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The Story Behind Saturday Night Live’s Spot-On Oscars So White Parody

Photo: NBC

As a cultural institution that airs live every week, people look to Saturday Night Live to see how it responds when something big happens in the news. This was definitely the case with the breakout sketch from the last episode: the #OscarsSoWhite–satirizing “Screen Guild Awards.”

In the sketch, Cecily Strong reads the nominees for Best Actor, and one by one we see white actors nominated for dumber and dumber parts in black lead movies. Vulture spoke with the sketch’s writer, Rob Klein, about how the idea went from Google News to airing on Saturday, and all the steps in between.

The Oscar nominations came out two weeks before the “Screen Guild Awards” episode. Was there any thought of trying to knock out something for the episode that was a week earlier, just a few days after the announcement?
The nominations came out on a Thursday, I believe. That’s just missing our cutoff because everyone stays up all night Tuesday writing for the show, and then on Wednesday, they’re fried. You don’t want news to happen on Thursday. When we heard about it, we back-pocketed the idea of an Oscars thing. Then it stayed in the news, which is how it wound up on the next week’s show.

When there is a big story like this, do you, as head writer, seed the idea to certain writers? Or is Lorne Michaels saying, “Hey, guys, try to think of an Oscar-nominations pitch”? Or is everyone on their own?
Ever so often there’s a story that Lorne specially orders up, but most of the time you’re on your own. The staff will usually address the biggest story of the week just because it’s so present in people’s minds. Personally, I’ll spend Monday and Tuesday going through the front page of the newspapers and visiting Google News to see what the biggest stories of the week are, guessing what will still be around on Saturday, and then writing from that point of view.

Were there any other Oscars ideas being considered?
There were. We went to dress rehearsal with another sketch that [SNL’s other head writer] Bryan Tucker wrote. It was called “Our Oscars,” and it was like a black Oscars hosted by Steve Harvey, which I thought was really funny. No one knew what was going to be the right take. That’s kind of rare, but we actually had two full Oscar sketches go into dress. All week Bryan and I were trying to convince each other that we could do both, but it was a struggle between them. It was a lot of saying, “I think we can do both,” and then staring at each other angrily.

When similar sketches come down to the wire like that, do you just go with whatever Lorne feels is playing better?
I think so. No one was totally sure. Also, when Lorne is picking what’s going to go to dress rehearsal on Saturday, Bryan and I are both there because we’re head writers, so it’s possible that he didn’t want to cut one in front of us.

What was the original pitch for “Screen Guild Awards”?
I came up with it sometime Tuesday evening, just staring at Google News, so I don’t know that I actually pitched it out loud. It was based on reading that the only nominations that the movies Creed and Straight Outta Compton got went to white people. That’s the idea of the sketch right there. It was, like, pitched to me by the news.

Did you immediately see what the beats would be?
No, I definitely went through a few versions of it. There was a version where there was a whole Best Actor and Best Actress category. It was hard to feel what the right size of the sketch was, but that’s just normal writing-process stuff. Even from dress to air, a minute at the beginning and end got chopped off it.

Oh, really? What was in those minutes?
It was supposed to start with Ronda Rousey accepting an award and laying some groundwork that it’s all white people sweeping these awards. But the part I wrote for Ronda wasn’t so great, so it wound up getting truncated. It was the same at the end — I had an acceptance speech for Bobby Moynihan where he’s thanking all of the great white actors who paved the way for him. We ended deciding on a much more abbreviated end, which I like now.

It’s interesting that it originally involved more early groundwork because I actually liked that the sketch didn’t do that. Especially if you’re watching the sketch live, you don’t totally know what the game is until Pete Davidson is very annoying and white in the Straight Outta Compton parody.
The initial sketch had Cecily [Strong] as a presenter giving a preamble. “There’s been a lot of controversy about the a lack of diversity, but I think we can agree that these are the best people.” Then, after dress, Lorne said, “That whole thing at the beginning is slow. You don’t need it. The audience knows the story, and they’re going to know what you’re doing soon enough.”

Even after he said that, I was working with a new writer, Sudi Green, and we were trying to do the rewrite between dress and air, and basically, I was yelling at her, “Is the audience going to know what’s happening?! Are they going to be able to follow it?!” It was a tiny bit of a leap of faith, but it’s so much better this way because it’s more fun when it creeps up on you when you realize it instead of being told it. That was Lorne’s instinct, which was really smart.

A Thurgood Marshall biopic is a really good idea. When you were writing it, were you like, “I should write this for real”?
One hundred percent. And Michael Che should be the star of it. The day after the sketch, my mom texted me that she thinks Michael Che can win a real Oscar. I agree. He’s so good in it. He’s a for-real actor. I don’t know if you know any producers, but I would be willing to work on some kind of Thurgood Marshall thing.

You had a lot of good parodies in there. Did you have many other ideas for possible movies about black people that white people would ruin?
The only other one I tried was one with Leslie [Jones], but I didn’t really have an idea. I just had another beat of Leslie waving at a neighbor, and it was like everyone from the movie who wasn’t Leslie got nominated — the neighbor’s dog, the neighbor’s baby, the neighbor’s mother-in-law who is just referenced. I tried to do that. But all of the beats included in the sketch felt like real movies, and that was more like a concept-y joke.

Yeah, the movies felt like movies. The only weird thing was what the white guy was doing.
Yes, exactly. That’s what I like about it, too. It was a new director, Mike Bernstein, who did them, and had to do them really fast and cheap. I was really impressed. He really did a good job with them. They looked different and very real, with a good mood in all of them.

Was it all shot Friday night?
That one was scattered because it was little beats with different people. There were two on Thursday night in Astoria that Sudi did, and then there were three others in this building on Friday. Since we’ve started doing more pretaped sketches, our Friday schedule is literally just actors and directors running from place to place from seven in the morning on.

Do you remember anything specific at the table read about how it played?
It did well at the table read, but almost all of the jokes are in the pretapes. Those obviously didn’t exist for the Thursday or Friday rehearsal. We would rehearse the sketch, and where there would normally be laughs, there was dead silence. We had to assume we’ll fill that in with huge laughs once we see these tapes. It took the pressure off. We didn’t know what we had until right before we went on Saturday.

When did you know it was going to work?
When I started seeing some of the tapes. I saw just how funny Bobby was in the Beasts of No Nation one. I saw Che and Sasheer [Zamata] and how real they were, and then Beck [Bennett] walking in like a doofus. Once you see that, you immediately feel secure. It’s a very secure feeling of having tape versus just having a pure live sketch.

And how did it play in the studio during the broadcast?
Because we had made that change where we didn’t explicitly lay out the premise at the top that there had been a diversity controversy, I don’t really remember. I was just praying that it still made sense to the audience. Once I knew it got over that hump, it was all gravy.

SNL Head Writer on the Oscars So White Parody