SNL's backhanded acknowledgment of diversity issues disappoints

OPINION - Nobody was expecting SNL to tackle its latest negative headlines so directly and comedy is generally funnier when it contains a grain of truth, but in typical SNL fashion, the sketch comedy show dropped the ball...

Saturday Night Live’s self-deprecating Kerry Washington skit about its lack of diversity might have been funny if there were an actual, tangible solution enacted by the time the iconic “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” line was delivered.

Nobody was expecting SNL to tackle its latest negative headlines so directly and comedy is generally funnier when it contains a grain of truth, but in typical SNL fashion, the sketch comedy show dropped the ball.

For years, critics have blasted SNL for its general lack of diversity and specifically for the dearth of black women on the show. The last black woman cast member was Maya Rudolph and she left in 2007.  That is a big problem for a weekly show that pulls from the latest in news and pop culture as source material. This is after all, the age of Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Oprah, Nicki Minaj and other world famous black women superstars. So SNL has made due over the years by grabbing Maya Rudolph every now and then for Michelle Obama sketches, using a black woman host/musical guest or tossing Kenan Thompson (and then newer cast member Jay Pharoah) into women’s clothes.

But then, something happened that turned the constant murmur of criticism into a roar.  Recently, the show’s only black stars, Thompson and Pharoah, started speaking out  about the lack of black women in the cast. Pharoah noted that he had suggested specific people to SNL and Thompson publicly stated that he would no longer dress as women (though that statement was buried in favor of a strange quote about black women in SNL auditions).  Previously Thompson played a woman just about every week.  The two men seem to have formed something of an alliance to force SNL into hiring a black woman.

If Thompson and Pharoah won’t dress up as black women, then that leaves all black women characters to be played by SNL special guests and hosts. The opening sketch in last weekend’s show, hosted by Kerry Washington, tackled that issue head on. The scene started with Pharoah as President Barack Obama and Washington as first lady Michelle Obama. It is announced that Oprah will be making an appearance and Washington is “forced” to go change clothes so she can become Oprah.  She even said, “Kenan won’t…” in reference to Thompson’s refusal to don women’s clothing.

Once Washington exited to become Oprah, the following words scrolled down the screen with a voice over: “We make this request both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent, and also because Saturday Night Live does not currently have a black woman in the cast. We agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the future — unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

Washington came back out as Oprah, left to become Beyoncé and while she was gone, six Matthew McConaugheys came out to drive home the point that SNL has no lack of white male stars. Then Al Sharpton dropped in to deliver the famous “Live from New York” line. And that’s it. That was the entire sketch.

How powerful would it have been if say Damirra Brunson (the comedienne Pharoah championed to SNL execs) had come out as Oprah and then someone else like The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams stepped out on stage as Beyoncé? That would have been a powerful way to introduce talented new cast members.  But alas, the SNL skit poking fun at itself fell flat.

Actually, more than just falling flat, the skit poured salt into the wound. It basically said, “Yeah, we know exactly what you want and we realize how ridiculous it is that we don’t have black women in our cast, but oh well. See you next week!” The diversity issues of a sketch comedy show (which has not been consistently funny in years) are not exactly headline news. There will be no marches, sit-ins or bloody clashes with police. However, it is unfortunate to see how little black women are valued in certain media outlets today, even with black women being moguls, superstars and traffic generators.

It would be great if SNL were to hire more black women for roles on camera and at the writing table, but even if that happens, the bigger lesson here is the importance of creating our own avenues. We have to continue to blaze our own paths (Hey there, Queen Latifah!) and be in charge of our narratives.

Thanks for the reminder SNL, but no thanks for the back-handed acknowledgment.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.