When Saturday Night Live woke from its strike coma Saturday night, the first question viewers had for it was, Where the hell are you going to find a black guy to play Barack Obama. Always obliging, SNL answered in the cold open: Who needs a black guy when you've got a Latino and a bucket of face paint?
Back before the WGA strike ripped primary season from Lorne Michaels' bosom, rumors circulated in New York's comedy scene that the SNL producer was auditioning black performers with Obama in mind. But on Sept. 29, the season premiered with only two black cast members -- for those keeping score at home, that's one more than it began 11 of its 33 seasons with and two more than in five seasons. Michaels told the New York Post last week that those auditions were still ongoing. But instead of adding a black cast member during the strike break, the show lost one. Maya Rudolph did not return, leaving Keenan Thompson in the role of token black cast member. (Thompson is also the show's token fat cast member, making him an unlikely Obama.)
Apparently unable to find one black comedian able to do an impression of the frontrunner for Most Important Black Person of the 21st Century, Michaels turned to cast member Fred Armisen, who is of Japanese and Venezuelan descent. If you've seen Billy Crystal doing Sammy Davis Jr. on the show in the '80s, it was like that but less funny.
Screwing black folks is an SNL tradition, from putting Garret Morris in drag, to pissing off Eddie Murphy, to letting Chris Rock ride the bench. Tracy Morgan coined the phrase "the other black guy" -- referring to himself and his recurring character, "the guy who smiles real big at the goodnights" -- in 1997. In his 23rd episode.
Compare that to the experience of Casey Wilson, a 27-year old featured player who appeared in most of the show's sketches in her SNL debut last night. Morgan happens to be white, but the more likely reason she logged more screen time than several cast members (Thompson, in his fifth year with the show, had small parts in three sketches) is her gender. Host Tina Fey is the most influential woman in comedy today, and was vocal about wanting to bring a stronger female voice to SNL during her time there as head writer. Last night's episode included sketches about PMS, Sex and the City clones and a game show titled "What's that Bitch Talking About?"
But in trying to play to Fey's strengths, Michaels and the writing staff also ground salt into the wound they opened when they put Armisen in black-face. Black people weren't just absent from last night's episode -- they were actively picked on. In "What's That Bitch Talking About?" Thompson's only job was to deliver the show's titular catch phrase in a stereotypically black and sassy way. The message: Black men have no idea what crazy white bitches are talking about, and they're not afraid to say so. Minutes later, Fey made her inevitable return to the "Weekend Update" desk to deliver a pro-Hillary Clinton monologue that was more angry than funny. After scolding America for souring on Clinton because she's perceived as a bitch, Fey informed the audience that "bitches get stuff done," then ended the segment by shouting "bitch is the new black!"
Perhaps. But if bitch really is the new black does that mean we can look forward to the day when a talented, under-appreciated female comic sits at the "Update" desk, looks into the camera and declares herself "The other white chick"?