SNL’s Diversity Problem Isn’t Just About the Casting. It’s About the Writing.

by Laura Bennett | November 4, 2013

As host of this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” Kerry Washington could hardly have been better. In the cold open, a sendup of the show’s much-ballyhooed diversity problem, Washington was forced to play Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyoncé in rapid succession—seeing her swap Olivia Pope’s chilly poise for Oprah’s manic finger-pointing was a highlight. Whether playing a gum-smacking sidekick to an inspirational speaker or a Spelman College political science professor discussing what it would take for Obama to lose the support of black voters, Washington’s delivery was perfectly dry.

But this SNL did more than prove the necessity of black women in the cast. It also underlined their absence from the writers' room. For all Washington’s charm, the material was mostly caricatured and flat. As the assistant to Nasim Pedrad’s career counselor, she was handed self-consciously sassy lines like “You are not being combative with me.” During a sketch about a Russian beauty pageant in which she played Miss Uganda, the joke was her inability to say full English sentences. A parody of “What Does The Fox Say?” called “What Does My Girl Say?” was a particular clunker, replacing song lyrics with lines like “Grandma says, ‘ow my hip’” and “My girl says [nagging sounds] ‘nah nah nah’.” The Spelman professor was a recycled character, first played by Maya Rudolph. And even the cold open, which was probably the best sketch of the night, felt like a cheap trick designed mostly to allay the guilt of the SNL suits.

It’s a problem that is rooted in the sketches themselves, not just their casting. “Saturday Night Live” has long been skilled at spoofing upper-middle-class white culture. When Charles Barkley hosted last year, one of the most memorable sketches was a fake true-crime show called “White People Problems” that featured dramatic reenactments of scenarios such as “Dylan and Casey were flying to a weekend getaway in Key West, but when they got to the airport, they discovered that their seats were not together.” And one of the best jokes from Saturday night's show was about how much white people love "The Wire."

Overall, though, producing funny, layered sketches starring black characters has proven to be more of a problem, particularly in recent months. Last week’s show included a sketch called “12 Years Not a Slave,” in which the main gag was Pharaoh’s obliviousness to the racism around him. Jason Zinoman pointed out in a smart New York Times column last week that  “For a show of topical parody rooted in current national politics and mass culture, diversity is a question not just of fairness, but also of art.” It’s just not possible to produce sharp, relevant cultural and political satire with no black female faces in the ensemble. But Washington’s turn as host also clearly debunked the idea that adding one black woman to the cast would fix the show’s narrowness of perspective. Her versatile performance couldn’t save a show that didn't know what to do with her.

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