‘The Sketch That Always Plays Hot’

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For 43 years, the game show has been a staple of Saturday Night Live. But Black Jeopardy, the brainchild of writer Bryan Tucker and head writer Michael Che, stands out from all of its predecessors for not only being a clever, enduring concept, but also because it articulates something that often goes unsaid in society. Through these sketches, Tucker and Che — along with host Kenan Thompson, recurring cast members, and the various guest hosts — show us that black culture is simultaneously esoteric and universal all at once. Here, the creative forces behind this SNL era’s most enduring sketch take us through the creation, production, and future of a pantheon-level work of comedy.

Origins

Black Jeopardy debuted on the March 29, 2014, episode of SNL, hosted by Louis C.K., and was revived in 2015, with Elizabeth Banks, and 2016, with Drake.

Bryan Tucker, SNL co–head writer: I’ve been writing at SNL for 13 years, but Black Jeopardy is probably the sketch I’m most proud of. I am white, but during the formative times in my life, the comedians that I really enjoyed were always black.

Michael Che, SNL co–head writer: It worked because, well, Tucker’s not a typical white writer. He’s worked on a lot of black shows. He gets that humor, so a lot of it was us just making black jokes that we knew to be true.

BT: I had the idea brewing for a little while. If you’re white, and you’re in these worlds, like I am a little bit, you’re still not totally part of things. There’s a shared culture if you’re black that you just have and if you’re white you just don’t have. I was overhearing some people on the street, and they were talking about this one person in the neighborhood that a bunch of them knew, and there was a familiarity there that I didn’t have, and I thought, Oh, I wonder … It started brewing in me that there might be a sketch in this.

MC: We wrote it Tuesday, and we read it Wednesday at the table read. We knew it was probably gonna work.

BT: One of the very first [clues] was “She Think She Cute,” and [the answer was someone] all these people knew: “Who is Monique?” And the white person who tried, and wanted to be in on it, didn’t know her at all. I pitched it to Kenan Thompson, and he was into it, and then I talked about it with Michael, and Michael immediately started giving me other setups and punch lines. The first draft just made Louis C.K. a confused white dude on the show. But he was a little tentative about being a guy who didn’t know what the game show was about. He said, “I want to know why I’m there.” So we made him a white professor of African-American history. He thought he belonged there.

Kenan Thompson, host of SNL’s Black Jeopardy: It was trepidatious territory. [SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy] was so popular and so awesome, and anytime you retread Will Ferrell territory, you gotta be super-duper-careful. But Bryan’s idea was strong enough. It’s completely different; the only similarity is playing Jeopardy! The jokes are all different. My host responsibilities was, just keep that train rolling. As opposed to the frustration of what their competitors are saying, mine is more in agreeance with [what] everybody is thinking, that’s already laughing at those jokes.

MC: It’s the sketch that always plays hot, even at the read-through. It’s very rare that we have a sketch that does that.

Harry Friedman, executive producer of Jeopardy!: I remember getting texts from people who had seen the East Coast feed, and they said, “Oh my God, you can’t believe what SNL is doing with Jeopardy!”

KT: It’s always tough to do something again, especially when it goes well the first time. Do we tread back down that road? Or should we count our blessings and keep moving on to another idea?

MC: I never want to do sketches again, but Tucker goes, “We can do it again.”

BT: What I don’t want is to take a sketch that we both really like, and are really proud of, and sequel it into the ground. But, yes, in general I’m usually the one that kind of pulls Che into it and says, “Let’s give this a try.”

KT: The interesting part about every time we have a host like Elizabeth Banks is watching them figure out who their character is.

Besides the given — a white person in a fish-out-of-water scenario — what else is there that’s going to make it funny? So Elizabeth [who played Allison, who “doesn’t see color”] was trying to make it different.

BT: After Elizabeth, I couldn’t think of another way to have a clueless white person come on — until the Tom Hanks one later. But with Drake, who is Canadian, I thought it would be interesting to show a black person who had a totally different experience. I was thinking about how the contestants and Kenan are a small subset of all black Americans, lower-middle class. And so I thought, Maybe there’s something to be had with another black person with a completely different worldview.

MC: They’re doing their version of what they think is black, and that’s not every version of what’s being black, obviously. So, this is, again, a joke on the premise of the show, that this guy is just as black but he’s from a different culture. So Drake is black, but he’s also from Toronto, and they have a specific way of doing things. And other black people may not understand it as black, but he does, and that’s the fun of it. It’s just immediate comedy.

BT: Drake told me he’d do an impression of the guys that he grew up with in Toronto who have a Caribbean heritage. He liked doing that, and I keyed into that.

Tom Hanks

The most popular installment of Black Jeopardy, in October 2016, starred Hanks as a Trump supporter with more in common with the other contestants than anyone expected.

