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.
Usually a promotion from featured to repertory player brings more screen time and attention, but in the case of Finesse Mitchell it was the exact opposite. With 26 celebrity impersonations and the Southern charm and booming presence only a former college football player could possess, he should have risen higher, but joining the show the same time as child star Kenan Thompson meant competition for – and of course it’s a sad truth this is even relevant – black roles, and ultimately Thompson’s lifetime of TV experience ensured heavy visibility. These days, it looks like there’s finally hope that SNL can make room for more than one black cast member to shine, and even though Mitchell was fired after his third year, he spent the first two racking up small parts with big delivery.
Before Mitchell began pursuing stand-up in Los Angeles and New York, he left his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to attend University of Miami, where he was a fraternity brother and played football alongside Dwayne “Pre-The Rock” Johnson and future Super Bowl champ Warren Sapp. After college he worked as an insurance salesman for three years before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a stand-up comedy career, performing regularly at The Improv and the Laugh Factory and making his TV debut in 1999 on BET’s Comic View. This success led to multiple appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn as well as on NBC’s Late Friday in 2001.
Mitchell was hired as a featured player for SNL’s 29th season in 2003 after auditioning five times. While he only had one recurring character – the stereotypically sassy ghetto girl Starkisha – he scored with an impressive list of impersonations: Venus Williams, Colin Powell, Morgan Freeman, Puff Daddy, Gayle King, Bobby Brown, 50 Cent, R. Kelly, apl.de.ap, Kevin Eubanks, and sportscasters Stuart Scott and Stephen A. Smith. He also made several appearances on Weekend Update and brought his Southern jock smooth-talk to my particular favorite Mitchell sketch, where he plays Paul Giamatti’s post-Golden Globes driver who also happens to be a talky Jamie Foxx fan: “So what do you do Paul? Do you work out here? Did y’all win a contest or something?”
After a rough third year, Mitchell was fired from the cast along with Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell due to budget cuts. He said of the experience:
The cast was huge and it was hard getting my sketches on. I started losing confidence in what I thought my funny was. You’d throw so much stuff up against the wall and felt you hit a home run but they would just never pick or just never made the show. And then things that you were just never that passionate about ended up making television. I don’t know, it was just a tough year for my last year. And then when we heard that Horatio was getting let go and they were going to make other cuts, I knew I was going to be one of those other cuts. So I was just preparing myself. And that’s when I started back on the stand-up scene. Also, they would never let me do a Comedy Central half-hour special. Then in my last year Comedy Central offered it to me again, so I went to them and I was like, “Yeah, they want me to do a half-hour special” and they went, “Yeah, go ahead.” I was like, “Oh ha, okay.”
Since SNL, Mitchell has remained more of a stand-up comedian than aspiring film or TV star, having appeared on Premium Blend, Comedy Central Presents, The Tyra Banks Show, Just For Laughs, Comics Unleashed, and his own 2006 stand-up video Finesse Mitchell: Snap Famous. He’s appeared in films like Who’s Your Caddy, The Comebacks, and Mad Money, on TV with Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time, and most recently on the Disney show A.N.T. Farm and VH1’s Single Ladies. He’s also been a relationship advice columnist for Essence Magazine since 2007, when he published his first book Your Girlfriends Only Know So Much: A Brother’s Take on Dating and Mating for Sistas. It earned him the 2008 African-American Literary Award for Best Comedy Book. He’s hard at work on his next one, which will be “geared toward children,” and his second hour stand-up special One-Man Monster is set for release in 2013.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.