin, and more recently for his recurring role on 30 Rock, relied on a brand of incoherence and uncomfortable physical comedy that was reminiscent of someone all up in your personal space making funny faces. It’s awkward and annoying, but if you look long enough, you eventually have to laugh. Perhaps Morgan’s most memorable roles are in drag or in semi-drag. There was Oprah, Star Jones, and of course the semi-androgenous Brian Fellow, host of Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet, known for interrupting his own interviews with guests by blurting out “I’m Brian Fellow” at the most inopportune moments. Morgan also pulled tag team duty with Meadows. Or was it Rock? Doesn’t really matter, they were all NEM in the collective consciousness of viewers. Anyone remember Finesse Mitchell? Yeah, me neither.
Fast forward to the present day, and BGOSNL duties are shared by former child star Kenan Thompson (who was also teamed up with Finesse for a stretch) and impressionist Jay Pharaoh. Thompson initially gained pre-SNL fame in his youth as half of Nickelodeon’s Kenan and Kel (with Kel Mitchell), appearing in the self-titled series as well as in variety show “All That” and the cult comedy classic “Goodburger.” Never seeming to be able to keep a straight face on SNL, Thompson picked up where Tracy Morgan left off, dressing up in drag and seemingly selling out for laughs as an overweight Black woman. Pharaoh, on the other hand, appears to have settled into a niche based on his ability to semi-embody any Black man from Will to Denzel to President Barack Obama.
Though we could collectively throw Kenan under the proverbial bus, it was Thompson’s refusal to continue to don a dress and make a mockery of himself that led to SNL’s current scouting for an actual Black woman. Thompson specifically vowed not to perform in drag again until SNL proactively addressed the disparity by hiring a Black female cast member. Though Lorne Michaels and Co. previously claimed not to be able to find a funny enough Black woman, anyone who knows a Black woman at all knows that is far from the truth. Anyone who has ever seen In Living Color or Mad TV also knows that Black women can perform sketch comedy as well as anyone, if not better at times. And anyone who has ever watched SNL in the Maya Rudolph era knows that Black women can indeed hold their own on SNL, even in the midst of a bunch of, well, not ready for prime time players. One could convincingly argue that SNL fell off long ago, but there was a time when Rudolph, the daughter of late singer Minnie Riperton, was one of few bright spots – no pun intended – on the show. SNL recently attempted to poke fun at itself over the brouhaha created by Thompson’s surprising stance (see the video clip featuring Kerry Washington portraying every Black woman from Michelle Obama to Oprah to Beyonce alongside Pharaoh), but the elephant in the room had been addressed and there was no ignoring it anymore.
Indeed when the newest cast list was announced in September, there were a a host of White males on the roll, including Beck Bennett (from the AT&T commercials featuring the cute little kids). Now the landscape of SNL is poised to be changed forever. Reportedly there were some real heavy hitters in the recent auditions. Only time will tell if SNL will follow through and stay the course of diversity.
God I hope so. I am going to scream if I see another Black man in a dress for cheap laughs. No offense to Tyler Perry.
Brian C. Scott