KT: You don’t wanna let Tom Hanks down. You don’t want this to be like the one weird thing in the show just because there’s a tough situation going on with the country.

BT: I know people on the right, my family included. I was noticing a lot of overlap between what some people on the right think and what some black people think. I texted Che and said, “Maybe there’s something here.”

MC: Previously it was always white people not getting it. And then it was like, what if [Hanks] gets the answers right, and shows that we do come from the same things? It’s not really Black Jeopardy; it’s a community of people who get these things. We wrote pages and pages of jokes and then picked the best ones.

KT: Tom Hanks is incredible at taking any character and making him human. And at the time, there was a very large division in the country. So him playing a character that was so far on the other side of the aisle, it was super-bold.

BT: I’m not sure what other host could have played that character as well. [Hanks] is just so naturally likable. And with each rehearsal, he seemed to find the character a little more. When he first read it, he was playing a midwestern Dan Aykroyd kind of character, and then when he rehearsed it the first time onstage on Thursday, he was a little more southern and rural, and then slowly he worked his way toward that, and each time he found a little more of it, which was nice because he only had three days until it went on the air.

Leslie Jones, contestant Shanice: I don’t think he got that character until we actually did the live show. Even during dress rehearsal, he was still trying to figure him out, but live, he blew all of us away with things he didn’t tell us he was gonna do. Remember when Kenan went to go shake his hand and he stepped back? He didn’t tell those people he was gonna do any of that.

BT: He discovered that handshake in the moment. And Kenan also made the choice to come around the podium to shake his hand to help with that joke.

KT: My host character reaching his hand out to somebody who might unnecessarily be afraid of him — I’ve experienced things like that, so when he did it, I laughed super-hard in my mind but played it off. It was the most natural ad-lib I’ve ever done.

BT: Tom Hanks told me that Oprah called him about [the sketch], which was cool.

Chadwick Boseman

The trickiest Black Jeopardy yet was the most recent one, the first to feature an already-established character, Boseman’s Black Panther.

MC: The Chadwick episode was the hardest one. We almost didn’t do it.

BT: When Black Panther came out, I had the idea: Oh, isn’t this interesting that people from Wakanda have grown up with all the advantages of anyone in the world, without any racism, in a place that flourishes and is happy and well-educated and basically a paradise. What would a black person who came to America think of that?

MC: The Tom Hanks one was so successful that we were like, “Well, let’s just retire it, we can’t really top it.” And then I think Chadwick wanted to do one. It was also tricky because Black Panther was such an important movie, and Chadwick was very protective of the character. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t ruin the character or make it seem untrue, but also keep the integrity of the game show.

BT: Che and I wrote the first Black Jeopardy in 90 minutes to two hours, but this one probably took four to six hours. We tried to make sure the tone was exactly right

LJ: Sometimes when we’re doing stuff like that, we have to convince the host that it’s funny. Some hosts that come in are very open, just like, “Yeah, okay, we can do that.” But some hosts really want to know the basis of it. We get real actors, and you know actors, they’re in their head. They want to know where the character is. Who’s the character? And it’s not really that deep. It’s a comedy thing, it’s a timing thing. What I always tell the host when I talk to them is “submit.” Submit to this whole thing, because as soon as you submit you will have so much fun.

When we’re rehearsing and we’re talking about the sketch, the host doesn’t hear the laughter. They don’t hear where the laughs are gonna come in. So what happened was, at first Chadwick was like, “I don’t know if this is gonna work, or if these jokes are gonna land. I don’t know if I’m doing this right.” Me and Kenan were like, “Yo, dude, just play it straight. You’re doing great.” Like, we know it’s gonna work, because we know what the crowd is gonna be like. But they don’t know that because they don’t see what we see. And I’m telling you, at dress rehearsal, when he finally got to say the lines and saw how the crowd laughed, it was just like, bam, bam, bam. It was so good.

The Lost Episodes

The five Black Jeopardy sketches that aired weren’t the only ones the writers had ideas for.

BT: Before Tom Hanks, I wanted to do an athlete because I thought a black athlete’s world was a lot different than a regular person’s world. Probably a character like Charles Barkley. A millionaire who’s been treated well since he was revered in high school. And there was another one I wanted to do with Chance the Rapper that was similar to the Wakanda one. Chance was more idealistic than the other contestants; he was opening a school in Chicago, and giving millions of dollars to charity, and making everyone feel a little bad.

KT: I think Obama would be a lot of fun on Black Jeopardy I feel like he could do it. If we reached out and had a good enough idea for him, he’ll come do it.

*A version of this article appears in the June 25, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

‘The Sketch That Always Plays Hot’