Will Saturday Night Live find any new cast members of color in the age of Obama?
When Saturday Night Live needed someone to play PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, they turned to Jersey-based superstar Queen Latifah. A sketch featuring Michelle Obama required drafting alum Maya Rudolph.
And our 44th president is famously played by Fred Armisen, an actor of Venezuelan, German and Japanese descent who stirred a minor controversy as a non-black actor playing America’s first black president.
So why did SNL’s first two hires after the departure of star Amy Poehler –- she’s on maternity leave and preparing her own show for NBC -- not include any actors of color?
It has been a constant problem for SNL, which often seeks to lampoon an increasingly diverse pop culture landscape with a cast pointedly lacking in ethnic diversity.
On Thursday, NBC announced two new hires: Abby Elliott (far left), an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe and the daughter of Chris Elliott, the former SNL and David Letterman performer; and Michaela Watkins, an alum of Los Angeles comedy group the Groundlings, where cast members Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig started.
They’ll be filling huge shoes. Poehler has been the show’s comedy spark plug since January, holding down the news satire Weekend Update and playing a pitch-perfect Hillary Clinton. Former head writer Tina Fey has also said she’s done playing Sarah Palin for a while to focus on her own blockbuster NBC show, 30 Rock.
So can Elliott or Watkins play Michelle Obama? Or Condoleezza Rice? Or Whoopi Goldberg? Or even Paula Abdul?
It doesn’t help that the show’s sole black cast member, Keenan Thompson, seems to come from founding co-star Garrett Morris’ school of impersonation, playing African0Americans such as Al Sharpton and Maya Angelou mostly by putting on funny wigs and shouting a lot.
Obama’s electoral success has forced many areas of media to change, simply by virtue of who he is and where we are as a nation. Pundits have learned new ways to talk about politics, news outlets are reconsidering who covers what, and voters have chosen to support a candidate they might normally never accept in their lives.
Here’s hoping SNL gets the memo, too. If America can find a black man who is worthy of the presidency, surely NBC can unearth a few people of color that can make the rest of us laugh about it.