SNL’s Real Race Problem

It’s America’s, too.

Sasheer Zamata at "Overload the Machine", a monthly comedy show at The People's Improv Theater.

Sasheer Zamata performs in Overload the Machine, a monthly comedy show at the People’s Improv Theater.

Photos courtesy Benjamin Ragheb/Flickr

In the early part of the past decade, I wrote biographies of two famously deceased actors from Saturday Night Live, John Belushi and Chris Farley. Having exhausted the dead, fat comedian genre, I decided to write a somewhat humorous but mostly serious history of racial integration in post-Jim Crow America. So, in the wake of SNL’s recent diversity controversy, and this week’s casting of actress Sasheer Zamata, I seem to find myself uniquely positioned to write a history of racial integration at Saturday Night Live.

The fact that a history of racial integration at Saturday Night Live can fit within the confines of a Slate article is, in itself, a pretty clear indication of the problem at hand. And the current struggles with race in Studio 8H offer us a sadly useful illustration of what’s wrong with “diversity” in this country generally.

The entire roster of black performers from the show’s 39-year history can be quickly broken down into three simple groups:

a) The disgruntleds, the washouts, and the walk-offs.

b) The ones who stuck around.

c) Eddie Murphy.

Murphy is an anomaly for a number of reasons. He was only on the show for a couple of seasons, and he’s definitely a little disgruntled, refusing to participate in 2000’s 25th-anniversary special and generally excusing himself from any kind of SNL-related remembrances, like Tom Shales and Jim Miller’s oral history of the show, Live From New York. But he is also the most successful black performer from the show, and in fact, he’s the most successful movie star to come out of SNL, period. Joining the cast at the nadir of the non-Lorne Michaels era, Murphy was bigger than the show even when he was on it, and he was never really of the show. His fame transcended it. He had a foot out the door the day he arrived, and he’s never looked back.

Eddie Murphy during his James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party skit at SNL.
Eddie Murphy performs his “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party” skit on Saturday Night Live.

Courtesy NBC

The disgruntleds and the washouts are the largest group. Black performers who joined the show, never found their niche, and typically left in very short order or on not-great terms. Most of these players—Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Dean Edwards, Jerry Minor, Finesse Mitchell—barely even lasted long enough to make an impression before fading from cultural memory. White cultural memory, at any rate.

Two of these performers, Damon Wayans and Chris Rock, went on to great fame elsewhere after chafing at the racial confines of the show’s characters and subject matter. Wayans was famously fired after ad-libbing in sketches against the express wishes of an enraged Lorne Michaels, and Rock left after two seasons as a main cast member, having never hit the stride he would find later as a stand-up.

Ellen Cleghorne, the only black actress to last more than one season before Maya Rudolph, may have had the rockiest tenure of all. Hailing from the black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Cleghorne endured the show at the height not just of its whiteness but of its frattiness, going up against the sophomoric boys club of David Spade, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, et al. After four seasons on the show, Cleghorne notched just one entry in the entire index of Live From New York, a reference from Molly Shannon simply noting the fact that Cleghorne was, in fact, part of the cast.

Then you have the much shorter list of those who stuck around: the success stories. Black performers who clicked with their cast mates and are happy to have been there: Garrett Morris, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan, Maya Rudolph, and Kenan Thompson (and Jay Pharoah, so far, though it’s probably too soon to decide exactly which way his tenure is going to go). Morris, part of the original 1975 cast and the very first black performer on the show, could be forgiven for joining the disgruntleds. He was never a star, and he endured all kinds of stereotyping and tokenism as well as the attendant criticism of being called an Uncle Tom, but he stayed longer than Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd, and in his remembrances in Live From New York, Morris’s nostalgia for having been a part of history seems to outweigh any grievances. He was “lucky,” he says, to work for a man like Lorne Michaels, “a great guy and a genius.”

Which leaves Meadows, Morgan, Rudolph, Thompson. The secret to their success? They come, mostly, from fully integrated, majority-white backgrounds. Thompson spent his teens as a child star in the lily-white halls of Nickelodeon. Rudolph is the mixed-race daughter of singer Minnie Riperton and composer Richard Rudolph. Born into a show business family, she graduated from a tony high school near Hollywood and is friends with Gwyneth Paltrow. Meadows came up through the very white stages of Chicago’s Second City, where he was extremely close with cast mate Chris Farley, so close that Meadows named his son after his late friend.* (The two of them did a sketch about Farley not being OK with his black friend trying to date his white sister; it’s a Second City classic and a great riff on racial tension.)

There are exceptions to this rule. Tracy Morgan came from a low-income background in the housing projects of Bed-Stuy, yet made a comfortable home for himself both at SNL and later at 30 Rock. Chris Rock, who grew up bused to white schools and who today moves with facility on both sides of the color line, couldn’t make a go of it on SNL in his day. Still, there’s a general trend at work: The black performers who found a home at SNL knew how to navigate the terrain of white America long before they mailed in their audition tape.

