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."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak was similarly uncharitable: "Fred Armisen's impersonation of President Barack Obama … [is] like a neon sign pointing to the lack of diversity in SNL's cast."
There may already be a groundswell of support building for Armisen to be replaced as Obama by … Jay Pharoah. Another such "neon sign": the absence of a black woman in the cast, a shortage distilled, more tragically than comically, in the person of longtime SNL cast member Thompson, a black male, recruited time and time again by SNL for double duty — compelled to play black females while in drag.
Like blackface, the practice of black men in drag is a tripwire for criticism; it would be laughable if not for the sad fact of those real-life black comic actresses whose services on SNL have been too rarely required. It would be funny if not for the tragedy built into the equation: the ways in which every portrayal of a black woman by a black man undercuts the identity of both.
"Putting a guy in drag — that's the oldest trick in the book," says Robert Thompson. "Nineteenth-century vaudeville was filled with it. Milton Berle used to come out in drag in Carmen Miranda outfits. Some of that is going on when you have Kenan Thompson cross-dressing, but some of it is the fact that their cast doesn't have people who can do that.
"One of the reasons African-American women aren't getting the opportunity to do these characters is that they're done by guys! If Sarah Palin had been a woman of color, she would probably have been satirized by one of the black male members of the cast," he says.
For Thompson, it's a matter of demographic reality. A show that presumes to reflect modern America "clearly means you're going to have to have people who can do a variety of different characters — and let's face it, some of those are going to be people of color. If I were looking at it from a strictly practical standpoint, I'd want a diverse cast because I'm covering a diverse nation."
Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, a pop-culture scholar and a doctoral candidate in American culture studies at Bowling Green State University, writing in March 2009, called out Saturday Night Live on "its inability or refusal to cultivate female cast members of color."
"To its credit, SNL has been the launch pad for prominent black actor-comedians such as Eddie Murphy, Damon Wayans, Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan. However, SNL has shown virtually no commitment to female comedians of color. … Given SNL's centrality in political discourse and in popular culture, its failure to embrace more racial and gender diversity perhaps does not threaten the show's relevance, but it undoubtedly undermines it."
In some ways, the show's producers have gotten the message; Pharoah joins Thompson, Armisen and Iranian-American actress Nasim Pedrad in a cast that is crowded with minorities compared with the show's past.
Expanding its palette to include more African-American women, considering them as part of the show's default identity, should be the next step. It's time that the show accurately mirrored 21st-century America.
Or, as Ellen Cleghorne once told New York magazine in a candid interview, "I feel like I'm in a really bad sci-fi movie where all the black people already got killed, and I'm next. I'm not a separatist; I'd like to be able to jam with somebody who's had the same experiences I find funny," she said — in 1995.
Michael E. Ross is a frequent contributor to The Root.