Is ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Acknowledgment of Its Diversity Problem a Good First Step?

By  · Published on November 4th, 2013

In its fifth episode of its thirty-ninth season, the venerable Saturday Night Live finally addressed its currently hot button diversity problem. The sketch comedy show’s newest iteration has drawn ire for months now, thanks to the casting of a staggering six new talents – all white, leaving the series still without a black female talent – so some sort of mention of the scrutiny and controversy was long overdue. Of course, having a black female host (Kerry Washington) to help it along was certainly a fortuitous stroke of luck (given, of course, that you believe this was in an way a lucky coincidence), but the show’s single attempt to say something clever, funny, or inspired about the scandal fell jarringly short.

The show’s cold open featured cast member Jay Pharoah (who got more screentime during this episode than he has all season, another “coincidence” that’s certainly not one) doing his trademark Barack Obama impersonation, with Washington tasked with playing Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce. Asked to flit in and out of the Oval Office set, what Washington was doing (playing all the female African American roles!) was obvious enough, but the self-referential tone was heightened by both the over-the-top impatient behavior of both Pharoah and Taran Killam as they waited for Washington to complete multiple wardrobe changes. Oh, and then there was a weak “apology” made via voiceover and on-screen text that issued a mea culpa to Washington for asking her to play all the roles they don’t have current cast members for (and then Al Sharpton came out, which was so bizarre that I was ninety percent sure I had imagined it). We get it, but it wasn’t funny and it wasn’t much of a step forward for Saturday Night Live.

Simply acknowledging the issue is, admittedly, a step. But it’s a step that’s already happened off screen, thanks to both Kenan Thompson’s comments on the subject initially stirring up anger and founding producer Lorne Michaels weighing in on the issue just last week. The team at SNL knows what the problem is, they’ve acknowledged it, and using that as fodder for a sketch that’s both kind of funny and vaguely offensive isn’t helping anyone. Moreover, the very nature of the show – it’s live! It’s weekly! It’s penned in mere days! – allows it to be very topical and very immediate with its response, and this week’s cold open seems just plain late.

So what is the appropriate next step? Well, how about hiring a black female talent to join the cast? Of course, that comes with its own issues, as Mike Ryan over at The Huffington Post illustrates that the problem has now become a bit of a catch-22, writing: “at this point, if SNL does nothing and doesn’t hire an African American woman, they look like jerks. If they now do hire an African American woman, will she feel like she was only hired because of the intense media scrutiny? Is that fair?”

That’s not the only rub, however, because not only would adding in a new hire to the cast look like an obviously calculated move at this point, it would also be damn hard to do, considering the show’s bloated cast of sixteen (one of the biggest casts ever). While it’s not traditional practice for Saturday Night Live to hire new cast members mid-season, it has happened in the past – most notably during the season six retooling (a complete overhaul that’s a bit of an outlier in this equation). Most recently, Casey Wilson was added in the thirty-third season to succeed Maya Rudolph, Michaela Watkins was also a mid-season replacement in the thirty-fourth season, Kristen Wiig joined the cast while its thirty-first season was already in full swing, and current cast member Kate McKinnon came on board towards the tail end of the thirty-seventh season. It’s not impossible to fold in a new cast member, but it does seem improbable right now, simply due to both logistics and inevitable scrutiny.

Yes, acknowledging the problem is one (small, obvious) step, but doing it by way of an over-the-top sketch probably isn’t the best way to go about it – because the only way to rectify SNL’s lack of a black female talent is for them to hire on a black female talent. A concerted effort needs to be made, though most likely with an aim to hire on this new talent for next season, not as a stopgap measure in an already crowded cast. Can they joke about it until it happens? Sure, but let’s stay away from those ham-handed voiceover and weak “apologies” that only make it more obvious that this is indeed a major issue.