Saturday Night Live was comedy’s answer to rock n’ roll in the 1970s. While the show remains the most successful of its kind for over 40 years, criticism of its treatment of women and people of color has been rampant in comedy nerd circles for years.
For every Tina Fey who claims there was no “institutional sexism” during her tenure on the series there have been vocal critics such as Jane Curtin, Janeane Garafalo, and Julia Louis Dreyfus who have said the treatment of women was less than kind. Pair that misogyny with the stereotypical and/or few roles available for people of color and the forecast for Black female comics is bleak at Studio 8H.
While the long-running sketch show is lauded as a comedy and television institution it has struggled to make progress and diversify over the years and give Black female comedians a proper platform despite the diversity of politics and popular culture. Creator Lorne Michaels has combat a lot of the criticism saying, “We are now perceived as a national institution [but] we are not taxpayer-funded.”
A better understanding of SNL’s relationship with Black women begs a critical dive into the series chronic race and gender problem.
Saturday Night Live debuts on October 11, 1975.Getty Images
Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975 with a cast that featured three white men, three white women, and one Black man. The original Not Ready For Primetime Players were Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, and Gilda Radner.
Reflecting on her time on SNL to Oprah Winfrey in 2011, Curtin criticized the show’s treatment of women, “[The women writers] were working against John [Belushi,] who said women are just fundamentally not funny. You’d go to a table read and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice. He would whisper it. He felt it was his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women.”
SNL casts its first Black woman, Yvonne Hudson, in 1980.Embedded from player.vimeo.com.
After five seasons, SNL creator Lorne Michaels took a hiatus from the sketch show and was replaced with producer Jean Doumanian who hired Yvonne Hudson as the first black female cast member, credited as a “featured player,” during season six. This was also Eddie Murphy’s first season. Hudson was given little airtime and was fired with the majority of the cast when Dick Ebersol was brought in to replace Doumainian. She continued to make uncredited appearances in minor roles through 1984 but has no other film or television credits since and has no internet presence.
Danitra Vance becomes the first Black woman to be a repertory player in 1984.
Ebersol left Saturday Night Live in 1985 and Michaels returned to helm the series in season 11. He hired an entirely new cast that featured more established but young names including Joan Cusack, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, as well as newcomers Damon Wayans, SNL’s first openly gay comedian Terry Sweeny, and Danitra Vance.
Vance, a classically trained actress and character comedian, made history as SNL’s first Black lesbian repertory player. Her style was often compared to Whoopi Goldberg’s which she rejected, saying, “The comparison makes it seem as if there can only be one of us at a time.”
Vance brought an arsenal of characters to SNL such as teen mom Cabrini Green Jackson and a send-up of the Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl called “That Black Girl,” but never totally found her footing at Studio 8H. She was fired, along with most of the cast at the end of season 11. Vance went on to have an acclaimed theatre career before passing away from breast cancer in 1994.
In an interview with her family, after her passing, they alleged that Vance was disappointed by her time on SNL. “She resented routinely being cast as a maid or a prostitute. More than anything, she wanted her work to communicate the inner lives of black women, real black women, not stereotypes.”
In the SNL oral history Live From New York, writer Al Franken spoke of Vance’s trouble on the show, “I liked Danitra Vance very much but it turned out that she was dyslexic and couldn’t read cue cards on the air. I remember her agent or manager coming to us and saying, ’You wrote for Eddie Murphy, why aren’t you writing for her?” And I just said, “Eddie Murphy’s Eddie Murphy and Danitra’s Danitra. Just because they’re black doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.'”
Ellen Cleghorne joins Saturday Night Live in 1991.Getty Images
Ellen Cleghorne, PhD, joined SNL in its 17th season. She tells VH1 that the historical context of her being only the second Black female full-time cast member was lost on her at the time. “It was a big opportunity but nobody was acting like it was a big opportunity, not anybody in my home, not anybody on the street. No respect, no cred [came] from it. They thought it wasn’t that big of a deal, [and] I was like, ’Damn, alright.’ I thought it was a big deal but I couldn’t get anybody on that bus for me. Even today, they act like it’s not a big deal, like if I go in for an audition, the nasty things that people say about SNL? I’m like, ’Whoa, they really don’t like that place.'” Cleghorne thinks critics of the show are just “haters.”
