Racial Diversity and Representation in Saturday Night Live
by Tana-Isabela Anulacion
“You’re never going to be president, Donald!” taunted Beck Bennett’s impersonation of then-presidential candidate Jeb Bush. “Yeah, no kidding, none of us are,” replied Darrell Hammond as Donald Trump, gesturing to the row of various comedians impersonating the Republican presidential candidates in 2015 (Michaels, GOP Debate Cold Open). Although ironic now, that was one of the first pieces from Saturday Night Live I had ever seen, and I was hooked for the rest of the 2016 election and beyond. It was one of the first major elections where I was old enough to keep up with the news and events going on but still three years shy of voting age. Before discovering SNL, I often felt confused and frustrated trying to glean information from traditional news sites, and there were moments where I noticed news outlets would be hesitant to draw negative attention to a candidate even though the election and candidates were highly unusual. SNL’s interpretations of current events provided some much-needed comedy surrounding the election. Additionally, their political coverage was comparatively fearless in criticism of the candidates’ strange talking points and pointing out the many odd moments during the debates. In what was an incredibly polarized election, the show helped me to see the nuances of both candidates and their supporters and to understand it is acceptable to criticize the flaws of someone one admires.
SNL has reaffirmed itself as a comedy and media institution in the past few years. The episodes are watched by millions of same-day viewers each week, and individual sketches and cold opens receive millions of views when they are republished on YouTube and other social media platforms (Andreeva). Especially in the Trump era of American politics, the role of comedians and late-night comedy to cut through the noise and hold public figures accountable appears to be more important than ever. In the midst of the praise SNL and other late-night comedy shows receive for their satirical analysis, a long-standing issue continues to plague them: a lack of racial diversity within their cast and writing staff.
SNL has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, but little analysis of the specific ways in which SNL reckons with their lack of diversity has been performed. When SNL explicitly recognizes and focuses sketches or jokes on their lack of diversity, they make the problem obvious to the audience. This positively frames the show as self-aware, cognizant of current issues, and implies that they will or want to do better with that aspect in the future. When SNL performs sketches where diversity and representation are present but implicit, they reinforce the norms of racial representation in those sketches. That can be beneficial if the sketch is racially inclusive and detrimental if it is racially exclusive. Explicitly recognizing its own lack of diversity is more effective in directing the audience’s attention to the issue and can force the show to make changes to rectify it, even if initially superficial.
SNL’s 45th season was the first time the show hired an Asian-American cast member, and many outside the Asian-American community were surprised by that revelation. SNL was generally praised for hiring this Asian-American talent, former writer for the show, Bowen Yang. It seemed as though many SNL viewers were excited for him to bring his skills and sense of humor to the new season. Many also celebrated his addition to the cast as proof that SNL was still relevant and committed to representing a diverse range of perspectives on the show.
Personally, I fit in more with a group who did not so much praise SNL but wondered what had taken so long. The show had been on for 45 seasons, and in all those years, they had never hired an Asian-American cast member. I knew there were dynamic, hilarious Asian-American comedians out there, but I hardly ever saw them as part of the writing staff or cast on most of the late-night comedy shows I enjoyed. I became better at supporting Asian-American comedians and their projects, but I sometimes wondered why I was still watching network shows that did not care enough about my community or the issues important to Asian Americans to afford us some representation.
I also became frustrated with producers’ and executives’ explanations for the lack of diversity in comedy. A multitude of perspectives are currently underrepresented in comedy from racial and ethnic to gender- or sexuality-based. Late-night comedy continues to be mostly white and mostly male. Many executives and producers insist that they do not hire mostly white men on purpose, but they base their hiring decisions only on talent and style of humor. This justification is not only insulting, as it implies comedians of minority backgrounds are inherently less talented and less funny than white and male comedians, but also ignores one of the underlying issues of this lack of diversity. The fact that establishment, traditional comedians and comedy shows have been historically and are currently white and male creates a norm that is unfairly disparate from the style of many minority comedians. Additionally, it is this norm against which minority comedians are judged.
The comedy world as a whole appears to be becoming more diverse, especially with the rise of internet comedians, taking advantage of newer streaming platforms to share their perspectives and jokes. These newer forms of media, many having fewer barriers to entry than a network show, appear to be more welcoming to diverse voices. Some examples of these include the 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys podcasts on iTunes and in live shows, Lilly Singh’s Superwoman YouTube channel leading her to host A Little Late with Lilly Singh on NBC, and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj on Netflix.
