By Eric Deggans
October 25, 2015
Republican presidential contender Donald Trump is scheduled to host Saturday Night Live on Nov. 7. It's a hosting choice that has raised questions over whether TV stations will be required to give equal time to other candidates — and raised eyebrows, because of Trump's controversial statements about Mexican immigrants.
As debates over race and SNL swirl once more, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans offers this commentary:
On one level, Saturday Night Live is a good example of how TV shows can address concerns about racial diversity.
Last year, after a growing chorus of complaints about the lack of black women on the show, the program hired three African-American women and wound up making two of them — Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones — on-camera performers. Then it promoted Michael Che, a young black comic who also briefly worked on the Daily Show, as co-anchor of its Weekend Update segment.
In some ways, SNL has never been more ethnically diverse than it is right now, with five black people regularly appearing on camera. So why is the program still making so many missteps when it comes to race?
Donald Trump's upcoming appearance hosting SNL has drawn the ire of Latino groups, who note the show is featuring someone who has made bigoted comments about Mexican immigrants at a time when there are no Latino cast members on the program. This isn't a new problem for SNL; there have only been two Latino and no Asian cast members in the show's 40-year history.
Trump's return to the SNL hosting gig comes months after NBC dumped the GOP front-runner as host of its Celebrity Apprentice series and dropped participation in his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. The reason, according to a statement from NBC in July: "derogatory statements by Trump regarding immigrants."
Before Trump's SNL hosting gig, he'll appear in a town hall Monday on NBC hosted by Today show anchor Matt Lauer. There's a sense here that NBC is mending fences with its onetime star; given his status as GOP front-runner and media magnet, ratings and relevance seemed to have, um, trumped concerns about any past "derogatory statements."
But it's Saturday Night Live that has drawn the most heat for laying out the welcome mat for Trump.
And this isn't SNL's only problem with race issues.
I was troubled by a skit a few weeks ago featuring talented mimic Jay Pharoah playing a "travel correspondent" for Weekend Update called Solomon. This character is a black man, wearing thick glasses, with a drawl, who is pushed to admit, after a few simple questions, that he didn't actually go to Venice, Italy, like the show expected. In fact, he lied to them about a lot of things in his life, and he's too dumb and uninspired to even bother keeping up the lie for long.
Put simply, Solomon was a shocking callback to the kind of lazy, shiftless and untrustworthy characters black performers routinely played decades ago. And it hasn't gotten any funnier since.
The show's most visible black female cast member, Leslie Jones, got into hot water early last year for a Weekend Update commentary where she insisted her dating life would have been better during slavery, because she is the kind of big and strong woman her master would have paired with a lot of male slaves.
The bit might have worked with a little ironic distance — if Jones was more obviously saying "this is how bad dating is for black women in the 21st century." But that wasn't her approach, and, as Jones noted in the documentary film Live from New York, she was genuinely surprised when so many black people called her out for the skit on social media. (To this critic, her sketch was, among other things, a classic example of how performers think they are shattering stereotypes with edgy comedy when they are really just reinforcing them).
And that is the real reason why SNL keeps having problems with race issues, even after hiring a lot of nonwhite staffers. It learned the wrong lesson from the earlier controversy in the first place.
Consider these words from longtime executive producer Lorne Michaels, when Morning Edition host David Greene asked him about the criticisms over the lack of black women on the show.
"I understand perception is everything, and I live in a world of perception, and if that is how we were perceived, then it had to be addressed," Michaels said. Later he said the lack of diversity "didn't come from any place of intent or meanness" and "right now, we have four African-American cast members. It wasn't a plan."
But SNL's diversity problems weren't just about perception. As it pointed out in a sketch on its own air when Kerry Washington was hosting, before its most recent hires, the only way for the show to portray anyone from Beyonce to Michelle Obama was to put a black male cast member in a dress. For a show built on topical comedy, that seemed a pretty serious weakness.
And the way Michaels solved that problem for SNL was by intentionally seeking out black female staffers and hiring three of them at once. It very much was a plan. And so, it's time for Michaels and SNL to stop pretending that their diversity issues can be solved by happenstance or that there is something wrong with directly and consciously facing the issue.
If SNL had a better track record of hiring Latino staffers, then perhaps there would be less controversy over Trump's hosting stint. Or perhaps it would have thought harder about whether it made sense to bring him on the show at all.
Because it's hard to imagine Michaels forcing star Kate McKinnon, who is gay, to perform alongside a guest host with a history of making bigoted statements about gay people. Or pushing black cast members like Kenan Thompson to yuk it up alongside a celebrity guest who had expressed bigotry about African-Americans.
You see, that's the power of having real diversity on your staff or in your show. It makes you think more intentionally about things you should have been deliberately focused on in the first place.
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