Saturday Night Live has long faced criticisms for its lack of racial diversity in general among its cast members, and recently it has drawn specific fire primarily for not including women of color (the show has now gone six years without a black female cast member, and there have only been four total in its 39-year history). Cast member Kenan Thompson stirred things up last month when he told TV Guide that a lack of quality black female comedians is to blame for their non-appearance on SNL. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” he told the magazine. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
Last week, online civil rights group ColorofChange.org wrote a letter to SNL creator Lorne Michaels about the lack of black women on the program. In the wake of that letter, on the Nov. 2 SNL episode hosted by Scandal star Kerry Washington (the episode will re-air in primetime on NBC Nov. 9 at 8pm ET), the show featured a cold open that addressed, in a way, this controversy. The humorous opening featured Kerry Washington unexpectedly being forced to play three of the most well-known black women in America, if not the world — Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce. A voiceover apologized for the show having to ask an increasingly exasperated Washington to take on so many different roles (Kenan wouldn’t take them on, it was joked), and the voiceover continued that the show asked this of her because “Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future … unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”
The sketch was met with varied reactions, including this statement from ColorofChange.org, released yesterday:
“It was compelling to watch Kerry Washington and Jay Pharoah take on the issue of SNL’s lack of Black women cast members in the cold open of Saturday night’s episode. While certainly clever, it unfortunately doesn’t change the racial makeup of the current cast, or the reality of SNL‘s problematic history with race and gender. Saturday Night Live has substantial power in shaping the comedic world beyond Saturday nights. The absence of Black women on SNL means that Black women will continue to be overlooked — in both casting and character development — on sitcoms, late night talk shows, and in comedic films.
All jokes aside, we hope that NBC and Lorne Michaels are taking this conversation seriously. After 39 years and 137 cast members — just four of them Black women — Michaels has an opportunity to make lasting change in the show’s casting policies by opening doors for Black women on SNL, and moving us closer to a media landscape that is reflective of the American scene.
We are meeting with senior NBC Executives later this month and look forward to discussing what steps NBC and Lorne Michaels will take to ensure the inclusion of Black women in the cast of Saturday Night Live.”
Kerry Washington and Jay Pharoah on Saturday Night Live: Dana Edelson/NBC