A few weeks ago, Saturday Night Live directly responded to the widespread criticism that the show has a problem with diversity in a cold open featuring Kerry Washington who, as a black woman, was slated to play every single black female character on the episode. I thought it was a pretty good sketch, with its meta commentary, although it infuriated some people who felt that the joke was on them rather than SNL‘s whitewashed cast and crew. Apparently, that was enough of a statement for Lorne Michaels and his show, as the remaining four hosts for the year are all white guys, not to mention that the upcoming musical guests (other than this week’s, HAIM) are overwhelmingly white guys. Is this perhaps indicative of Michaels’ growing limitations as a producer? Is he only able to see the world through the lens of an older white guy?
This week’s host is adorable micro-human Josh Hutcherson, who’s on his Catching Fire promotional tour, and the three guys slated to finish out the year are all SNL favorites: Paul Rudd, John Goodman, and Jimmy Fallon, who are paired with One Direction, Kings of Leon, and Justin Timberlake, respectively. The Wrap points out the obvious here: “All told, that adds up to 12-and-a-half white men gracing the famed stage in December. No women, no people of color — save 1D member Zayn Malik, who is half Pakistani.”
While the musical guests will certainly pull in a teenage audience (well, possibly not Kings of Leon, unless teenage girls are into scruffy, bedenimed, faux-blues-rock bands), it seems like Michaels is still targeting the most convenient demographic: white people. It’s almost as if he’s not really trying, which is not just pretty lazy, but also suggests that Lorne Michaels may no longer be the guy who should be running the show.
One would imagine that at a moment when people of color especially are gaining more ground and fame, SNL would take greater steps to reflect the culture at large. After all, it serves a purpose: satirizing American culture, which isn’t as Caucasian as SNL‘s cast makes it look. But it also stands to reason that a show run by a 69-year-old white guy is not going to be the edgy, hard-hitting satirical program it was in the 1970s, when that guy was in his 30s. This is the same show that proved its cultural importance with the controversial “Word Association” sketch featuring brash comedian Richard Pryor. “Richard’s appearance lifted ‘Saturday Night’ out of the programming ghetto and established it as a cultural phenomenon,” David Henry and Joe Henry write in their book, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. It’s hard to imagine such a politically and racially charged sketch making it to air today.
Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoy SNL. I’m not the kind of person who laments that “it used to be funny,” because it is, after all, a sketch comedy variety series. The strength of each episode depends on the chemistry between the host and the cast members, and the host’s comfort with performing to the in-house audience as well as the one watching the show as it airs. But it’s clear that SNL is going through a midlife crisis. It’s lost a bit of its edge, and, if the show continues to avoid diversifying its cast and hosts and musical guests, it’ll rapidly lose cultural relevance. If Lorne Michaels is as uninterested in growing his audience by casting a more diverse group of people as his show currently reflects, perhaps it’s time for someone with a fresher eye to step in and revive SNL‘s status as a variety program that actually represents the broader culture it skewers.