The New York Times broke the story last night that Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update will have a new co-anchor for the show’s 40th season: Michael Che, the New York-based comic who worked on the SNL writing staff for a year and will be returning to 30 Rock after a short stint as a Daily Show correspondent. The hire is both a natural fit and a significant step forward for the long-running segment; Che’s worked closely with co-anchor Colin Jost in Jost’s capacity as co-head writer, and he’ll also be the first black cast member to man the Weekend Update desk.
The first new(ish) face on SNL after Brooks Whelan, Noel Wells, and John Milhiser were fired after just a season on air, Che has all the makings of an excellent Update anchor. His standup act is hysterical, earning him a Comedy Central half-hour special earlier this year; he’s managed to make his mark on The Daily Show, which has a satirical news schtick that owes a lot to Update’s, through segments like this one on reporting in Ferguson; and his history with Jost means the two already have a dynamic, though whether it’ll measure up to Tina and Amy’s remains to be seen.
That hasn’t stopped many of the stories announcing Che’s appointment from focusing on the loss of Cecily Strong. “A New Cast Member Will Replace Cecily Strong on Weekend Update” (from Gawker, which goes on to say Strong’s been “demoted”); “‘SNL’ Replaces Cecily Strong as ‘Weekend Update’ Anchor” (Rolling Stone); “Cecily Strong Out as ‘Weekend Update’ Co-Anchor on ‘SNL,’ Replaced by Michael Che” (Washington Post).
There are a few problems with this reading of Lorne Michaels’ decision. The emphasis on Strong is a bit of a disservice to Che, of course — both his talent and the significance of his status as the segment’s first-ever black co-anchor. Less than a year ago, after all, it took nothing less than the pent-up rage of thousands and a fantastically dumb sound bite from Kenan Thompson to get Michaels to bring on Sasheer Zamata, SNL’s first black female cast member in over half a decade. Che is talented, and when he takes his seat behind the desk, it’ll be a landmark moment in SNL‘s four-decade history.
The “Cecily got snubbed” spin on things is also a disservice to Strong herself, though. As Michaels points out in his interview with the Times, it’s not like she’s getting fired, or even pushed aside. Instead, she’s now free to spend less time reading one-liners as Cecily Strong, Weekend Update anchor, and more time in sketches as characters like Mayor Bloomberg’s overzealous sign language interpreter, the SNL version of Rachel Maddow, or even her previous Weekend Update gig, the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party.
Weekend Update may be a high-profile gig, but giving it to Strong was arguably under-utilizing one of SNL‘s most gifted comic actresses. On his popular blog Pop Culture Brain, Alex Rabinowitz put it more strongly: “Imagine if Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig did Update. She was being beyond wasted behind the desk.” And Strong wasn’t just restricted to the character of blazer-clad, straitlaced Weekend Update host; she was also handed the difficult task of setting up a rapport with Seth Meyers as he was on his way out, then switching over to Colin Jost. No wonder, as Michaels delicately phrased it, the segment “struggled to find an identity” in Season 39.
Taking Strong off the Weekend Update desk isn’t a demotion; according to Michaels, Strong even asked for more screen time in other sketches. It’s possible that’s just PR spin, of course, but it’s understandable why Strong might want more roles like the ex-porn star spokeslady for “Saboski Crystals” and “Herman’s Handbags,” particularly when someone like Che is available to take her place at Jost’s side. Michael Che on Weekend Update isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s a savvy move for SNL‘s 40th year, and a step up for both Strong and her successor.