Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
As Saturday Night Live’s first (and for the first five seasons, only) African-American writer and cast member, Garrett Morris was often pigeonholed into token black characters and stereotypes during his run from 1975-1980, and complaints from future players like Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy (who said the early 80s SNL producers tried to “Garrett Morris” him) would unfairly turn Morris into an embodiment of the show’s traditional underuse of black cast members. His martyr-like status often overshadows his many memorable SNL performances, and he possessed what the rest of the original cast lacked — years of experience as a successful actor, playwright, and classically trained singer, and the suave energy of a seasoned Broadway star.
Born in New Orleans, Morris was raised by his grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister who encouraged him to sing in the church choir from a young age. His interest in music continued after college when he moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater, starting at the Harlem YMCA Drama Club then eventually training at Juillard for voice. He earned a slot as a soloist and arranger for the Harry Belafonte Singers in 1958 and remained with the group for the next ten years, interrupted by an 18-month stint as an Army X-ray technician and appearances in plays and Broadway musicals like Porgy and Bess, Hallelujah, Baby!, and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. He also wrote two plays and branched out into film and TV with roles in The Anderson Tapes, Roll Out, and Cooley High.
Morris initially applied for a writer position at SNL but Michaels hired him as a full cast member. His musical and theatrical experience and training came as both an advantage and disadvantage while working with cast mates and writers who were younger (Morris was hired at 38) and more versed in improv and non-traditional theater, but there were still plenty of opportunities for him to bring his love for opera and big-band swing to the show. Some of Morris’ memorable characters and impersonations include Sammy Davis Jr., Tina Turner, and fictional Dominican baseball player Chico Escuela (“Baseball bin berra berra good to me!”). Probably most popular of Morris’ SNL parts were his appearances on Weekend Update as the “News for the Hard of Hearing” translator, where he yelled out Chevy’s news stories from the corner of the screen (“OUR TOP STO-RY… TONIGHT!”), a role he would reprise much later on Family Guy. Morris also used his singing talent in many sketches and even performed in lieu of a musical guest when Walter Matthau hosted in 1978, singing “Dalla Sua Pace” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Despite the flak Morris’ tenure has received, his role on the show was less based in the stand-up comedy vein of Rock and Murphy and much more influenced by theater and music, which made him less of a black comedy trailblazer and more of a classically artistic influence during SNL’s early seasons. Post-SNL, Morris has appeared in many television shows like Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons, Married with Children, Martin, Cleghorne!, and The Jamie Foxx Show, and he took on roles in films like The Stuff, Jackpot, How High, Coneheads, and more. He currently hosts and operates the Downtown Comedy Club in Los Angeles and will appear in Whitney Cummings’ 2 Broke Girls, set to premiere on CBS this September.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.