SNL Takes Us BLACK to the Future

Kerry Washington, Scandal, SNL, Saturday Night LiveRemember Back to the Future? The classic 80’s movie that depicted Marty McFly’s time-travel adventure into the 50’s? In the film, Marty experienced culture shock when he was suddenly thrust into a 50’s lifestyle. His clothes were strange to everyone else. His slang fell on deaf ears. And still, everyone was enthralled with this mysterious and different newcomer.

Much the same, the highly anticipated Kerry Washington hosted episode of Saturday Night Live aired this week. Everyone was wondering what the crack team at SNL would come up with. Would they reference the mom-to-be’s recent pregnancy rumors? The fallout from “black castmember-gate” was still hanging heavily over their heads; would they capitalize on the host’s gender and race to do sketches they would never get to do otherwise?

Well, no. Instead, they went for cheap black stereotypes that would elicit easy laughs from the show’s predominantly white audience. We got more of the same slapstick and canned comedy. Like McFly’s experience, they took us black to the future.

Kerry Washington is a ratings magnet, not only making Scandal the highest rated show of all this past Thursday, but also bringing SNL it’s largest ratings of this season. And her innate ability to breathe believability into her roles was the only thing that made this week’s offering watchable. A unique entertainment juggernaut beloved by viewers of all races, Washington’s appearance presented the show with a unique opportunity. This could have been the moment where they were able to surmount the criticism that has been building up against them. Instead, this week’s SNL amounted to nothing more than an exercise in black stereotypes, using Kerry Washington, Kenan Thompson, and Jay Pharaoh as it’s tokens.

Balderdash you say? Well, let’s step through the episode sketch by sketch:

Michelle Obama at the White House Cold Open

The most provocative skit of the entire episode was the cold open in which the show’s writers made a pointed attempt at ridiculing their critics. Kerry Washington is enlisted to play a series of black women .. because, you know … there are none on the cast. And Kenan won’t do drag anymore. She’s Michelle Obama, then she makes a quick change to Oprah. Last, she’s Beyonce off stage.

To make things better (as if we weren’t getting the message), the show then displayed this message on-screen;

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 only 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 that 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.

And then Al Sharpton came out (that MSNBC money must be reeeeeeaaaal good). See, Kerry Washington and Rev. Al Sharpton have given SNL a pass. It must be OK that there is little to no diversity on the cast, right? We’re all racially sensitive now!


Kerry Washington tackled a pretty obvious idea for her monologue: the SNL cast thinks she is Olivia Pope and can fix their problems. The lack of creativity here is mesmerizing.

Career Week Speaker

Now that SNL has proven their racial sensitivity, it’s time to start parading the writers’ room’s different ideas of black women. First up, the ghetto girl. The setup revolved around a “success” speaker appearing at a high school rally. Kerry Washington played the speaker’s assistant while chewing gum the entire skit. She complained of not getting paid enough, and did a “sexy dance” which included dropping it like it’s hot to really sell the program.

Is this what SNL feels it has been lacking? They needed a black woman to play hood chicks?

Music Video – My Girl

In a play off of Ylvis’ “The Fox” (yeah, I’ve never heard of it either), Kerry Washington played the nagging girlfriend of Jay Pharoah. She checked his phone. She snooped in his cloud and found millions of butts (not joking). And according to Jay Pharoah, all she did was berate him and make annoying sounds like “nah nah nahnah.” See, black women can play all types of roles. Through entertainment, we’re breaking barriers people.

How’s He Doing

Kerry Washington, SNL, Saturday Night Live, Spelman, How's He DoingIn this sketch, Kerry Washington played a Spelman professor appearing on a talk show helmed by Kenan Thompson. Jay Pharoah played the other (mostly mute) guest. Washington’s character came complete with a TWA (teeny weenie afro) and militant demeanor. It is the seventies after all.

In the end, both guests further reinforce the stereotype that Barack Obama can do no wrong in the eyes of blacks. I get that it is satire and jokes are not meant to be taken too seriously, but the direction in which this sketch was built was to make fun of people who the stereotype targets, not those that believe the stereotype to be true. Maybe it was a misdirection trick or something?

Miss Universe

This sketch sought to highlight the newer, smaller, and lesser known countries of origin that are included in the Ms. Universe pageant. This had to be offensive for anyone that originated from any of the countries that were highlighted (the one-dimensional portrayals were oh so classy), but I found Kerry Washington’s “Ms. Uganda” to be particularly bigoted.

