Over the years, Saturday Night Live has had a number of sketches that are consistently entertaining every time the sets get pulled out of storage, but one of the most reliable sketches of the modern era is Black Jeopardy, a straightforward gag that manages to be surprisingly unique in each iteration. Vulture has put together an oral history on Black Jeopardy, speaking with writers Bryan Tucker and Michael Che as well as cast member Kenan Thompson—who plays host Darnell Hayes.
The basic setup of Black Jeopardy is that it’s Jeopardy! but all of the clues are based around hyper-specific aspects of black culture, with two of the contestants immediately picking up the game and the third (who is usually a white person) being baffled by all of it. Tucker, who is white, says the idea came from following black comedians and working on shows for black audiences, where he’d be “in these worlds” but still “not totally part of things.” The first time the idea made it to air was on a Louis C.K. episode in 2014, where C.K. played a professor of African-American History. Rather than just being confused by everything, Tucker explains that the joke of that was that he “thought he belonged there,” but Thompson’s host sees right through him.
The next Black Jeopardy had Elizabeth Banks playing an even more “clueless” white lady who “dated a black guy once” and “doesn’t see color.” Tucker says his hesitance to do too many sketch sequels made him not want to do any more Black Jeopardy sketches with dumb white people, so subsequent sketches started to put little twists on the premise (since sketch sequels have to be easier to write than entirely new sketches at the end of the day).
When Drake hosted SNL, he appeared on Black Jeopardy as an upper-class black guy from Canada who had been through “a totally different experience” than the white contestants, and in 2016—right before the presidential election—Tom Hanks appeared on Black Jeopardy as a red hat-wearing Trumper who had actually had surprisingly similar experiences. Tucker and Che note that it would’ve been hard for any other host to pull that character off, but since Hanks is “just so naturally likable,” he somehow managed to make a Trump supporter seem like a real human.
After that came Chadwick Boseman’s Black Jeopardy, which had him reprising his Black Panther role as Wakandan ruler T’Challa. The oral history doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about that installment, but Tucker and Che say they spent “four to six hours” writing the sketch, and Boseman was apparently very anxious about doing it because he’s so “protective” of T’Challa. They convinced him to just play it straight and that it would work out fine, and when the sketch got a bunch of laughs during dress rehearsal, Boseman realized they were right and loosened up.
Thompson also teases that he’d like to get Barack Obama to do a Black Jeopardy, saying he’d be “a lot of fun” and that the’d probably do it if they came up with a good pitch.