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?

‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Colin Jost and Michael Che aren’t mascots for the resistance ‘The Weekend Update’ hosts discuss real and fake news — and giving LaVar Ball a wedgie

Thanks to a never-ending presidential campaign and an even wackier Election Day aftermath, Saturday Night Live once again became the can’t-miss nexus of weekly political comedy that it hadn’t been since Sarah Palin was a candidate for vice president.

The show was rewarded with 22 Emmy nominations (tying HBO’s Westworld for most nods in 2017) and record ratings. It’s doing so well that NBC has spun off its Weekend Update segment into a stand-alone show, Weekend Update: Summer Edition, which premiered Aug. 10 and will continue airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST. SNL’s cast, including Update hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost, have become mascots for the Resistance. And while Kate McKinnon, Alec Baldwin, and Melissa McCarthy have embraced that role, it’s made Che and Jost uncomfortable. Neither of them got into comedy to change the world. That may seem odd, given that Che is a former Daily Show correspondent and Jost is a former journalist, both jobs that required a greater-than-average literacy about news and politics.

And yet, Che and Jost insist we’re taking them way more seriously than they take themselves. “If you had a joke they liked … now people are like, ‘Thank you, on a political level,’ or something, which is weird as a comedian,” Jost said. “That’s not really the point of what we’re doing. We’re not really doing political activism, we’re just trying to figure out what’s funny if we can.”

“It’s taken on different kind of importance that I don’t know that we’re emotionally capable of accepting,” Che said. “We want to piss off liberals too. I want to disappoint everybody, not just conservatives.”

What do you guys see your role as in democracy?

Colin: Class clown, probably.

Michael: Yeah, I think it’s just funny. It’s weird to get with so much news and so much coverage of politics and TV, that they’re still looking at comedians as the truth-tellers.

It’s all Jon Stewart’s fault.

Michael: It’s strange. You know what, you’re not wrong about that, either. It’s weird. It’s not really why I do comedy, you know. We always want to be funny. We want to be able to hit you from any angle and make fun of anybody. I feel like when people define your role, it’s easier to disappoint them, because they’re like, ‘Well, that’s, you’re not really on the right side,’ because you have to fit the consistency that they have already set for you, or the standards that they’ve already set for you, and I feel like with comedy, that should never be the case. You should never know where the ball is, to use a sports phrase. You should always be able to hide the ball.

Colin: Wow, you are a big sports fan.

Do you feel like there is anybody who is successfully managing to circumvent that without having to either face backlash or outrage from either side?

Michael: I think we do. I think we get written about for certain things that we’ve said, like making jokes about Hillary [Clinton]. I remember one time, we said in an interview, ‘Trump was smart.’ Before he won, it was like, ‘Well, you know he’s a smart guy,’ and people trashed us.

Colin: It was a whole headline, like, ‘They Think He’s Smart.’ How dare they?

Michael: They were so mad at us.

Colin: And first of all, we were saying both he and Hillary are clearly smart people, and the headline was, ‘Trump is Smart.’ He went to UPenn for college and is a billionaire. How many billionaires are idiots, you know? It’s tough.

Michael: I don’t know, maybe Floyd Mayweather? No, that’s a joke. Yeah, well I didn’t say [Trump] was the smartest, I just said he was — he’s smarter than me, that’s for sure.

If you got one gimme, one consequence-free opportunity to punch somebody out, who would it be?

Michael: That’s weird that she says it while LaVar Ball’s on TV. He’s just yelling at a lady.

Colin: Yelling at a lady for being out of shape, did you see that? Oh, my God.

Michael: I don’t know. Punching never gets you anywhere. I wouldn’t want to punch anybody like that, even LaVar Ball. Wedgie, yes. I would love to give him a wedgie. But he strikes me as the kind of guy that doesn’t wear any underwear.

Colin: You reach in, you’re like, ‘What?’ He looks back, like, ‘Yeah. Gotcha.’

Michael: Does that answer your question? LaVar Ball is pretty unlikable, but he’s getting the coverage, and people are entertained by him. I think people just need those outlets. You can yell at your TV at LaVar. It’s all entertainment. You kind of got to remember that and not take it too seriously.

Colin: Yeah, and if you’re a basketball player, you’re probably like, ‘What the hell is wrong with this? Why is he doing this?’ But then, if it helps basketball, and then you ultimately get paid more as a basketball player you’re probably going to —

Michael: Yeah, I mean when his son develops a rivalry with another player, and that adds a fold to the story and it makes people watch the game and it makes people excited. These kinds of characters is what makes rivalries important. That’s why I was telling people with sports teams, I think fans get that, because you see players and personalities that clash with … so like how mean were Boston fans to Derek Jeter, but when Derek Jeter left, everyone —

Colin: ‘He’s a good man.’ Welling up with tears.