Additionally, audiences have started to demand more representation in the media they consume. This includes a wider diversity of characters and storylines portrayed, and it is generally no longer considered publicly acceptable for non-minority actors to play minority characters or perform impersonations of minority people. Performers who chose to do these roles in this manner often receive heavy criticism, stemming from a feeling of erasure in minority communities. There are already so few roles available for minority characters, and even those were given to non-minority actors and left them vulnerable to perpetuate heavy stereotypes of those minorities.
SNL now acknowledges that it is unacceptable to have non-minority actors portray minority characters, and the show has not created new sketches where this is done. However, they have failed to take the crucial next step and hire minority actors to play minority characters, resulting in an overall lack of diverse storylines.
Asian Americans are not the only ones suffering from a lack of representation in SNL and other late-night comedy shows. SNL in particular had and continues to have a lack of black female, Latinx, Native American, Middle Eastern, and LGBTQ+ comedians in its cast. As has been seen before, a diverse employee base in any workplace is important not simply for the sake of being able to say it is diverse but because diverse employees bring different perspectives and awareness to issues that would most likely not have been considered otherwise.
Most research into diversity in media and popular culture are focused more on calculating the scope of the issue. These studies often focus on counting the number of characters of a given identity group in a variety of TV shows and then comparing that to the actual share of the population or tracking trends over time such as in “Happy to Fire, Reluctant to Hire: Hollywood Inclusion Remains Unchanged” by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. There are also many studies that attempt to understand the impact of a lack of diversity in media on audiences such as “Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Panel Study” by Nicole Martins and Kristin Harrison. While extremely valuable, these studies do not look at how diversity or a lack thereof can impact the content covered by media nor do they look at how media attempts to reckon with its level of diversity. This essay will analyze the impacts of when SNL chooses to deal with its lack of diversity via implicit versus explicit methods in its shows.
The History and Style of SNL
TV shows are heavily reliant on the conventions of their genre, and SNL is no exception. According to Professors Jonathan Silverman and Dean Rader, TV is “more genre-driven than the traditional texts we read… [and] operates almost exclusively within genres” (245). This means that audiences know what to expect from a certain TV show based on the genre in which it is classified, and deviation from already-established genres can confuse audiences and possibly decrease viewership of a particular TV show.
Despite its relatively innovative practices at its creation such as various celebrity hosts, creating a full-length show every week, and live music breaks, SNL still fits comfortably into the genre of sketch comedies and late-night comedies. Like other shows in its genre, SNL uses satirical devices to comment on current events and public figures. However, one of the most relevant conventions for analysis of racial diversity in the show is the presence of a full-time, permanent cast each season who play the various characters for sketches. Before each new season starts, the cast of SNL is selected and remains unchanged. In addition to the host and the occasional background actors playing minor parts, they are the only performers available to play characters in the sketches.
Similar to others in the entertainment industry, comedians often have a non-linear path based on highly subjective opinions to professional careers. Many TV comedians, especially those eventually hired by SNL, start their careers doing stand-up comedy or improvisational comedy. Yael Kohen, an expert on the trends of diversity and representation in comedy, describes comedy as having “a lot of cliquey-ness” (Martin). In order to land professional roles and gain notoriety, comedians rely heavily on the connections they make while working, hopefully with powerful people who will someday put their name on a list to audition to be a cast member or be added to a writer’s room. Because comedy is highly subjective, the style of humor a talent agent or executive producer prefers or thinks will resonate with the show’s intended audience may not align with the actual audience. This can lead to hesitancy in diversifying SNL’s cast, leading to the show having to reckon with this in its sketches.
One of the ways SNL attempts to reckon with its lack of diversity is through the incorporation of jokes specifically confronting the issue. This immediately draws the audience’s attention to the issue and may help to catalyze an audience response to pressure the show to change. In 2013, Kerry Washington hosted an episode of the show and appeared in the sketch “Black Women on SNL and in the White House.” In it, she starts out playing Michelle Obama to cast member Jay Pharoah’s Barack Obama but quickly learns that due to the lack of black women in the SNL cast, she has to play a variety of black female public figures such as Oprah and Beyoncé. This is paired with comically small lengths of time to change clothes and switch between characters. The fact that Washington must play all the characters and that she is out of breath each time she appears due to the quick turnover time are more implicit jabs at the show’s lack of diversity.
SNL presses the issue as the sketch continues. During one of Washington’s costume changes, a voiceover reads scroll-through text superimposed over the scene explaining:
The producers at “Saturday Night Live” would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because “SNL” does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future… unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first. (Michaels, Black Women on SNL and in the White House).
Minutes later, Taran Killam’s character announces that “six different Matthew McConaugheys” have arrived as all the white male cast members appear, impersonating McConaughey (Michaels, Black Women on SNL and in the White House). This explicit contrast between the lack of black women in the cast and the plethora of white men leaves little room for interpretation of the issue for the audience. Additionally, the fact that the voiceover narration and scrolling text read that SNL knows it has a problem and wants to do better in the future make the show seem socially conscious and progressive in its endeavor to achieve greater diversity. The broad, non-binding statement that the show will do better in the future reassures the audience that SNL is still a relevant show and eases the audience’s guilt for watching a show which has no black female cast members.
This sketch was widely viewed as both a response to and a catalyst of the wave of criticism that SNL did not have a black female character in its current cast and had historically underrepresented black women. Shortly after the sketch aired, executive producer Lorne Michaels announced he was going to hold auditions with the specific purpose of hiring one or two black female cast members in the middle of the season. This was a highly unusual move since SNL sets its cast before the season starts, and throughout the season, audiences become attached to the cast members and the characters they portray. The onslaught of public criticism appeared to be effective, and SNL hired Sasheer Zamata as a cast member and Leslie Jones as a writer for the show. However, before and during the audition and hiring process, Michaels stated that he was only looking for one or two black female cast members because he did not want “too many women” in the show. Cast member Kenan Thompson argued that the show has had a lack of black women in the cast because black female comedians are never “ready” for SNL (de Moraes). This indicates that although it took an enormous amount of criticism and public outrage about the issue to pressure SNL to change, the show and its executives still rely on a mostly white, mostly male standard for who should be on the show.
Though this strategy of explicitly reckoning with the lack of diversity by focusing an entire sketch on it appeared to be effective in forcing the hiring of black female cast members, the words of both Michael and Thompson show the change was mostly superficial. Instead of institutional self-reflection of why SNL has failed to hire a diverse cast and a realization of the resulting missing perspectives, the show appeared to hire Jones and Zamata to avoid criticism and potential decreased viewership.
When SNL explicitly jokes about their lack of diversity but does not make it a focus of a particular sketch, it is much less effective in turning the audience’s attention to the problem. One sketch in which this happened was a cold open, a signature aspect of SNL where a comedic bit or story is shown before the title and opening credits, in 2016 where the cast mocked both the debate between the two vice presidential candidates and then-candidate Donald Trump. The first lines from the sketch are from Melissa Villaseñor introducing herself and her character, respectively, as “the new, Hispanic cast member. And tonight, I’ll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano. Because… baby steps” (Michaels, “October 8- Lin-Manuel Miranda”). The sketch then goes into the other cast member’s impersonations of Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, and Donald Trump, with the main focus of the sketch being on each of these figures’ flaws and ridiculousness. Villaseñor and her character’s ethnic background are never brought up again. Although the initial joke seems to work similarly to bring the audience’s awareness to the issue of little Asian-American representation in the show and acknowledges the show has been slow to change, it differs from the “Black Women on SNL and in the White House” sketch because the lack of Asian-American cast members is not the focus of the sketch. It was not made as obvious an issue or portrayed as something that needed to be remedied quickly, unlike the Kerry Washington sketch, and perhaps as expected, there was no large outcry pushing SNL to hire Asian-American cast members.
In this situation, not even the largely superficial changes resulting from the Kerry Washington sketch were made. SNL appears to try to stay relevant by mentioning their historical lack of diversity but does not give any indication that it is important enough to them to take significant action.
SNL also reckons with its lack of diversity implicitly through its sketches, where the issue is never explicitly mentioned or focused on but is still apparent, and it is not clear whether the show is aware of it or not. When a sketch is racially exclusive or problematic, this tactic can reinforce to the audience that this type of casting and performance is acceptable, isolating those who take issue. An example of this is a sketch from 2014 called “Kim Jong-un is Strong” where the show imagines the North Korean dictator’s response to the rumor at the time that he had died or was gravely ill due to his recent scarcity of public appearances. The sketch relies on various comedic gags and exaggerates most Americans’ image of Kim as an egotistical maniac who forces that image onto the citizens of the country. Kim makes various shows of his strength such as getting punched in the chest and tap dancing, only to order his military officials and nurse to turn away so that he can scream out in pain. All the characters in the sketch are intended to be North Korean: Kim, his nurse, and his military officials. However, SNL did not have an Asian-American cast member until 2019, so all these characters are played by white cast members, writers, and extras. The white actors in the sketch have darkened hair, and Kim’s actor wears makeup to contribute to his likeness. Because racial diversity is in no way the focus of the sketch nor is it ever brought up, the audience is at risk of ignoring that issue and becoming accustomed to white actors playing minority characters due to non-diverse casting choices. The sketch does not tell audiences that SNL has never had an Asian-American cast member in its decades-long history and does not encourage them to recognize the problems with white actors playing minority roles in a white-dominated industry. It helps to normalize the presence of non-minority actors playing minority characters, and again, there was no similar public criticism about the lack of Asian Americans like there was about black female comedians. This type of unintentional, implicit reckoning does not inspire audiences to pressure SNL to fix their lack of diversity and therefore does not lead to changes in hiring or institutional belief systems.
Alternately, sketches where race is not explicitly brought up but have inclusive racial representation can similarly create an expectation from the audience that minority actors playing minority characters are normal and seeing those diverse representations should be commonplace. A sketch that exemplifies this is 2019’s “Kremlin Meeting” from the episode where actress Sandra Oh hosted. This sketch covered a hypothetical scenario after the Mueller Report found Donald Trump could not be charged with colluding with Russia during the 2016 elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un hold a meeting where Putin is forced to show Kim he still has strongman power and influence in the world, even if the President of the United States is not “working for” him (Michaels, Kremlin Meeting). Sandra Oh plays Kim’s translator, and then-SNL writer Bowen Yang plays a sassy version of Kim. At this point, SNL still did not have any Asian-American cast members, and bringing in a non-cast member to play Kim as a main character and breaking the conventions of its genre was highly unusual. However, Yang’s performance as Kim, including only speaking in Korean the whole sketch, and Oh’s performance as a translator, speaking both Korean and Korean-accented English, were effective and brought a comedic perspective to Kim’s personality that is not usually explored in most satirizations of him. The audience’s enjoyment of the sketch can instill an idea that diverse cast members and characters in comedy can be widely popular and its popularity can encourage SNL and other shows to choose to do more sketches like it. However, the sketch did not explicitly mention race or its diversity issue, and it did not inspire audiences to pressure the show to hire a more diverse cast. This sketch has its limitations since it could not be replicated in future episodes without an Asian-American host like Oh and encouraged a probable return to the regular cast members instead of relatively unknown writers like Yang in order to avoid confusing audiences. Even after this positive, racially-inclusive sketch and the hiring of the first Asian-American cast member in the show’s history, SNL still continues to struggle with its deficiency of Asian-American stories, characters, and cast members.
With this type of implicit reckoning, SNL exhibits the potential how deep they can delve into character satirizations and the plethora of material they can comedically analyze with a diverse cast. Unfortunately, there is no evidence this has led to even cosmetic changes in hiring practices or newfound importance placed on diversity.
The roots of SNL’s lack of racial diversity appear to lie within the show’s founding mission and goals. The executive producer of the show, Lorne Michaels, has argued that since the show began in 1975, it is important that the sketches and jokes are “attractive to the whole country” and that specifically political sketches needed to “have influence in the red states” (White). This shows how SNL’s goal since the beginning has been to be widely appealing to a variety of audiences rather than be perceived to be targeting specific demographics. However, rather than target an audience with diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds, SNL seems to have the goal of focusing on diverse political backgrounds. Michaels also asserts that SNL’s brand of comedy is the opposite of the strategy many networks now use “in an age of narrowcasting” (White). Narrowcasting, or the promotion and distribution of media to specific demographics, runs in contrast to SNL’s goal of appealing to a so-called wide variety of audiences. However, SNL’s track record with diversity implies they appear to believe that what is generically popular and comfortable for white audiences is appealing to all audiences.
This desire to appeal to white audiences can cause SNL to be more hesitant to hire racially diverse cast members and writers for fear that their comedy may not fit in with the standard of what is considered “generally appealing” or appealing to white audiences. Indeed, media studies professor Racquel Gates argues that shows such as SNL hire select performers of color to attract audiences of color and also indicate the “hipness” of the show to white audiences. She uses comedian and former SNL cast member Eddie Murphy as an example of the fine line performers of color must walk since he was obliged to use “his blackness… in service of making white audiences laugh without alienating them” (Gates). This exemplifies the double standard that comedians of color must both use race in their comedy to expand the show’s audience and make the show seem current or relevant. They must also not delve so deep into their racial identities that white audiences would not be able to relate. This results in an undue, unfair burden on comedians of color and may make a show like SNL seem unappealing. Additionally, if comedians of color cannot meet these standards and cannot make both white audiences and audiences of color comfortable, SNL may decide to not take the risk of hiring them. This preference for ensuring the perceived comfort of white audiences over covering current events through a lens of diverse racial backgrounds undermines SNL’s claimed efforts to improve diversity and creates a less-than-ideal environment for comedians of color.
When SNL attempts to reckon with its lack of diversity it can either make the audience highly aware of the issue and encourage them to act to change the situation through explicit recognition. This appears to be most effective when the show’s lack of diversity is the main focus of the sketch, and the majority of jokes make fun of the show and this issue. The show can also choose not to explicitly recognize its diversity issue and instead focus on other topics during the sketch, but the problem is implicitly apparent. This sends a message to the audience that this type of racial casting and representation in a sketch is normal and acceptable. This strategy can be detrimental when the casting is racially exclusive but beneficial when the casting is racially inclusive. The explicit strategy is more effective, as it forces the audience to recognize the issue and leaves little room for interpretation as to whether a lack of racial diversity is acceptable.
Although SNL has become more racially diverse over the years, most of the hiring of minority cast members came after intense public pressure, and justifications for the present and historical lack of racial diversity still indicate SNL’s standards of comedy and idea of what appeals to their audience still relies heavily on comedy by white men. SNL still operates based on the idea that they need minority cast members to stay relevant and help attract a wider audience, but these cast members cannot lean too heavily on their racial identities for fear of alienating the show’s white audience members. Because SNL is where many highly influential comedians start, refine their humor, and gain experience, it is critical that the show is inclusive of not just diverse cast members but also their style of humor.
Even with the rise of more diverse, more progressive comedy shows in recent years, SNL has continued to solidify its place as a fixture of American media and comedy. Its viewership and ratings continue to be relatively high, and more importantly, its satire of and commentary on current events shape the ways in which its audience interprets the world. Yael Kohen argues that comedy is a “way to examine the world around us” and that it can “make…certain things that are difficult to deal with more accessible.” In order to achieve this, she emphasizes, “diversity… in a writer’s room… or on the screen… brings [a] new perspective” (Martin). Based on this argument, SNL does a disservice to its audience by maintaining a cast with little diversity.
SNL’s purpose has always been to analyze current events and influential figures through a lens of comedy and satire. Due to the limitations of its cast members, it is unable to cover important current events or influential public figures if those involved do not have the same ethnic background as someone in the cast. This prevents the audience from receiving the same level of interpretation through satire and comedy as would be expected if the main characters were not racial minorities. A deeper, systematic change that reaches the highest levels of leadership of the show and the network that encourages them to value comedians from traditionally underrepresented groups because of the experiences and perspectives they are able to bring to the show is needed. Until this happens, SNL will continue to do a disservice to its audience and fail to achieve its purpose.Page Break
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Tana-Isabela Anulacion is a junior at the University of San Francisco majoring in Environmental Science with a minor in Philippine Studies. Though she is a science major, she enjoys reading and writing in the humanities and arts. Diversity and representation in all fields are especially important to her, and media is the most visually obvious example of this. She is passionate about tackling contemporary environmental issues and developing sustainable, inclusive solutions.