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'SNL,' NBC need to try harder to find actors of color

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 long-gone alum Maya Rudolph.

And our future 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 3after the departure of star Amy Poehler — she's on maternity leave and preparing her own show — not include any actors of color?

It's 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, an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe who also is the daughter of former SNL and David Letterman performer Chris Elliott, and Michaela Watkins from 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 even Paula Abdul?

It doesn't help that the show's sole black cast member, Keenan Thompson, seems to come from founding star Garrett Morris' school of impersonation, playing figures like Al Sharpton and Maya Angelou mostly by putting on funny wigs and shouting a lot.

Obama's electoral success has forced a lot of change in the media. Pundits have learned new ways to talk about politics and life, news outlets are reconsidering who covers what, and many voters wound up supporting a candidate they never expected.

Here's hoping SNL gets the memo, too. If America can find a black man worthy of the presidency, surely NBC can unearth a few people of color to make us all laugh about it.

'SNL,' NBC need to try harder to find actors of color 11/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 1:10am]
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