How ‘SNL’ Addressed Race in Season 39, as Shown in 11 Sketches

With SNL’s 39th season coming to a close, we’re taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here, we look at the show’s shifting tone on race over the arc of this season.

This has not been an easy year for SNL to talk about race. From the moment the show announced its six new cast members – the largest turnover in more than a decade – and viewers noticed that not one of them was a person of color, SNL once again became a target of progressive viewers calling for the cast to diversify. We’ve had a black president for 5 years now, they argued, so why, still, does SNL have no one to play the First Lady? While this argument wasn’t new, two other developments were. For one, the show was in the midst of a rebuilding year with plenty of uncertainties about its future. Critics of all kinds sniffed the blood in the water and amassed collective pressure to force the show to explain why that future seemed so stubbornly white. The second shift was that SNL responded. Jay Pharoah said the show needed to “pay attention,” while Kenan Thompson (now the senior-most cast member) stood by SNL, saying producers “just never find [black women] who are ready.”

Suddenly, SNL’s diversity problem became a national headline, with news outlets and former cast members alike weighing in. Splitsider did a write-up on the issue, in which we examined the show’s long history of racial controversies and pointed out that its recruitment pools are even more whitewashed. The criticism became so loud that SNL made the out-of-character move of addressing it in a cold open with Kerry Washington. While funny, the piece did little to temper the criticism, which finally seemed to subside in January, when the show announced its hiring of a black female cast member, Sasheer Zamata, and two black female writers, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes.

But the controversy didn’t end there. Despite a larger representation of black actors and writers on the show than ever, SNL couldn’t even talk about race without a flood of angry tweets calling the show bigoted. Writer (and soon to be Daily Show correspondent) Michael Che, who has penned most of the show’s race-related material, has butted heads on Twitter with viewers furious over bits like “Black Jeopardy” or Leslie Jones’ Weekend Update appearance. Lucas Hazlett wrote a wonderful piece for Splitsider on Jones’ routine and the misplaced outrage it incited, which has gotten so vicious it seems the only acceptable way for SNL to address race is to make fun of white people.

Dave Chappelle ended his Comedy Central show partially because he grew concerned that audiences were drawing the wrong conclusions from his racy material. SNL’s live studio audience presents the same problem. When a sketch like “Black Jeopardy” airs, how do we know if the crowd is laughing at the sketch’s commentary about the disconnect between black and white culture, or if they’re only laughing at the black stereotypes the sketch uses to make that commentary? Unlike Key & Peele – whose pretaped, laugh-track-less sketches allow them to make it very clear via timing and reaction shots exactly what idea they’re trying to convey – SNL race sketches often leave us wondering whether any groups have been unfairly exploited. As a result, for many, the discussion over whether or not a joke is offensive drowns out whether or not it is funny. (And yes, a joke can be both.)

Below, we look back upon 11 moments race came to the forefront this season, and how the piece reflected SNL’s gradually shifting tone as more diverse voices entered the mix.

New Cast Member or Arcade Fire? While clearly not a sketch the writers intended to focus on race, this game show setup hosted by Kenan Thompson put the indistinguishable whiteness of the six new cast members front-and-center by comparing their appearances to the lineup of Arcade Fire (the night’s musical guest). Indeed, in retrospect, the show’s insensitivity towards its own diversity problems seemed notably cringeworthy when Lorne Michaels entered and, unable to decipher between the two, asked if the new cast member was “the black one.” While innocent at the time, that’s definitely not a joke SNL would make now.

12 Days Not A Slave. Michael Che’s script about how racism in America was just as prevalent after slavery ended resulted in the awkward manifestation of several white characters showing outright racism toward one black character – a recently freed slave whose unawareness of the situation reads less as optimism than it does, well, dumbness. While Che was 100% right in that this is the kind of challenging, smart take on race that SNL needs more of, its flawed execution and poor timing – at the height of its diversity controversy, when any vague racial jokes would be harshly scrutinized – made this sketch a bit of a misfire.