Michael: Because he makes so many memories. You hated him, but you appreciate how fun he made the game, and how much fun it was to boo that guy. I think that’s also important too.

Colin: I was going to say I feel bad for his kids, but I don’t. I think they’re doing fine.

Michael: They’re great athletes, and you know what, even if they don’t make it, they’ve lived a great life. They’ve gotten a lot further than a lot of people, mostly because they look like they’re having fun. They seem to be enjoying it, and that’s cool, because at the end of the day, it is sports, and they could be digging ditches and tarring roofs.

Colin: That’s great, they enjoy it every time they’re on the court because there’s buffer from their dad.

Michael: You know they’re not going to get any fouls.

Colin: Think about that. That’s why they’re smiling on the court, they’re like, ‘We can’t hear him right now.’ That’s why they’re trying to get the crowd louder. They’re like, ‘Pump it up so that we can’t hear our dad yelling from the stands.’

Oh, no, you make them sound like the Jacksons.

Michael: Oh, I mean, yeah. I think Joe Jackson wears underwear though.

Colin: That’s the one difference.

A lot of comedians who predated social media complain about YouTube ruining the culture of stand-up.

Colin: I’m amazed people will write reviews of a show and quote every joke in it. I’m like, ‘Well, you just gave away all their material.’ You have to realize probably not so many are going to read that, but you just feel self-conscious as a comedian. If they quote your jokes, you’re like, ‘Oh, now I feel weird telling those jokes, because they’re already out there.’

Michael: Yeah, it kind of hurts the integrity of what you’re trying to do.

You guys grew up with the internet more than, say, someone like Chris Rock or Louis C.K.

Colin: Yeah, but when it’s on phones — you could record stuff when we were younger, or when we were starting out, but not everyone had a phone with a camera on it, so every single person in an audience has the ability to record your entire set.

Michael: There’s a company called Yondr. Do you ever use them?

Colin: Is that — they shut down phones?

Michael: They put a phone in a pouch, and they lock up your phone pretty much. [Dave] Chappelle does it. [Chris] Rock does it. Hannibal [Buress] does it. … I did it at Denver Comedy Works, and it’s amazing because your attention span, your sense of focus as an audience, is completely different. When the show starts, you’re looking at the stage. You’re not texting. You’re not trying to get a picture. You’re not trying to take a selfie. You’re not scrolling through Instagram one last time. The only thing going on is the stage, and the focus and the crowds are so much better and so much more attentive. It’s different. It’s night and day.

Did you work on your high school paper?

Colin: I did. I was the editor in chief of my high school newspaper, The Owl, no big deal. But then I worked at . . .

Michael: You’re right, that is no big deal.

Colin: . . . I worked at the Staten Island Advance, which is a newspaper on Staten Island. That was my first job.

How did you go from serious journalism to fake news?

Colin: I wrote, it’s so dumb, a humor column for my high school paper. You’ve got to start somewhere. And then for the real paper I worked at, I would just write things in my spare time, you know, Onion-style things at the time. I always wanted to do comedy. I just took a job because there was a job open, you know, like a journalism job. I’m shocked now, having … like it was a really good newspaper, even though it’s a small Staten Island newspaper. They have a really good staff and everything there, and I learned a lot about journalism while I was there, and when I see things now, like there’s so many factual errors in articles, and I’m like, ‘Where is any sense of integrity to it?’ That’s the strange thing to me. Certain things I get when people complain, like when politicians complain about the media and stuff, I see elements of it, because I’m like, yeah, when they get something wrong, or you just said something and then you’re misquoted or it’s changed or facts are wrong in the story and no one checked them. You’re like, you’re leaving yourself open to being criticized, you know?

The Daily Show built its brand on media criticism, and you guys have both spoken up about pointing out what we get wrong sometimes. Do you ever feel like that’s something you want to incorporate more into Weekend Update?

Michael: That’s sort of more of a Daily Show thing. We’re always kind of wary about doing what seems familiar, because as comedy fans, it’s a thing that we’ve seen.

And even at the show, we’re doing the job that Tina Fey did, and Amy Poehler, and Norm MacDonald, and Seth Meyers and all these people. They did it so well and at such a high level, and they’re so talented. We have to find a way to do that same thing and make it your own, you kind of don’t want to do the same thing as — it’s so easy to do what’s familiar because you’ve seen it done so well. You kind of just want to make it your own. So we started to make it a little bit more opinionated, a little bit more longer runs, a little bit more of the way that actual cable news is, as opposed to the way local news is, like how it started, where it was literally reading headlines. Now it’s a little bit more of a narrative.

Colin: It’s sometimes harder to get into some of the media stuff, because we don’t have so much time. Sometimes you have to get a little more in depth to explain, OK, this was the angle from that media source, and here’s why that’s wrong.

Michael: That’s why we’re really excited about doing these half-hour Updates, because we’ll have a little bit more time to kind of unravel that onion.