Maya Rudolph, for instance, has no shortage of talent, but her success on the show probably had as much to do with her ability to form relationships with white people as it did her ability to land a joke. Because that’s what working at Saturday Night Live is. It’s not performing live on television at 11:30 on Saturday night. It’s hanging out with a peer group of mostly white writers, producers, and crew members and forming the relationships necessary to be given the opportunity to perform live on television at 11:30 on Saturday night—something Garrett Morris learned only in hindsight. “The fact that I didn’t hang out with the gang at Saturday Night Live is no reflection on anybody but me,” he told Shales and Miller. “I was a loner, and that actually cost me. … [T]he social life is just as important as your talent. Particularly with writers, they have to hear you talk and get to know you.”

Which brings us to SNL’s latest casting. In the wake of last fall’s controversy and Kenan Thompson’s unfortunate comments that the black actresses auditioning for the show weren’t “ready,” the Internet offered up a roll call of talented black actresses who were more than ready, demanding they be recognized. The various lists included names like Darmirra Brunson, a YouTube star best known for her breakout role on Tyler Perry’s sitcom Love Thy Neighbor, or Bresha Webb, who stars in a show on the black-oriented network TV One. Judging from YouTube, many of these performers are indeed very funny, but it was clear to me why these candidates were never going to get the job. The slot was always going to go, not to someone from a black network or a Tyler Perry sitcom, but to the most socially and culturally assimilated black actress who could also do a passable Michelle Obama.

Enter Sasheer Zamata. For the moment she’s still a virtual unknown to most of America, and we don’t know much about her personal background yet. (Her given surname is Moore.) But we do know that she graduated from the highly selective and predominantly white University of Virginia (Tina Fey’s alma mater). She also matriculated from the overwhelmingly white, and mostly male, Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe. Perhaps even more important, she’s friends with current SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan, an inside connection being the best credential you can have for getting any type of job, whether it’s at NBC or UPS. Even as an unknown, she had already an in with SNL’s very white old boys’ network.

And then there’s Zamata’s sense of humor. Her YouTube sketches, many of which she wrote, explore the tension of being the black actress who “isn’t urban enough,” or the awkwardness of sleeping with uncomfortable white guys. Her comedy isn’t rooted in black culture, but in the clash of cultures that goes on daily in the demilitarized zone around America’s color line—in other words, the kind of racial humor that would go over at a place like Saturday Night Live.

Sasheer Zamata is also, it should be noted, clearly very talented. The camera loves her. But her talent, as Garrett Morris pointed out, has to go hand in glove with certain social qualifications in order to thrive on the show.

Unfortunately, this is hardly a problem confined to America’s pre-eminent sketch comedy show. SNL’s current predicament is a perfect example of why our national conversation about diversity spins in place and never actually goes anywhere. For years now, from our television screens to our corporate boardrooms, we’ve been watching a tug of war take place: racial-justice advocates demanding more and more diversity and exasperated hiring managers exclaiming, We cant find any diversity! Were looking hard, we promise! One reason these two factions keep talking past each other is that they’re talking about two completely different things. When racial-justice advocates call for more diversity, what they’re saying is that the hiring pipelines into America’s majority-white industries need to be expanded to include a truly multicultural array of voices and talents from all ethnic corners of America; they want equal opportunity for minorities who don’t necessarily conform to the social norms of the white majority. When exasperated hiring managers use the word diversity, what they really mean is that they’re looking for assimilated diversity—people like Rudolph and Zamata. More Bill Cosbys. More Will Smiths. Faces and voices that are black but nonetheless reflect a cultural bearing that white people understand and feel comfortable with.

The exasperated hiring managers aren’t entirely wrong, by the way. In order to create a functional multiracial environment, the people in it need to have at least something in common. That’s probably truer in comedy than anywhere else, where racial politics must not only be discussed, but lampooned as well. Tim Meadows and Chris Farley have to be comfortable hanging out and having a beer together before they can collaborate on a sketch about the black guy hitting on the white guy’s sister. Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan may have started out with vastly different social backgrounds, but they had to learn to speak the common language of Lorne Michaels before they could successfully collaborate on the brilliant racial comedy of 30 Rock.

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. Because the question of assimilation is a lot more complicated than the overly simplistic “Lorne Michaels is racist” angle. To talk about assimilation takes the onus off of NBC’s human resources department and puts it squarely on the shoulders of the rest of us. 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. 

Time will tell what’s in store for Sasheer Zamata (and for the two black female writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, the show also hired this week). Despite the tortured politics behind her casting, Zamata deserves any success she gets. The fact that SNL waited five years into the Obama era to hire a black actress shows you how much Lorne Michaels needs to change his approach to comedy for the 21st century. The fact that he recruited that black actress from the same social and cultural pool where he finds his white performers—well, that just shows you how systemic the problem of diversity really is.

*Correction, Jan. 10, 2013: This article originally misstated that Tim Meadows was born in the white Detroit enclave of Highland Park. That is not an accurate description of Highland Park and the phrase has been removed. (Return.)