Black SNL Cast Members Through the Years

Sasheer Zamata has joined Jay Pharoah, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy in the pantheon of black alums of Saturday Night Live. The Root looks back at black cast members of the late-night comedy sketch show.

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  • Jay Pharoah

    Jay Pharoah

    2010-present

    In his debut episode of SNL, Jared “Jay Pharoah” Farrow showed that he can nail the kind of celebrity impressions that are a staple of every cast member’s repertoire, including a credible sendup of box-office king Will Smith. Time will tell if the young comedian enjoys the kind of meteoric success had by Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, or if he joins the ranks of Yvonne Hudson and Jerry Minor in post-SNL relative obscurity.

    Captions by Erin E. Evans

  • Kenan Thompson

    Kenan Thompson

    2003-present

    His signature characters were Virginiaca Hastings, a loudmouthed shopper who flirts with sales clerks; Lorenzo McIntosh, an ex-convict/movie buff hired to scare juvenile delinquents in a prison program; and Barbara Birmingham, a belt-wielding, cigarette-smoking nanny — a new-millennium baby’s worst nightmare. Thompson (shown to the left of Reba McEntire) built up his comedic skills in the ’90s on Nickelodeon’s All That and Kenan & Kel. This season, he and Jay Pharoah are the two African-American cast members.

  • Maya Rudolph

    Maya Rudolph

    2000-2007

    Rudolph’s an ace in the hole when it comes to impersonations, and she’s probably most remembered for her portrayal of Donatella Versace (shown here to the left of Rudolph). Of course, Rudolph, the daughter of Minnie Riperton, can sing, too. She portrayed Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé. And with the change of a wig, she could be white, black, Asian or Latina. In addition to the occasional SNL appearance, you can see her these days in films such as Away We Go and Grown Ups.

  • Finesse Mitchell

    Finesse Mitchell

    2003-2006

    Although Mitchell was promoted from feature player to cast member in 2005, his screen time was heavily reduced. Then, in 2006, he was dropped from the show. Watch as he and Kenan Thompson refuse to do their jobs on Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday.

  • Dean Edwards

    Dean Edwards

    2001-2003

    Edwards had a knack for impressions, from Michael Jackson to Don Cheadle, from Redman to Billy Ocean. But as a featured performer, he didn’t get much time to show his talents on-screen. He left the show after only two seasons. Catch a peek at some of his stand-up comedy.

  • Tracy Morgan

    Tracy Morgan

    1996-2003

    This funny man can deliver, whether impersonating Mike Tyson or Tito Jackson. Morgan, who played Hustle Man on Fox’s Martin, sure knows how to pitch you a deal. Watch his commercial for Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor. Morgan, who now stars on NBC’s 30 Rock, recently released his autobiography, I Am the New Black.

  • Jerry Minor

    Jerry Minor

    2000-2001

    Minor was on the show for only one season before getting the boot. He did impressions of Cuba Gooding Jr., Al Sharpton and Jimi Hendrix. His role was so, err, minor that his SNL online presence has been relegated to a bunch of transcripts floating around the Web. Since the show, he’s appeared in the HBO sketch-comedy series Funny or Die Presents … and is a co-star in Delocated, a new series on the Adult Swim network.

  • Tim Meadows

    Tim Meadows

    1991-2000

    He did impressions of several characters, including Oprah Winfrey and Erykah Badu. But when he tired of portraying celebrities, he created Leon “The Ladies Man” Phelps, a not-so-smooth radio talk-show host. This role was eventually parlayed into a feature-length film. Until Darrell Hammond surpassed him in 2005, Meadows was the longest-running SNL cast member.

  • Ellen Cleghorne

    Ellen Cleghorne

    1991-1995

    In most of the episodes with Cleghorne (shown here with Ellen DeGeneres) that can be found online, she’s singing in the background or has a quick one-liner. Watch as she and Chris Rock, an old married couple, bicker over closing up their convenience store. After leaving SNL, she briefly starred in her own sitcom, Cleghorne!

  • Chris Rock

    Chris Rock

    1990-1993

    The legendary funnyman joined the cast in 1990, which also featured Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Rob Schneider and David Spade; together they formed the “Bad Boys of SNL.” It wasn’t necessarily the best format for his razor-sharp comedic insights; in this clip, it’s easy to see he was reading a teleprompter to help a white person survive the Apollo. Maybe you’d rather watch him peddle Coldcock — malt liquor so hard, it’ll knock you right out.

  • Damon Wayans

    Damon Wayans

    1985-1986

    Determined to find his moment in the spotlight, Wayans ad-libbed a few lines in an episode where he was to play a cop. Instead of giving a straight one-liner, he went on and on as a flamboyant gay cop and was promptly fired. Perhaps it was the greatest thing for the young comic, who would go on to star in his own sketch comedy show, In Living Color, in 1990 with his brother, Keenen.

  • Danitra Vance

    Danitra Vance

    1985-1986

    Vance (shown here with Ray Charles) was the first African-American woman to become an SNL repertory cast member. She had two recurring roles on the show, one of which was “That Black Girl,” a spoof of That Girl, featuring Marlo Thomas. But watch a short clip of an episode hosted by Oprah Winfrey, in which Vance gives a dead-on performance as Miss Celie.

  • Eddie Murphy

    Eddie Murphy

    1980-1984

    Before he climbed into the stratosphere of movie stardom, Murphy was SNL‘s second African-American male cast member. He played a grown-up Buckwheat and Little Richard Simmons, a spirited workout instructor, and did several impressions of Stevie Wonder. As Gumby, he coined one of the greatest catchphrases in SNL history: “I’m Gumby, dammit!

  • Yvonne Hudson

    Yvonne Hudson

    1980-1981

    Hudson (shown to the right of Garrett Morris) was the first black woman featured on SNL (not to be confused with the first black woman cast member, Danitra Vance). Watch her in a short clip with Garrett Morris as the Conklins, in a sketch entitled “Bad Clams.”

  • Garrett Morris

    Garrett Morris

    1975-1980

    Morris was a part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, playing characters such as Chico Escuela, a Dominican baseball player who could barely speak English. Watch this short clip of him interviewing former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond about whites versus blacks on IQ tests. Although Morris, as the only African-American character on the first season, broke the mold, his roles also set the precedent for many of SNL‘s minority characters to be pigeonholed into stereotypical roles.

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