Brow Beat

Ellen Cleghorne on Breaking Down Saturday Night Live’s Racial Barriers, and the Ones That Remain

The black women who came before her are dead or vanished, but Cleghorne’s still telling her story.

Three portraits of Ellen Cleghorne, one of her wearing a headdress and patterned dress, another of her dressed as a page, in the early 90s, and center, of her wearing a yellow shawl with her hair in locs, 2018.
Ellen Cleghorne.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images, James Devaney/GC Images/Getty Images, and NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images.

On a Saturday night, two days after Thanksgiving, Ellen Cleghorne sends me a ☔ emoji. She’s running late for our rendezvous at the Olive Tree Cafe in Greenwich Village. It’s pouring out, hellacious rain, but that hasn’t deterred a long line of comedy fans from forming outside the famed Comedy Cellar, which is nestled underneath the restaurant.

Moments later, current Saturday Night Live cast member Melissa Villaseñor enters, in preparation for her 8:45 set. She’s the first Latina cast member in the show’s five-decade run.

SNL’s track record with race remains under scrutiny; two-thirds of the nine hosts from the current season, the show’s 44th, are white men. The exceptions are Claire Foy, Jason Momoa, and Awkwafina, who became only the second Asian American woman to host the show, 18 years after Lucy Liu hosted in 2000.  (Matt Damon will host the year’s last show on Saturday.)

Cleghorne arrives and orders a cup of coffee. She forgot her umbrella.

Compared with her signature SNL characters, Queen Shenequa and the NBC page Zoraida, Cleghorne is reserved, subdued when she speaks. Her hair is long, locs. A few weeks ago, Maya Rudolph described instances of hair shaming during her time at SNL. Cleghorne doesn’t dispute having similar experiences: “Yeah. … There was a lot of that. The thing is, it was hurtful, but it was a scar that’d already healed over. I’d experienced that my whole life: always went to white schools, always worked in places where white people decided if you had a job or not.”

Today, many trailblazers from past eras are being reappraised and receiving long-overdue recognition. But Cleghorne remains unsung. The first woman of color to appear on Saturday Night Live as a full-fledged cast member for longer than a single season, she should be lauded for her contributions to the show, if not comedy at-large. The significance is more than symbolic, or a fun pop culture nicety. “I was the first [WOC] cast member … with a contract. And if you read, or do research, they didn’t used to give black people contracts on SNL. That was cold-blooded. They didn’t even give them credit. The credits roll, your name’s not even on there. That was a joke because that’s how you got residuals.”

Cleghorne technically had a few predecessors when she joined SNL during its 17th season in 1991. The first WOC to be credited as a featured player was Yvonne Hudson, who began as an extra during SNL’s original period in 1978. When Jean Doumanian briefly replaced Lorne Michaels for the first 12 episodes of Season 6, Hudson was listed in the cast before leaving midseason during a cast reshuffling that, among other things, solidified Eddie Murphy’s rapid stardom. She continued to appear uncredited over the next few seasons but does not have any on-screen appearances—anywhere—after 1984.

Hudson’s current status is MIA. There’s no paper trail for her, which is remarkable given cast members’ now-instant celebrity. If it’s not exactly a cautionary tale, it’s an apt metaphor for the entertainment industry’s frequent disregard for women of color and their stories. Cleghorne has never spoken to her: “She knows exactly where she is, and because we don’t know where she is doesn’t mean she’s not out there doing what she needs to do.”

The next woman of color to join the cast was Danitra Vance, who appeared on Saturday Night Live during its quixotic 11th season. For Cleghorne, she “was an inspiration.
And not ‘Oh my god, I want to be on SNL.’ More: She was a fucking genius.”

When Cleghorne first became involved in black theater and the New York comedy scene, Vance’s intimidating talent was already attracting a huge, almost cultlike following.

Cleghorne recalls watching Vance’s brilliant monologue as Miss Pat, a flight attendant instructing passengers on a “celebrity slave ship” in George C. Wolfe’s searing 1986 satire The Colored Museum. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990, Vance underwent a mastectomy, incorporating the experience into a one-woman show called The Radical Girl’s Guide to Radical Mastectomy. “She showed people her breasts,” Cleghorne recalls of its off-Broadway run. “It was the kind of performance I’d never seen before.

“For Danitra, it did not carry her over the rainbow. Maybe, in the era of the internet, things would have been different,” she offers. “And the fact she was gay. It’s very important.”

Vance died in 1994, but if she were still alive, Cleghorne says, her career arc would match Viola Davis’. “For a black woman to be in a starring role—and not just a black woman, but someone who wasn’t light-skinned, who wasn’t doing the glam thing or straightening her hair,” she adds, was “a big deal.”

Hudson’s and Vance’s SNL tenures made Cleghorne the third black woman to be credited on the show. (Ego Nwodim, who became a cast member this fall, is only the seventh.) Their absence makes Cleghorne a torchbearer, the dean of a very specific SNL class.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified,” she says, “as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are. There’s 10 white boys on that show. Each one of them are individuals, they bring something special … there’s always tokenism. It’s very dangerous.”

The remedy, if there is one, is more advocacy, and allies willing to demand better representation for people of color, says Cleghorne, echoing Ellen Pompeo’s recent comments in Porter magazine’s Women in Television issue. However, Cleghorne isn’t convinced SNL alone should be singled out: “I don’t think it has anything to do with SNL, or the people working there. It’s the society in which we live.”

After SNL, Cleghorne starred in her own sitcom. Premiering in 1995, Cleghorne! was among the first batch of original programming ordered by the fledgling WB network, then run by former Fox executives who’d cut their teeth on shows like In Living Color. (Cleghorne also appeared on In Living Color and Def Comedy Jam before her stint on SNL.)

Combined with the offerings at UPN and WB’s other sitcoms, including Sister, Sister and The Wayans Bros., Cleghorne! is part of a chapter in television history, a rare moment when black audience demographics were taken seriously by networks and advertisers. Aside from the 1970s, this period featured one of the highest concentrations of black scripted programming ever.

Unfortunately, the show was canceled in its first season. “I don’t think I was ready,” says Cleghorne. “In terms of being strong and saying, ‘I can write, this is what I do,’ and feel confident in that. And to be able to say, ‘No, this does not work, this works better.’ ”

One upside: Cleghorne’s father was played by Garrett Morris, original SNL cast member. Their collaboration was the first time two SNL cast members of color worked together on a show, post–Studio 8H.

Several years ago, Cleghorne returned to the Village, and the vicinity around the Olive Tree Cafe and Comedy Cellar, when she enrolled at NYU to earn her master’s and Ph.D. in performance studies. Today, she teaches, recently completing a stint at Graceland University, a small Christian school in Lamoni, Iowa. Cleghorne’s (joking) challenge to Jerry Seinfeld about the show’s diversity issues during SNL 40 was not a mere one-off from a former cast member but a statement from a professor and scholar, someone who’s studied the effects of representation in society.

“Performance studies taught me to look at something and see one thing in everything,” Cleghorne says. “That gives you an opportunity, as there’s a never-ending amount of things you can write about, or write a sketch about. We’re all in resistance to something, and that’s what comedy is.”

She still writes comedy, and is auditioning. Soon, she’ll launch her own podcast alongside her daughter, a dentist. Reflecting on her initial days in comedy, Cleghorne sees more opportunity in today’s landscape. “Go to Netflix, streaming, people have their own platform to showcase their stand-up or a sketch they wrote. This was not around in my day.”

Throughout our conversation—whether she’s talking academic theory, race, or comedy—Cleghorne keeps returning to one phrase: “Everything is in everything.” It feels like a kind of personal mantra. It’s also fitting: There was a time when Cleghorne was seemingly in everything, from the fratty “Bad Boy” era of SNL, to her appearances in films like Coyote Ugly and Armageddon. Catch her in one of Phil Hartman’s classic Clinton sketches one moment. The next? A stint in The Adventures of Pete & Pete followed by an episode of The Parent ’Hood.
Take a step back, and you see her quietly laying the foundation for the next generation of black comics making the transition into TV.

A study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that less than a third of movie characters with speaking parts were women in 2017, a number that has barely budged over the past decade. And while the percentage of white characters in mainstream filmmaking has decreased slightly over the same period, people of color were still underrepresented. Diverse storytelling is increasingly prioritized by outlets like Netflix, but progress is achieved by the inch, and it’s essential to take stock of the personalities who’ve already excelled, against the odds, in previous eras.

Cleghorne, a child of Red Hook, earned her seat at the SNL pitch table in a way her predecessors weren’t allowed to … and few have since. And, at a time when comedy is occasionally treated as a playground for only those who can afford it, her history and contributions stand out. Her voice remains vital.