Jay Pharoah, and Beyond, at SNL

With a dearth of minority writers on Saturday Night Live, and an absence of black women, the young comic's addition to this iconic fixture of late-night TV is a necessarily wait-and-see thing.


When the Virginia comedian Jared "Jay Pharoah" Farrow made his debut on NBC's long-running Saturday Night Live last week, he joined the cast of broadcast TV's most enduring comedy franchise. Now in its 36th season, SNL is as much a brand as it is a TV show, one that has helped break in any number of top-shelf stars.

The young comic, not yet 22 years old, jumped right into the mix, wearing the different identity hats that define the show's repertory format. He appeared as box-office superstar Will Smith on the "Weekend Update" news segment and as Chris Tucker in a sendup of a sequel to the new action film The Expendables.

Pharoah's name has been all over the Internet in recent weeks, easily found appended in a Google search of the phrase "new black guy." It's both tantalizingly viral evidence of buzz and an impersonal identification that underscores the relative rarity of black actors on the show. Pharoah also joins a show with a contentious history vis-à-vis black comedic talents. With a dearth of minority writers on SNL, and an absence of black women, his addition to this iconic fixture of late-night TV is a necessarily wait-and-see thing.

"We'll have to see how much they use him," says Robert Thompson, a leading professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. "SNL has a tradition of underusing their African-American characters. Garrett Morris [the show's charter black cast member, from 1975 to 1980] was a good example of that, and even Chris Rock complained about it."

Starting with the show's debut in October 1975, the history of black players on SNL reflects a brisk turnover, something of a revolving door that revolves at varying speeds, ushering comedians of color in and out with maddening irregularity. Morris was followed by Eddie Murphy, who starred on the show from 1980 to 1984.

Damon Wayans appeared on SNL in 1985 but was dismissed in 1986. Rock signed on in 1990 and was joined by Tim Meadows in 1991. Rock exited in 1993; Meadows (the longest distance runner) left in 2000. Tracy Morgan joined the cast in 1996, leaving in 2003. Morgan was replaced that year by Kenan Thompson, who's still in the cast, and Finesse Mitchell (who lasted until 2006).

Maya Rudolph, the fourth black actress in SNL's history, joined the company in 2000, following two who weren't around long enough to knock back a cup of coffee (Yvonne Hudson, from 1980 to 1981, and Danitra Vance, the first black female member of the regular SNL repertory, from 1985 to 1986). Ellen Cleghorne, one of the more promising comedians, stayed from 1991 to 1995. Rudolph has made occasional appearances since leaving in 2007 (including last week) to make movies and raise a family.

Saturday Night Live has clearly had black comedians who managed to stay; the show has lately come under fire for the black comedian the producers can't seem to find: an African American to portray the top African American in the White House.

SNL has long been a lightning rod for its decision to cast mixed-race comedian Fred Armisen as President Obama. The Obama portrayal by Armisen, who is reportedly of Japanese, German and Venezuelan ancestry, has gotten mixed reviews. But for many viewers, it's been Armisen's need to darken his features -- in the corrosive "blackface" tradition -- that's the bigger problem.

Maureen Ryan, writing in The Chicago Tribune, was blunt about it: "Call me crazy, but shouldn't Saturday Night Live's fictional Sen. Barack Obama be played by an African American? … I find SNL's choice inexplicable. Obama's candidacy gives us solid proof of the progress that African Americans have made in this country. I guess SNL still has further to go on that front."