Her entire character boiled down to her African accent and litany of “who what where when how” questions with no more than three words per question. Beauty queens are generally mocked as being dumb, but this went to the level of sheer cluelessness. I guess Ugandan beauty pageant participants have no command of the English language. Who’d a thunk it?

Weekend Update

During the Weekend Update segment, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah played Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal respectively. Kenan’s Barkley, despite previous portrayals, had little significance or relation to the man himself. Pharoah’s Shaquille O’Neal relied on dimwitted, simpleton remarks and random eye crossing. It was just kind of sad honestly.

Principal Frye – Fall Festival

Next, Jay Pharoah revived his “Teachers and Students” sketch in which he plays an oafish and severely concerned principal of an outrageous student body. This time around, Kerry Washington played a new teacher to the school who volunteered at the school dunk tank after harshly grading mid-terms. Guess what happened next?

Within seconds she complained of multiple balls, Snapple bottles, and other errant items being thrown at the target. And after such harsh treatment, she proclaimed that she wanted to leave these “animals” and go back to teaching at a school on the island. Maybe I’m reading too far into this, but doesn’t that sound like a teacher that doesn’t want to teach the degenerate students in the inner city and opts to teach at a boarding school instead? Just saying.

MTV Date or Diss

What followed was a shockingly stupid yet dead-on portrayal of an MTV dating show titled Date or Diss. Like just about every MTV dating show, one dater gets to choose from three people who are seeking their attention. In this case, one was overly rough, another was super weird, and Kerry Washington was just plain dumb.

Kerry Washington ends up winning simply because she likes books. Let’s face it, the entire premise of the sketch was to make fun of Millenials, women, and to a lesser extent, black women. And that is one of the bigger issues that is arising with SNL. They have been relying heavily on making fun of people rather than being original or having any type of meaning or significance behind their work.

Ice Cream short

I did not understand what was going on in this skit the entire time. I had to sit and really think about it for a while to make sense of what this short was meant to portray. In short, a couple walks into an ice cream shop, places an order, and then makes a joke that they will also need two ambulances to take them out of there. You know … because they are going to eat so much sugar.

All of a sudden, the ice cream scooper goes into a trance and has weird visions of trying to solve a problem. Then the same thing happens to the manager when they relate the story. Same thing happens when the paramedics come. Everyone is in trances until the manager wakes up, spits out a waffle cone, and says, “I get it.”

Funny factor = -10, but at least there was no racial component!

Now, there are a number of issues to take with this collection of skits. As a start, nearly every sketch cast Keenan and Jay, two cast members that usually get relegated to bit parts. Why were they highlighted so much this episode? My money’s on the show trying to make a point.

Lorne Michaels was trying to let us all know that SNL is “OK with black.” He put Kerry Washington, Kenan Thompson, and Jay Pharoah front and center to play into a news cycle he desperately wants to control. He even brought Eminem along. I mean, he’s kinda black. He’s got a black card.

Just last week Michaels was interviewed by the The Grio and told them that finding a black female castmember was a “priority” and that it “would happen.” If only we would be patient and wait for the black box auditioning process to produce that mystical black comedienne, everyone would be happy.

We won’t hold our breath.

Honestly, the bigger issue here, outside of the race issue, is SNL‘s complete dearth of creativity, intellectualism, and just plain humor. And no matter what the cast looks like, diversity is most needed in the writers’ room. How a group of 23 (!) writers can’t do better than this on a weekly basis has me befuddled. Maybe if Lorne had better sources of funny, they’d appease more than just the lowbrow pockets of the audience that need simple stereotypes to tickle their funny bone.

In Back To The Future, one of the more intelligent lines that ran through the film series was that history repeats itself. Similar scenes unfolded whether the characters were in the 80’s, 50’s, the Old West, or the far future. Characters, no matter the time period, stayed the same. And that is what we have been getting from SNL.

The DeLorean still needs 1.21 gigawatts of energy, the lightning bolt keeps hitting the clocktower at 10:04 PM, and Biff is never someone to trust. Despite Lorne Michaels’ promises to the contrary, we all know that SNL, a show has been on air since 1975, has not changed much. And, when it comes to their inherent lack of diversity, four women in forty years ain’t a great statistic, but it is their reality. It’s a reality they may want to try and calibrate to look a bit more like the one we are all living in…

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.