Was This Week’s Controversial Cold Open a Sign of Progress — Or a Slap in the Face — For Black Women on ‘SNL’?

A few weeks ago, Kenan Thompson was interviewed about the Saturday Night Live cast’s lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to women of color. His response — that the show has brought in black female performers to audition, but that none of them seemed “ready” for the ensemble cast — sparked controversy, with many people rushing to claim that Thompson insinuated that there were no funny black women. At the time, I didn’t even want to touch the subject; there was something about being a white man explaining SNL‘s diversity problems that seemed like an unwise move. I did, however, reach out to a handful of black women working in the New York comedy scene; most declined my requests to talk about SNL, which makes sense: doing so would limit their own opportunities in an already white male-focused industry. But before I had the chance to examine SNL‘s black woman problem, SNL did it first in this week’s cold open, featuring host Kerry Washington.

In typical sketch-comedy fashion, this weekend’s cold open was a solid meta idea that fell apart at bit at the very end. Acknowledging, with tongue firmly in cheek, the elephant in the room — that the writers were going to seize the opportunity to make Kerry Washington impersonate every single famous black women in one episode, as if to fill the quota until they had another African-American woman host in a few more seasons — the sketch managed to stand out as one of the few that featured Washington as a character defined by her blackness. Rather than pepper the entire episode with black female celebrities, Washington spent the rest of the night playing anonymous sketch-comedy characters. Only in the opening sketch did they find it necessary to bring out both Michelle Obama and Oprah.

The cold open was met with mixed reviews. Many rightly pointed out that it doesn’t solve the show’s basic problem: despite poking fun at its own lack of diversity, SNL still needs to expand the faces in its cast to give a broader representation of the American culture it satirizes. But I might be one of the few critics who didn’t see the sketch as a total cop-out, because it at least found the writers acknowledging that the issue isn’t lost on them.

Perhaps that is the problem with the predominantly white, male cast and writing team: they’re aware of the issue (in light of Thompson and Jay Pharoah’s comments about the subject in the last few months, this is a given), but they’re not sure what to do with it. I realize that, as a white writer, I bring plenty of privilege into my analysis of the diversity. With that in mind, though, it seems to me there must be a more nuanced explanation than just producers’ racism or apathy for why SNL has struggled for years to hire an African-American actress.

I’m not a performer, but I spent a good chunk of my 20s in Chicago going to see improv comedy at the iO theater, The Annoyance, and The Playground; I could count on one hand how many black women I saw performing in those spaces. The comedy scenes in New York in Los Angeles are slightly more diverse, but they still feature a very small number of African-American improv comics for SNL to cull from. In the next stage, the audition process weeds out a lot of prospective cast members for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’re not ready for television, or maybe they don’t appear to work seamlessly with an ensemble cast. Whatever the reason, the show seems almost to be spiting itself by avoiding a hire that would allow it to portray (and poke fun at) the many women of color who have shaped major sectors of pop culture since Maya Rudolph left SNL six years ago. And it’s a vicious circle, because the lack of black women on television in these comedic roles only serves as a reminder to aspiring women that there is less of a place for them.

When I chatted with New York-based comedian and actress Naomi Ekperigin, she voiced her frustrations about SNL‘s historically racially selective cast. “There are so many black women shaping popular culture,” she said, “and [the SNL team] is doing a disservice to themselves by not hiring any black women — or any other people of color, for that matter.” Splitsider’s Erik Voss took that into consideration as well, but also suggested that the show just isn’t looking to diversify. “It’s time we all stopped viewing SNL as the counter-cultural bellwether that we somehow convinced ourselves it was supposed to be,” Voss wrote. “It’s a mainstream sketch comedy show with mostly-white performers, fed by mostly white comedy training grounds, reflecting a broad, mostly white comedy industry.”

Unfortunately, that’s precisely the kind of response these concerns receive from the majority of the white guys within comedy: “This is just how it is! It’ll change eventually, though!” So perhaps that’s why the tone of this weekend’s cold open pissed off a great deal of the viewers; the parade of Matthew McConaugheys and a misplaced Al Sharpton left us, as Sharpton made clear, without any lessons learned. Although maybe this whole controversy has proven one thing: it might well be that SNL isn’t ready to put an African-American woman in its cast, not the other way around.