Saturday Night Live’s Race Problem

Prachi Gupta, Salon, September 26, 2013

Entering its 39th season this weekend, “Saturday Night Live” has become one of the longest-running television shows in American history. The sketch comedy show, which established itself in the ’70s as edgy and countercultural, continues to thrive in an industry ruled by neurotic executives and fickle audiences, pulling in higher ratings on Saturday nights than any other show on television. But with the recent departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and, in upcoming months, Seth Meyers, the show is going through one of the biggest shakeups in its history, gambling on six new members who will hopefully be able to carry the show forward.

Brooks Whelan, Noël Wells, Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, John Milhiser and Mike O’Brien, hand-picked by “SNL’s” creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, are conspicuously homogenous: All six performers are white. Five are men. Four hail from comedy school and the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Despite its purported edginess, “SNL” has faced criticism for its lack of diversity since its inception, said Ronald Becker, an associate professor in Media, Journalism, and Film at the Miami University of Ohio and co-editor of the upcoming collection of essays “Saturday Night Live and American TV.” According to Becker, early “SNL” was about “a baby boomer, white, male counterculture fighting an older generation of white male comedy. It was more a generational counterculture, and had very little to do with racial diversity or gender diversity, or gender sensibility in comedy.”

But good comedy, as so many comedians will tell you, is honest. And diversity in comedy is essential to honesty, especially in a country that’s more diverse than it’s ever been. {snip}

“SNL’s” all-white, predominantly male casting call got some minor criticism, but many defended the decision by arguing that the cast of 16 performers, which currently includes three people of color (and six women), approximately reflects the demographics of a nation in which white people are the majority. (Though, according to the Census Bureau, not for much longer.) This logic is a common defense within the industry. Alexander also argues that there isn’t a large enough pool of minority comedians to pick from: “I think any producer will tell you that they would like a bigger pool to draw from. I think we’re just a reflection, so I assume that people who are producing television shows do wish there was a larger pool to draw from.” {snip}


“SNL’s” perspective has brought it mainstream success, however, and therefore is not likely to change much. “Let’s say you get a really cool, great multiracial cast and an interesting skit,” hypothesized Becker. “Is the audience of ‘Saturday Night Live’ going to tune in, or are they going to go elsewhere?  And would you be able to attract a new audience?  It’s really hard to attract a new audience nowadays, let alone keep your core audience.  And is the core audience of ‘Saturday Night Live’ going to like that kind of humor?  That’s just an unknown question and television producers don’t like unknown questions.

“I think there’s lots of parts of America that could care less about ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Becker added. “Lots of African-Americans, lots of gays and lesbians.  They don’t really expect things from ‘Saturday Night Live’ and they don’t really care if they’re on it, because ‘Saturday Night Live’ is just one of the many shows that are on television.  But there is a way that because ‘Saturday Night Live’–and here lies sort of a trap–because ‘Saturday Night Live’ has this history/legacy and a touchstone of sorts and is a relatively affluent white majority it does have a sort of cultural power that other comedy outlets don’t have.  But its power comes from its own exclusive appeal.”

Paradoxically, as long as “SNL” exists, so will the push for more shows like “Totally Biased” and “Awkward Black Girl,”  which are part of today’s counterculture, said Becker. “And in some ways their counterculture credibility is established against ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ white, all-male narrow appeal and sensibility.”



Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.