Michelle Obama Cold Open. One of the reasons the Kerry Washington episode was such a breath of fresh air was that, finally, SNL seemed to get what everyone had been complaining about, and the writers showed that they weren’t afraid to address it at the top of the episode. As far as sketch structure goes, it took quite a while to set up Washington needing to change costume from Michelle Obama to Oprah, which she revealed with a seemingly ad-libbed, “And Kenan won’t…?” But the payoff worked, with audiences appreciating the meta commentary and viewers feeling somewhat reassured of the show’s progressiveness.

How’s He Doing? Later in the same episode, Kerry Washington joined Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah in a return of this amusing talk show about black people’s unwavering support for Barack Obama. Much of the humor of the sketch came from a run on white people – their high expectations for hotel service, the quality of their mail, their obsession with The Wire – a “bash the majority” well that writers would tap into at several points throughout the season.

White Christmas. Like “12 Days Not A Slave,” the problem with Michael Che’s on-point parody wasn’t the concept – it’s perfectly reasonable to mock the very notion of black people having to have their own holiday movies, and to do it by showing us how ridiculous it would look if such a movie were targeted at white people. The issue was the off-putting visual that concept created. To a less discerning eye, Paul Rudd and the cast’s whitest actors are lampooning an aspect of black culture, which makes us pause and think, “Wait, what exactly is going on here?” more than it makes us immediately recognize a racial double standard and laugh. Che even seemed aware of that issue by having Pharoah say at the end, “Are we gonna get in trouble for this?”

Drake Monologue. Drake’s monologue was a flashback to his bar mitzvah, which brought together the black and Jewish sides of his family. The scene itself did the same, safely fusing together black and Jewish humor without pushing any buttons.

28 Reasons. The most successful racially themed sketches this season have capitalized on white guilt, which was laid on pretty thick in this music video that listed 28 reasons to recognize Black History Month. (Spoiler alert: they’re all slavery.)

12 Years A Slave Auditions. Another well received video cleverly placed white actors in the uncomfortable situation of having to read the parts of racist slave drivers for the Oscar winning film. The writers seemed to have grown more comfortable with mining white guilt for laughs, with a special penchant for making Bobby Moynihan play blatantly racist characters.

Black Jeopardy. The first live sketch to seriously address race since the Kerry Washington episode featured Louis CK as a BYU professor in an alternate-world “black version” of Jeopardy. The sketch pushed the envelope in some pretty hilarious ways, aggressively using black stereotypes to heighten the contrast with the stereotypically white game show and CK’s stereotypically white contestant, who faced shaming glares as he gingerly tried to play a game someone of his background was definitely not meant to play. Writers Kenan Thompson and Michael Che met all the requirements for this to be both provocative and funny, but some viewers missed the joke, while others argued the studio audience laughed only at the black stereotypes and missed the real message. Ultimately, it was we who demanded SNL bring more diverse voices to the table, so racier sketches like “Black Jeopardy” is exactly what we should want to see more of.

Donald Sterling Cold Open. With so much public outrage over Donald Sterling’s racist comments, SNL faced the difficult task of providing a fresh outlook on the controversy without appearing to defend Sterling. The result was a disappointingly middle-of-the-road press conference, with the writers again recruiting Bobby Moynihan to spew outrageously bigoted remarks – a mockery of a man we already knew was racist, without saying anything new about institutionalized racism or the only-recent outcry. The sketch did hint in that direction with Kenan Thompson as an NAACP chairman whose hands and tongue were tied.

Leslie Jones. In the season’s most controversial moment, writer Leslie Jones performed a hilarious rant about how much better her dating life would be if she was a slave, which was met by outrage by a mob on Twitter, including Ebony’s senior editor. Plenty has already been written on Jones’ rant, so I’ll once again recommend Lucas Hazlett’s write-up and leave you with one of his points:

Wasn’t there a giant squee noise across the country pushing for new and diverse voices and perspectives to appear on SNL? What the hell could be more new and diverse than a big beautiful black woman cracking wise about how the media makes her so insecure about herself that she could joke about wanting to be a slave? Isn’t that right up there with Richard Pryor? Even if you found what she did to be unfunny and offensive, shouldn’t we be applauding what SNL attempted? They said yes to a voice that hadn’t been on the show EVER. And that’s great. Even if it comes at the cost of being outraged.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.

How ‘SNL’ Addressed Race in Season 39, as Shown in 11 […]