The most recognizable black women out of the four that were officially cast members of the iconic television sketch show Saturday Night Live may be Maya Rudolph (who’s of African-American and Israeli descent). The show’s lack of black female cast members have forever been an ugly truth for the franchise, but was never both forth until this year from curious individuals. SNL has always reached out to black female artists to perform for the music breaks, but what’s stopped them in the past from hiring an Aisha Tyler, Wanda Sykes, or Sherri Shepherd? While having the black men on the show portray some of the most famous sisters doing big things like Oprah Winfrey brought obvious guffaws, they were short-lived because as viewer you remembered, wait a minute, where are the black comediennes on the show?
On the November 2, 2013 episode of SNL, black actress Kerry Washington hosted the show, which has been years in the making considering no one could remember the last time a black woman was the headlining star, as the shortlist includes Janet Jackson and Halle Berry. By having Washington as the hostess, who’s been experiencing a major trajectory of success from her hit TV show Scandal, choice movie roles like in Django Unchained, and gracing many magazine covers usually reserved for her white actress counterparts, it was opportunity for SNL to do sketches the right away in regarding lampooning stereotypes, issues, and circumstances that are centered on race. The one sketch that everyone discussed Sunday morning was the “Cold Open: Michelle Obama at the White House”. As a highly bouffant-ed Washington was a gleeful Michelle next to a (thankfully played by a black man) Barack, the big joke proceeded in that she would have to switch into three black characters in under 3 minutes. The better or worse, “Cold Open” was light-hearted on Washington’s part, but a tad unapologetic from SNL’s end. The show attempted to make itself the pink elephant in the room, but there was an underlying discomfort in the snappy opener because the reality is that it’s been too long since a a black has been a member, and officially since 2007 when Rudolph left the show. Virtually every time a black woman has been portrayed on SNL, on their set, surged an inescapable “Madea” effect. For example, Kenan Thompson at one point regularly played Oprah, and for Beyonce, whoever was light-skinned enough without actually being white got to play the Queen Bey.
Thompson himself hasn’t been helpful in giving his SNL producers a little push and shove on considering black comediennes, as his insensitive comments about their lack of talent being the problem an uneducated answer to a big problem for the show. Oh. Then there was the “vision” executive Lorne Michaels shared of hiring a black woman “eventually” and that “I’m sure it will happen”. Seriously? Someone send both Thompson and Michaels some YouTube clips of some “Chescaleigh” videos, as likely fellow black male cast member Finesse Mitchell (who came to the cabal of the black comedienne defense by saying they are out there) has seen. “Chescaleigh”, real name: Franchesca Ramsey, is a prime example of black women doing comedy on ballerina pointe, and her most famous parody was “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls”. There was so many fantastic, skilled black women comedic talents out there that deserve to have the limelight and you can find a handful of them on VH1 and MTV.
Black women in comedic films aren’t as scarce as they are as television cast members, and quite a number of gone on to great careers and even Oscar wins like Whoopi Goldberg and Mo’Nique. As far as Washington on SNL, she was great. Her timing was tuned, and she honestly seemed to be relishing the chance to play more insouciant characters. Her one-time skit as an aloof, “hood” speaking assistant was predictable, but her role as a headstrong Spelman professor was just right, and a throwback to some of her film roles.
“Cold Open” ended with a too-apt, surprise visit from the Reverand Al Sharpton that confidently asked the audience and the viewers: “What have we learned from all this? As usual, nothing”. By having the influential Sharpton announce that as the closer, it was curt, head-on, and a little risible, yet another reminder and maybe even a honest answer from SNL that while they have fully recognized the criticism, enjoy Washington’s appearance while it lasts.
Watch the “Cold Open” intro here on Hulu: