Leslie Jones may be gone, but a change still needs to come to ‘SNL’ The show enters its 45th season still struggling to shake its white-bread image

Saturday Night Live is The House That Lorne Michaels Built. Perhaps it’s finally due for a teardown.

This time, it’s the departure of Leslie Jones that’s prompting a re-evaluation of the show, along with the hiring of the show’s first Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, and the hiring — and then firing — of comedian Shane Gillis. Gillis was let go just four days after the show announced that he would be joining its 45th season because of backlash over his history of using anti-gay jokes and racist slurs.

Gillis’ dismissal might indicate that the cultural shifts taking place in the country have at last announced themselves at SNL, the country’s premier sketch comedy show and one of the few non-sports shows that Americans still watch together live.

What does any of this have to do with Jones?

After five years and three Emmy nominations, Jones, 52, is leaving SNL to pursue other projects, including hosting the reboot of Supermarket Sweep, a role in the Coming to America sequel, a role opposite Kristen Bell in the dark comedy Queenpins and a Netflix comedy special.

Like the six black women who preceded her on SNL, Jones was saddled with an unfair challenge. These women could either find ways to be deferential to the structure that Michaels had built, even when it did not suit their talents, or they could leave. Even though Maya Rudolph found a way to flourish at Saturday Night Live, she also talked about how the show was inhospitable to black women. In Jones’ case, succeeding meant finding ways to break out, even as she was repeatedly portrayed as uncultured, ham-handed, undesirable and lacking self-awareness.

The decision to keep going to those wells was deliberate but not necessary. One of Jones’ best sketches is a send-up of House Hunters that she did with Liev Schrieber. And yet it’s a rare example of a sketch in which her perceived personal deficiencies as a black woman are not the butt of the joke.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018. “There’s 10 white boys on that show. Each one of them are individuals, they bring something special … there’s always tokenism. It’s very dangerous.”

Black women were sprinkled through the show’s history like truffle shavings — in 44 years on the air, only seven (Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Cleghorne, Rudolph, Sasheer Zamata, Jones and Ego Nwodim) have ever been part of the cast. Yang will be the first Asian cast member in the show’s history. That rarity points to deeper problems within SNL, ones that were highlighted in a short-lived show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.


In 2006, the same year 30 Rock debuted, NBC aired another show that looked at the palace intrigue inside a popular weekly sketch comedy program. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, created by Aaron Sorkin, lasted just 22 episodes. But it did bring out an issue endemic at SNL: The writing for black cast members frequently relied on stereotypes processed through the white gaze.

In one interaction in episode six, the show’s new black castmate, Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) pleads with head writer and executive producer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) to hire black writers. Stiles confronts Albie at an episode wrap party. He wants Albie to accompany him to a comedy club to check out a set from a comic who is black.

“I’d like to see more black writers on your staff, or a black writer on your staff,” Stiles tells him.

Moments beforehand, Albie had been entertaining a trio of young women, trying to get them to understand what a big deal he is, when one of them spots Stiles and says, “OMG, it’s Simon Stiles! Do you know him?”

Frustrated that the women don’t recognize his authority over the show, Albie half shouts, half growls his answer: “He works for me!”

But minutes later, when Albie answers Stiles about hiring a black writer, his actions are frustratingly familiar. Suddenly, the man upset that three strangers don’t understand the importance of his job is powerless to change a situation created by his predecessors. He completely absolves himself of responsibility for the fact that the show’s writing staff is all white, even though he makes the hiring decisions. Then he gets defensive.

“I still feel my blackness is objectified, as opposed to individualized, in the way white people are,” Ellen Cleghorne, the first black woman to last more than one season on SNL, told Slate in 2018.

Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“It’s not my staff,” Albie says. “I didn’t hire these guys. Ricky and Ron did. As the contracts run out, we’ll see what’s what. Is this a diversity issue? … Am I not writing well enough for you? You think I need to bring in help from the bullpen once in a while to write for a black guy?”

“I think there’s comedy to be found in experiences that are far removed from your own,” Stiles answers. “And I think there’s a dramatic and musical language in which you’re not fluent.”

“It’s insulting to me that there are no black writers in the room,” Stiles says.

“It’s insulting to me that you think I need help!” Albie shoots back.

Though it appears in a fictional drama, the confrontation between Stiles and Albie captures a dynamic that prevented SNL from consistently developing a smarter approach to using its minority castmates.


But Jones began as a writer. Shouldn’t she have had more power over the material she performed than most do? Maybe. And yet she still found herself pigeonholed as the butt of jokes that reinforced her perceived lack of desirability and painted her as a sexual predator.

Even last season, when Jones was passionately advocating for women to have a right to make their own reproductive choices, the bit ends with a dig about her lack of romantic graces. She can’t fit her 6-foot, 233-pound frame into a box, and she knows, she quips, because she tried to mail herself to a dude.

Historically, race and racism and earnest action around inclusion have been treated as an inconvenience or an afterthought at Saturday Night Live, not something that’s hindering the quality of the show or driving away potential talent.

Black women could not necessarily expect to find much solidarity from their white counterparts at SNL, or the sketch and improv comedy community that functions as a feeder system for the show. Amy Poehler, together with former SNL head writer Tina Fey, created some of the most memorable sketches in the show’s history. But in 2015, during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Poehler was dismissive when her interlocutor asked whether criticism directed toward SNL for its lack of black women was warranted.

“Ugh,” Poehler answered. “I don’t want to talk about this. Pass.”

The same year, minority members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv comedy troupe Poehler co-founded with Matt Besser, spoke openly of demeaning sketches that were hostile to people of color. What has persisted at Saturday Night Live and throughout the entertainment world at large is a deep resistance to self-examination and change. One need look no further than the most recent Primetime Emmys telecast in which multiple groups of all-white writers collected their trophies as if the competition on which those trophies are based is at all equitable or remotely reflective of the world at large.

In 2013, Erik Voss wrote a piece for New York magazine explaining why SNL’s diversity problems exist, and it all comes back to Michaels, who seems to view diversity as a distraction or a sideshow from comedy. Wrote Voss:

For him, SNL isn’t about diversity. It’s about comedy, pure and simple. He doesn’t care if his show accurately reflects the various racial groups in America, so long as it still gets laughs. And for the most part, Michaels has gotten away with this approach. All these years later, while its colorful competitors are long gone, eternally Wonder-Bread SNL is still bringing in big ratings, earning critical praise, churning out box office stars, writers, and directors that go on to dominate Hollywood, producing sketches that are among the most shared and talked about videos online, and remaining at the heart of American pop culture.

If diversity and comedy are seen as being embroiled in a zero-sum competition, not interdependent pieces of a whole package, that explains how minorities who challenge comedy that insults them are viewed as humor-killing agents of “cancel culture.” It also explains how Michaels made the decision to tap Fred Armisen, who is not black, to play President Barack Obama. Michaels thought Armisen was the best person for the role. Mind you, Jordan Peele auditioned for the part and Michaels still picked Armisen, while Peele went on to create the definitive impression of Obama in his own Comedy Central show with Keegan-Michael Key.

As long as the show is rewarded for its narrow definitions of what great sketch comedy can be, there’s no reason to expect it to do anything differently. The best we can do is hope — hope Jones kills it in future endeavors where she has more control over her own image, hope the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognizes the refreshing genius of A Black Lady Sketch Show, hope the powers that be can see that what they deride as “cancel culture” is not a crusade of elimination but expansion.

Because when we make room for the Leslie Joneses of the world to flourish, rather than attempting to make them fit into frameworks that weren’t built for them, TV gets more honest and more interesting. And if we’re in agreement that Jones is a national treasure, well then why wouldn’t we want that?

Daily Dose: 11/20/17 Della Reese passes at 86

What’s up, gang? We’re on a short week because of Thanksgiving, but we’re going to power through anyways. By the way, I linked up with the 30 for 30 gang to talk about their first episode of season two. You can listen here!

Della Reese has made the transition. While she was best known later in life for her role on the television program Touched By An Angel, she had quite the career in music before that. But her on-screen work was certainly her calling card, with several films and other television roles to her name. For me, Della Reese always sort of played Della Reese, which was always excellent. She was 86 years old and leaves behind her husband and three children.

