Just a few seasons ago, Saturday Night Live had only two African-American cast members, neither of whom was female. Unless either Kenan Thompson or Jay Pharoah agreed to wear a dress, the show did not even have someone to play Michelle Obama in a sketch. But boy, were there plenty of white guys available to play Matthew McConaughey. The show was heavily criticized, especially on social media, for its perceived homogeneity. Today, in part because of its response to the public outcry, SNL has the most racially diverse cast in the program’s four-decade history. In an article for Vanity Fair, writer Joanna Robinson argues that this has been a good thing for the show. Though Saturday Night Live did not diversify of its own accord or on its own terms, ultimately the controversy proved to be a much-needed wake up call for the show. The influx of African-American cast members has allowed SNL to do some meaningful, incisive commentary on race, such as a recent sketch addressing the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees.
The “Screen Guild Awards” sketch is not an isolated incident, either. Robinson also cites such pieces as “Black Jeopardy,” “Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015,” and “Weekend Update,” now co-anchored by comedian Michael Che, as examples of how SNL has become more attuned to racial issues and has learned to address those issues through comedy. But the show isn’t perfect in this respect. Robinson mentions a deleted sketch about Ferguson as evidence that SNL is still somewhat uncomfortable tackling sensitive subjects. Also, for the most part, the push for diversity has yet to affect the program’s writing staff. Still, Joanna Robinson is optimistic about the show’s future.
With [the] comedy vacuum created by the departure of Key & Peele and the endless opportunities of the 2016 presidential campaign, the show, as a whole, is getting sharper. The new direction fulfills Lorne Michael’s promise after the rough 2013-2014 season that things would get better. Let’s see if the Academy can deliver on that same promise.