Is SNL Too White?

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Also posted at WNPR.

“Saturday Night Live” returned for a new season on last weekend. There are six new “featured players,” the biggest cast turnover in recent memory. Five white men and one white woman.

I brought up SNL with Eric Deggans on a recent show, and before the question was all the way out of my mouth he was planting his palm on his face and moaning, “I know what you’re going to say.”

Because, let’s face it, this is getting a little creepy. SNL is like the Republican Party: on the wrong side of history and demography. Except the Republican party is actually a little bit more open to talented people of color.

The SNL cast currently includes two black comedians. One of them, Jay Pharoah, is used almost exclusively as the designated Obama impersonator. The other, Kenan Thompson, is heavily featured and frequently brilliant, but in SNL’s bombogenesis of whiteness, some bits that might work in a more diverse setting seem borderline Stepinfetchit, as in the season opener where he played a Turner Classics-type host joking about his wife’s big ass.

Today on our show, Jason Zinoman, the first-ever comedy critic at The New York Times, implied that part of the problem is the feeder system. Groups like the Upright Citizens Brigade don’t pay anything. Zinoman didn’t come right out and connect the dots, but I will: The mere task of staying on the comedy radar long enough to get picked by SNL is made easier with parents who will support you during your Bohemian phase of making hilarious YouTube videos and doing five dollar shows at the Magnet Theater. There are certainly black and Latino parents who will do that, but there are hella more white parents who do.

Ironically, this week’s hottest sketch was a spoof of HBO’s “Girls.” Tina Fey played a new cast member, a life-scarred Albanian woman who hooks on with the show’s Core Four and immediately begins puncturing their cocoon of privilege and extended childhood. In other words, the SNL kids lampooned the Brooklyn pond that hatched them.

The other problem is that SNL is one guy, Lorne Michaels. He hasn’t ever — it would seem — met a funny black woman. Latinos don’t do much for him either. His first black ensemble member was Garrett Morris, a Julliard- trained chanteur who sang Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky in sketches. If Michaels doesn’t change, nothing changes.

So an Albanian woman disrupting Bushwick is funny. A black woman from Detroit …not so much.

Meanwhile, there’s no disputing that Michaels has found some strong performers. I’m a big Kate McKinnon fan. And I think this new guy Kyle Mooney may be a genius. Seriously. In fact, let me be the first one who says Kyle Mooney is a genius. Watch the incredibly sad (and therefore funny) place he gets to here: 

Who else can make sadness this funny? Apart from Chaplin?

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