Chance the Rapper hosted Saturday Night Live this past weekend. I imagine that many people in America aren’t necessarily that familiar with his work, so seeing him in this context was a treat. Considering it was his first time at the effort, it was particularly impressive. Here’s the other thing: When there’s a black host, all the black characters tend to get more airtime with the sketches. If you missed it, you can check out all the sketches here. The Family Feud scene is particularly worth your time.

You know what happens when you don’t respect your own diversity? You lose money. Take the example of CBS, which decided to jettison actor Daniel Dae Kim after a money dispute regarding Hawaii Five-0. Basically, they did not want to pay actors of color as much as their white counterparts. So Kim walked, and with him went his brainchild The Good Doctor, which he is executive producing. Now, that show is a huge hit for ABC. There’s clearly a lesson to be learned here.

When it comes to video games, I play sports ones. I’m mostly a FIFA guy, but I enjoy a reasonable variety of others too. But some folks take things a little more seriously than that. I feel like the most I’ve ever bet on a turn on the sticks was a case of beer in college, but then again, nobody was balling like that as far as wagers go. But for rap stars Lil Yachty and 21 Savage, the stakes are way higher. Apparently, these two dudes went at it on NBA 2K and Yachty lost $12K. Yeesh.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The American Music Awards were last night, and while the acts were one thing, Tracee Ellis Ross was the host. And to make things even better, her mom, Diana Ross, was getting a lifetime achievement award. Perhaps best of all, our favorite family dropped by to give her a message.

Snack Time: Terry Glenn was a heck of a football player for Ohio State and on into the NFL. He died in a car accident over the weekend.

Dessert: Serena Williams offers up a must-watch tribute for the holidays. Watch.

 

Tiffany Haddish and Chance the Rapper make ‘Saturday Night Live’ history Second time there’s been back-to-back black hosts, Haddish 12th black female host

On Nov. 11, this summer’s breakout star Tiffany Haddish will host Saturday Night Live for the first time in her career. A week later, on Nov. 18, the Grammy Award-winning Chance the Rapper will, too, make his hosting debut on the long-running late-night sketch comedy show. Haddish, 37, of this summer’s Girls Trip and the recently canceled The Carmichael Show, is just the 12th African-American woman, and the 50th black man or woman, to host SNL, and when Chance the Rapper hosts seven days later, it will mark just the second time in the show’s 43-season history that hosts in back-to-back weeks are black. The last time was March 2009, and it was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Tracy Morgan.

While SNL has a history of being on the pulse of politics and pop culture, it has always struggled in the diversity department, whether it’s the celebrity guest hosts, or its own cast. For seasons one through five, SNL had just one black cast member, Garrett Morris (2 Broke Girls, The Jamie Foxx Show) and didn’t hire a black woman until Yvonne Hudson was brought in for one season, 1981’s season 6. When Maya Rudolph left the show following season 33, it took the show seven years to replace her with Leslie Jones and Sasheer Zamata.

Heading into Saturday’s historic episode, The Undefeated takes a look at the 49 black hosts who came before Haddish and Chance.

most-featured hostsathlete hosts

While the NFL may be the most popular sport in America, the NBA is apparently the premier space from which to choose late-night television hosts: Professional basketball players have appeared on SNL the most. It began in 1978, when Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson, in season 3, became the first black athlete (and second overall) to host the show. Between the nine athletes who have hosted, there are a combined 17 MVP awards, 87 All-Star or Pro Bowl selections, 28 championships, and, between Foreman and Johnson, 10 heavyweight title reigns.

black female hostsblack female hosts

Haddish, the second black female comedian to host (Rudolph was the first), follows in the footsteps of eight Academy Award nominees, two of whom are winners: Halle Berry, and Octavia Spencer. There have also been seven Emmy nominees, four of whom are winners: Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Berry, Queen Latifah. Two Grammy nominees as well — with Janet Jackson a multi-Grammy winner. Tyson, in season 4, was the first black female host in SNL history, and she and Winfrey were the only hosts from 1979-2002. Berry hosted in 2003, a year after winning the Oscar for Monster’s Ball.

