Although a lot has been said about this episode in the 72 hours since its airing, many of the analyses and critiques that I have read are missing a few major points:
- “What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing.”: For me, this throwaway line at the end of the cold open by Rev. Al Sharpton emphasizes the attitude of the Black community when it comes to representations of Black Americans (or the non-White community when it comes to the representations of non-White Americans) in media. We have short memories, and discussion of diversity in the media is nothing more than lip service. The truth is, Lorne Michaels is laughing all the way to the bank; there has been more coverage of SNL in the past 3 days than in the past 3 years. Like Miley Cyrus said, haters still watch the video.
- “Keenan won’t do it?”: Washington asks this question when faced with a rapid costume change to switch from playing Michelle Obama to Oprah. Jay Pharoah shakes his head and mutters, “No.” This line is lost, but is essential to understanding the situation of Black actors on SNL. In recent years, Keenan Thompson has refused to dress in drag, but has not provided a political rationale. Thompson received a lot of flak for mentioning that there were no funny Black women auditioning for SNL, but in my opinion, he is just as disgusted with the trend and making a statement that was completely lost on the American audience. Again, what have we learned here? Nothing.
- How’s He Doing?: This sketch, which aired later in the night, was a much more powerful representation of the potential diversity that SNL can embrace. The sketch featured Thompson as a talk show host, Pharoah as a reporter for Ebony, and an afroed* Washington as a professor of Political Science at Spelman College. The talk show where “the Black voter takes a frank honest look at President Obama, and asks, ‘How’s he doing?'” airs at 6am on Sunday mornings, addressing the fact that discussion of important Black issues has been historically ghettoized into unreasonable and unwatchable time slots. The joke was completely lost on the audience. Other jokes in the sketch with better responses addressed the differences in White and Black Americans regarding expectations of Obama, the insurance rollout, the postal system, and The Wire. I wish more people would talk about this sketch and its place within the national conversation about Black representation, especially as compared to the cold open; its unfortunate that there are no Black women in the cast to play prominent Black figures (although there are even fewer Latinos and not a single Asian in the 38 years), but this sketch highlighted how this lack of presence handicaps the social commentary of SNL. “How’s He Doing” felt like a throwback to In Living Color, the absence of which is strongly felt in an increasingly ethnically diverse America.
*I miss natural hair on television.
UPDATE: I have been alerted to Maya Rudolph’s “How’s He Doing” sketch from her guest hosting appearance on SNL in 2012. Many of the jokes are the same, and the repetitive nature of the sketch makes in less valuable as a conversation point. However, a friend wondered, “How many jokes do they have built up just waiting for a Black host?” Click here to see Maya Rudolph’s episode; “How’s He Doing” starts at 39:17. If it is any consolation, at least they moved this sketch to earlier in the show.