Why Kenan Thompson’s Career Is Proof He Is Wrong About Black Comediennes On “SNL”
Kenan Thompson, one of two black performers on Saturday Night Live‘s current cast, shares his thoughts on why black comediennes (black women comics) can’t seem to find work at his job. According to TV Guide:
“Instead of blaming showrunner Lorne Michaels or the series, which currently only employs three actors of color out of 16 cast members (Thompson, Pharaoh and the Iranian Nasim Pedrad), Thompson blames the lack of quality black female comedians. ‘It’s just a tough part of the business,’ Thompson says. ‘Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.'”
Honestly, I think that Thompson’s mere existence on the show probably is the best evidence as to why this is not a matter of an inability to find “ready” black comediennes. Here’s what I mean:
All snark aside, SNL hasn’t been “Must See TV”-funny since, I would estimate, the years of Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan and Cheri Oteri. Now I know that some may argue that the Tina Fey years were thoroughly entertaining or that the show hasn’t been seriously funny since way back in season eight when Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, who were both major influences on the writing team, dominated the stage. But I think we all can agree that the comedy series doesn’t have the same spark it once had. Outside of topical political and pop culture events, which for the most part are easy targets to spoof, and some musical guests and famous hosts, who serve as great draws for viewers, the show has comically struggled as of late to give us memorable signature characters and skits of its own.
I wouldn’t say that Thompson isn’t a funny guy; The Steve Harvey Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and White People Problems are probably two of my favorites when it comes to his sketches. However, in the decade that he has been a cast member, Thompson has yet to develop a signature character, which connects with viewers. It’s a shame because most of the SNL greats had one: Dana Carvey had the Church Lady; Tim Meadows had the Ladies Man; and even Molly Shannon (known for Mary Katherine Gallagher) and Ana Gasteyer scored big with their “Delicious Dish/Schweddy Balls” NPR-spoof. Who is Thompson most notable for? Pretty much, DeAndre Cole and What’s Up With That? While it was probably entertaining the first time it was done, it certainly doesn’t read into a spin-off movie or television show material.
Thompson’s point about the competitiveness of the audition process is not without merit though. Saturday Night Live is a weekly series performed live, therefore, the turnaround time for brainstorming, writing and then producing each sketch is probably ridiculously short. And according to this interview in the New York Times about the 39th season changes (including several new hires – none of which were black women), SNL head cheese Lorne Michaels took pride in his process, which takes place in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and says he is not just interested in commercially funny people, but rather a total package. According to the article:
“’You can’t be famous before you’re famous,’ he said. ‘It’s one thing to be on a stage in Chicago or L.A.; it’s another thing to be standing in 8H,’ he said of the show’s studio. ‘It’s like standing in Yankee Stadium. They can all play baseball, but this is something different. And the weight of all that was just more palpable to me this summer, more than ever before.’ (Mr. Michaels is also supervising the ascension of Mr. Fallon to “The Tonight Show” this season, another job as executive producer.)”
But it is hard to understand exactly what Michaels, as well as the other decision makers, define as Yankee Stadium caliber when the entire joke around Thompson’s most notable character is that he can play a Jheri Curl wearing, church suit rocking, lisp-having talk show host, who likes to sing the same chorus of “What’s Up With That” every time his “guest” tries to talk. I mean, if this is a spoof of a BET-like show, make sure it’s something familiar and relatable to the actual thing you are likely to see on BET. Maybe it’s not Thompson, maybe it’s the writers (according to SNL‘s website, Thompson is not listed as a writer on the show) who solely come up with the material for him to play. And maybe it’s the directors who tell him to give them more lisps and bugged-out eyes. Would it be fair to put the blame on Thompson’s talent as a comedian if a concept itself lacks a degree of wit and cleverness? Or do we place the blame squarely at the feet of those decision makers, whose ideas of Yankee Stadium-level comedy is the same tired ol’ stereotypical cheap laughs?
You have to wonder why Thompson didn’t take the opportunity he had with this platform given in the interview with TV Guide to co-sign co-star Jay Pharoah’s recent comments about his strong desire to see a black female cast member on Saturday Night Live. Pharoah even went as far as to name a comedienne he had in mind as a perfect fit for the cast without bad mouthing his employer in the process. You would think that a little diversity by way of a black woman might be aggressively pushed by Thompson since I’m sure he does not desire to do the black man in drag thing anymore.
Maybe it’s a matter of self-preservation? After all, according to Hollywood physics (with a side of geometry), no more than two black people can exist on the same plane without the word imploding. Add another popular black person to the cast – even if she is female – and likely Brother Thompson might be asking “what’s up with that?” if he gets a pink slip. See? Who says black women aren’t funny?