[COMMENTARY] SNL's (REAL) REAL RACE PROBLEM
From Slate's "SNL’s Real Race Problem,” one white, male writer’s attempt to diagnose and prescribe a cure for Saturday Night Live’s diversity ills:
"Odd as it may sound, assimilation is a prerequisite for diversity—for sustainable diversity, anyway. So maybe we don’t need a national conversation about diversity. Maybe it’s time for a national conversation about assimilation, which is a very, very different conversation than the one most of SNL’s critics have been engaged in over the past few weeks....In other words, it’s not just SNL that needs more racial integration. Comedians do, in their personal lives. Which will require a greater commitment on the part of government to create housing, education, and other policies that allow for greater social mobility for minorities, a willingness on the part of white people to learn how to share their toys, and a willingness on the part of black people to jettison romantic notions of multiculturalism and ethic nationalism and to jump in the melting pot with the rest of us ... a fundamental reordering of society, in other words."
I suspect that SNL’s diversity problem isn’t that its few black cast members have been reluctant to take part in the culture of the institution. In fact, that line of thinking is inconsistent with the experience of black Americans and betrays an ignorance of how entwined black culture is with mainstream American culture. I'd offer that SNL’s (real) real race problem – and that of most American institutions – is the psychosis of white supremacy.
In a world where Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, and Rihanna are popular culture, SNL had boxed itself into irrelevancy with a preference for white, male performers and writers - and by maintaining a practice of second-guessing black talent and cultivating white mediocrity. Don’t believe me? Consider this, or the fun fact that comedians like Robert Townsend and Donald Glover were rejected from SNL because their space for a black guy was filled.
Over nearly 40 years, 16 of 139 SNL cast members have black. Many have been exceptionally talented. Garrett Morris, Eddie Murphy, Danitra Vance, Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Maya Rudolph and Kenan Thompson were all legitimate comedians, vetted and proven elsewhere. The problem is, however, that at SNL - and in many major white institutions - talent doesn’t necessarily correlate to success.
Take the case of Damon Wayans for example. Wayans joined the cast in 1985 and was so criminally underused that he infamously began improving in a scene where he was given one line. Wayans was promptly fired and, of course, went on to create In Living Color with his siblings - a sketch comedy show that rivaled SNL and launched the careers of every member of the Wayans clan, Tommy Davidson, David Allen Greer, Jim Carey and Jamie Foxx.
Then there’s Chris Rock, arguably one of the funniest to ever do it. Rock only lasted three seasons on SNL and his tenure is mostly forgettable, he says, because the show didn’t know what to do with him and he didn’t know where he fit. Here’s an idea: SNL becomes 10x funnier with “Weekend Update” with Chris Rock.
“You do have to be twice as good, just in that there's essentially a black slot that they've got to fill,” Rock once said an interview about his SNL experience. “When I got hired, they didn't hire Tim [Meadows.] That first year, I was it. Let's put it this way: If I was as funny as Jay Mohr, would I have gotten on Saturday Night Live? Let's be honest. No dis to him, but if I was as funny as Jay Mohr on my best night, every night with that material, would I have gotten on Saturday Night Live? I wouldn't have gotten an audition. I've got to be this funny to get breaks that guys like that guy get.”
SNL has taken a chance on just a few black comedians, the most recent being Sasheer Zamata, who made her debut Saturday – a move they were pretty much pushed into. That’s a tragedy not because "toys" weren’t shared, as the Slate piece suggests, but because black people can be really funny too – something you think would be an asset to a comedy program.
Hopefully, Zamata will be given a chance to shine on the show. If she thrives, I think it won’t because she’s learned to assimilate into a cast and culture that’s currently on the struggle bus. Instead, She’ll have to elevate SNL by bringing the best of herself – and those may or may not be the black parts. The best example of this might be Tracy Morgan, who consistently brought the funny as...Tracy Morgan.
Speaking on his SNL experience and his friendship former head writer Tina Fey, Morgan told Oprah Winfrey, “She’s my friend. I love her. She understood that I knew who I was. Where everybody else [said]: ‘Oh, he don’t know. His whole career is chance.’ And she understood that I was making choices. I was making choices on TV. And she not only would write things, she would just encourage me.”
Maybe that’s the key to diversity: embracing who people are, allowing them to make choices and encouraging them.