Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 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.
A minority within a minority, so to speak, black women on SNL have been scarce, and only two have managed to stay on the show past a single season. While Yvonne Hudson and Danitra Vance sputtered out before they could gain appreciation and Maya Rudolph (biracial and all-around awesome) was able to outsing most of the singers she impersonated and burst into a comedy superstar, Ellen Cleghorne’s remained the middle ground debate-starter among early 90s SNL fans. Whether or not you find Cleghorne’s four-season run to be funny or forgettable, her surviving for four long seasons among some of SNL’s whitest and most boyish humor is certainly a feat for any woman, not to mention a single mother from the projects.
Cleghorne was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn and began performing in New York comedy clubs after graduating from Hunter College in the early 1980s. She also performed with the comedy troupe “The Family, Inc.” that played everywhere from prisons to Off-Broadway to the New York Shakespeare Festival. A small part in the 1985 film Turk 182 was followed by appearances on In Living Color in 1991, where she was discovered by SNL producers and brought on as a featured player in season 17 along with Siobhan Fallon, writer Robert Smigel, and later Beth Cahill and Melanie Hutsell.
Cleghorne’s most recurring original character (with nine appearances) was the personal tangent-prone Weekend Update correspondent/critic Queen Shenequa, a character she had honed on the late-1980s (like on the Russell Simmons-produced show The New Music Report). She also played the pushy NBC page Zoraida in several backstage-set sketches, made two appearances as Pop’s daughter in “Tales from the Barbecue” with Tim Meadows and Chris Rock, and impersonated Whoopi Goldberg, Patti LaBelle, Robin Quivers, Anita Baker, Dr. Dre, Jackée Harry, Sister Souljah, Natalie Cole, and others. During her time on SNL, Cleghorne also appeared in two movies, Strictly Business and This Is My Life (both in 1992) and played the flirtatious school bus driver Sally Knorp on Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete from 1993-1995.
SNL’s 20th season saw some of its highest turnover ever – over ten cast members left the show or were fired, including Mike Myers, Janeane Garofalo, Chris Farley, Michael McKean, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, and Cleghorne. Her reason of departure was one of the more optimistic – she withdrew to focus on her starring role in her own WB sitcom Cleghorne!, where she played a Manhattanite trying to have it all as both a single mother and Soho television commercial producer. SNL alum Garrett Morris and 30 Rock’s Sherri Shepherd were among the show’s cast, but it fell at 12 episodes out of a scheduled 14-episode season.
Cleghorne continued to appear in various comedy shows and specials as well as small roles in films like Mr. Wrong, Armageddon, Coyote Ugly, Little Nicky, and Old School, but she’s remained largely off the mainstream comedy radar since leaving SNL. Despite her warm onscreen presence, in-your-face characters, and 6’ tall frame, Cleghorne never managed to create a lasting impression with most SNL viewers, and her name has since been overshadowed by the legacies of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman (and in the case of Live from New York, misspelled completely) – younger SNL fans might not have even heard of her until the Cleghorne joke on Family Guy in 2006 when Stewie travels forward in time and asks his future self “Did they ever find a suitable vehicle for Ellen Cleghorne?” Maybe they will Stewie. Maybe they will.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.