double dutydouble duty hosts

Starting with the legendary Richard Pryor and Grammy-winning jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron in season 1, there have been 24 black host-musician pairings since the show’s inception in 1975. Some of the pairings were a perfect match — Quincy Jones with Tevin Campbell, for example, as well as Eddie Murphy with Lionel Ritchie, and LeBron James with Kanye West. Other pairings are head-scratchers even to this day — Sinbad with Sade, and Michael Jordan with Public Enemy.

double dutydouble duty hosts

What started with host Lily Tomlin performing alongside SNL musical director Howard Shore on the sixth episode of season one has morphed into dozens of musical artists, including Paul Simon, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder, pulling double-duty as both host and musical act. Chance the Rapper isn’t slated to perform on Nov. 18, the scheduled musical guest is fellow rapper Eminem, but there have been four hip-hop artists (Drake, Ludacris, Queen Latifah, MC Hammer) to grace the stage and the mic in the same episode. Ray Charles, who sang “I Believe in My Soul,” “Hit The Road Jack” and “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” between hosting duties during season three, was the first black host to pull double duty.

most-featured hostsmost-featured hosts

Of the 49 black creatives to host before Haddish and Chance, nine have returned for at least one more episode. Of the nine repeats, Morgan, Rock and Murphy were former cast members, with Murphy famously refusing to return to the show after last hosting in 1984. With the finale episode of season 42, Johnson joined the show’s exclusive “Five-Timers Club.” He’s the first member who is black or an athlete. Queen Latifah, who hosted during seasons 28 and 30, is the only black woman to host on more than one occasion.

Daily Dose: 5/22/17 Sasheer Zamata exits ‘SNL’ with zero fanfare

If you missed The Morning Roast on Sunday, Mina Kimes was back from Korea, and we talked about the NBA and where we are in the playoffs at this point. Also, some more French lessons from your boy.

Here’s a new segment we call: This Week in Racist Nonsense and Terror. We’ll start in Maryland, where a white supremacist decided to randomly kill a black man and we’ve still got to act like there’s some sort of question as to whether this was a hate crime. Moving to Louisiana, a state representative said that lawmakers should be lynched for taking down Confederate monuments in New Orleans. There’s also this woman in Virginia. And, oh, yeah, in case you forgot, the Nazis were highly inspired by the U.S. system of racial oppression.

Saturday Night Live‘s season finale was awkward. In it, Dwyane Johnson was the host and Katy Perry decided she was going to really embarrass herself during her performance of “Bon Appetit” with Migos. For whatever reason, she feels the need to try to act black instead of just being herself. It’s extremely hard to watch, in fact. But, also, Sasheer Zamata is leaving the show, although you never would have known that from the sketches Saturday night. These so-called diversity problems at SNL are more like “we just don’t really want outsiders.”

There are zoos and then there are game reserves. There are also animal parks in certain parts of the world where, when you get to see them, you get a completely different perspective on just how cruel big-game hunting is. Most animals, obviously, are just trying to live out their short lives like everyone else, and idiots with superiority complexes and greedy pockets trying to ruin them really are the worst. So, when a hunter gets crushed to death by an elephant, it’s hard to feel bad on any level.

If you didn’t think the Las Vegas Raiders games were going to be nuts, think again. No. 1, it’s the Raiders. They have one of the craziest fan bases in the NFL, the type of people who would probably find a way to make the trip from the Bay Area for eight weeks a year just so they could dress up in all their black-and-silver glory. But now, the Vegas factor comes into play. You will now be allowed to legally place wagers from inside the stadium on your phone during games. Aka, mobile betting on exactly what you’re watching in front of you. What a world.

Free Food

Coffee Break: At the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday night, Diddy took the stage to commemorate what would have been the Notorious B.I.G.’s birthday and also bring his son out to introduce him to the world. He also debuted the trailer for a new documentary he’s got coming out about Bad Boy Records. It looks incredible.

Snack Time: The homey Snoop Dogg is still making music, which makes me extremely happy in general. His new album is chock-full of awesome guests, so you should check it out. You can stream it here.

Dessert: The latest season of The Pengest Munch has closed. Eat lunch first, because you’ll be hungry after.