SNL, Sketch Comedy, and Representation

Curator's Note

Last October, when Saturday Night Live cast member Kenan Thompson told TV Guide that he would no longer be dressing in drag for the series, the interviewer asked about the lack of black actresses featured on the show. TV Guide seemed to be operating under the assumption that the absence of available actresses necessitated Thompson’s portrayal of black women (and, for the record, I find this to be a rather naïve oversimplification, but that is a discussion for another time). Thompson replied that many of the African American women who had auditioned simply were not ready. His comments sparked criticism from both social media and traditional media outlets.

As opposed to TV Guide’s question (where are all the funny black women?), the real question seems to me to be: why is SNL a (white) boys club? As one of the longest running sketch comedy shows on television, SNL has had ample opportunities to expand its roster to include people of other races and/or genders in its nearly forty-year run; however, to date, SNL has only featured five African American female cast members.

In the accompanying video clip, the ladies of The View are shown weighing in on this hot button issue and originally express outrage over the assertion that there are no funny black women who are ready for SNL. However, they end their segment with host Whoopi Goldberg telling African American female comedians that if they don’t show up to audition for SNL “it’s on you.” This sort of statement effectively removes the blame and responsibility from Saturday Night Live (and other media outlets/organizations, for that matter), and places it squarely on the underrepresented and marginalized collectives in question. By calling on black women to rise to the challenge of “the gauntlet being thrown down” (or “get yourselves together,” as host Sherri Shepherd expresses it), both she and Goldberg (perhaps inadvertently) imply that the problem is them—not the casting directors and producers over at SNL, but rather all the funny black women who seem to have gone MIA.

Thompson’s remarks ultimately resulted in the midseason addition of Upright Citizens’ Brigade member Sasheer Zamata to the SNL cast. However, while hiring Zamata is certainly a step in the right direction, it must also be equated to the age-old formula for gender diversity in the media—“just add women and stir.” For real progress to be made, perhaps we should be talking about the structural and institutional barriers facing African American women (and other marginalized groups) in the pursuit of a career in sketch comedy.



Thank you for this insightful commentary. This is another prime example of neoliberal bootstrapism. Don't blame the structures, blame the individuals. Ugh. I feel like it's also really telling that an ostensibly progressive show like The Daily Show took years and years before hiring a black woman for their program. I like to think that that for TDS it isn't just "add women and stir" though, since Jessica Williams actually addresses being a black woman in a political and structural context.

I think this is a very important critique. I'm surprised Whoopi Goldberg would misattribute blame when the audition process that Sasheer was hired out of was more or less SNL giving a call back to 10-20 African American women who had already auditioned for the season. As a member of Upright Citizens Brigade and a feminist scholar, saying that the actresses were too "green" to be hired is just incorrect and by any logic, just a temporary excuse before addressing the problem. I would ask, however, that if you would like to continue critiquing the institutional and structural barriers, you consider that two African-American female writers were added to the staff when Zamata was cast. It is imperfect, but I feel that begins to address the problem qualatatively. The video you curated can be used to analyze Whoopi Goldberg, the View, and public conversations about representation and displaced blame. Your sources on SNL, however, are second and third hand abbreviated quotes posted by sources who are already critiquing SNL.

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