Her co-star Jay Mohr wrote in his book Gasping for Airtime that Cleghorne was unhappy on the show but she calls those allegations untrue and remembers her time on SNL as collaborative with Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Chris Rock. Cleghorne left the show after four seasons for her own sitcom Cleghorne!. The eponymous show was canceled after one season and she went on to receive her doctorate from New York University.
Vanessa Middleton becomes the first Black female writer at Saturday Night Live in 1992.
— Vanessa Middleton (@vanmid) November 7, 2013
Middleton came to Lorne Michaels’ attention while working on syndicated sketch series The Apollo Comedy Hour and was hired as the series first Black woman writer for season 18. Middleton tells VH1 that, “SNL was notoriously difficult back in that day. I have to admit, I didn’t see it as based in race and gender. It was difficult, but I don’t credit any of those difficulties at that time [to race and gender].” Middleton says that she and Cleghorne overlapped for her one season but that the show wasn’t really setup for them to work closely together, “At that point, it was just a fight to get whatever you could get on the air however you could get stuff on the air. In some instances maybe you divide and conquer.”
Middleton left SNL after only one season but continued to write for TV on Girlfriends, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, and Cosby. “Lorne gave me a shot, one of the things that tends to happen when you’re doing [sitcoms,] they feel like, if we don’t have a Black person on screen, there’s no reason for us to have a Black writer in the writers room.” Currently Middleton is developing a sketch series for Black women.
Maya Rudolph joins the cast in 2000.Getty Images
Maya Rudolph, the mixed-race daughter of late singer Minnie Riperton, joined the SNL cast at the end of 25th season, a time that saw Fey become the first ever woman head writer at the show. Rudolph became a versatile player that portrayed everyone from Oprah Winfrey and Whitney Houston to Donatella Versace, Barbra Streisand, and Lucy Liu. Slate’s Tanner Colby suggests that Rudolph’s success at SNL, in addition to some of her male counterparts (Kenan Thompson, Tim Meadows), is because they “knew how to navigate the terrain of white America long before they mailed in their [SNL] audition tape.” Rudolph remained with the show through season 33.
Reflecting on SNL’s diversity issues in Live From New York, Rudolph said, “I never, never thought of myself on the show as a black female, a black performer, a black cast member, and I don’t identify myself that way.”
Social Media calls out Saturday Night Live for not having a Black female cast member.
With Barack Obama in office, pop culture critics began to notice that the series relied on Rudolph to make a cameo in order to have First Lady Michelle Obama represented and that all other Black female characters were relegated to Kenan Thomspon in drag.
When six new cast members were hired in 2013 and none of them were Black women, the backlash got real. Fanning the fire, Thompson told TV Guide he would no longer portray women on the sketch series. He also said the reason for the dearth of Black comediennes was because they couldn’t find any that were “ready” for SNL during auditions. Thompson’s then-co-star Jay Pharaoh told The Grio, “[SNL producers] need to pay attention,” in response to the criticism.
A very public nationwide casting search began to find the next Black female cast member.
Kerry Washington hosts Saturday Night Live amidst criticism.
At the height of the diversity criticism, Scandal star Washington hosted SNL in season 39. The cold-open sketch addressed the criticism with Washington being asked to play Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyoncé. The meta-sketch ended with an Al Sharpton cameo and a scroll promising that SNL would remedy the situation very soon. Comedy website Splitsider applauded the sketch, saying it was the first time SNL had ever parodied itself.
In Live From New York, Washington remembers the conversation around whether or not to cover the topic, “I remember there was back and forth about do we address it or do we not address it, and I was like, “Of course we address it!” We don’t not address it, we go in and do it, and it took a while to figure out exactly the right way to do it.”
SNL hires Sasheer Zamata as a cast member, as well as two Black female writers.Getty Images
Following the controversy, Saturday Night Live added Sasheer Zamata to the cast for season 39. They also hired writers Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes.
In Live From New York Zamata said, “I just kind of thank God [Kenan and Jay] said something, because that start[ed] this whole search for a Black girl.” Producer Lindsay Shookus also remembers that she had seen Zamata perform prior to her casting and thought she had a “beautiful look” and was “really interesting.”
The show has struggled to make use of Zamata unless she is doing a celebrity impersonation. Still a current cast member, she opened up about pursuing more standup because of the hardships at SNL in an interview with The Daily Beast in 2017. “There are so many ways to feel lackluster but there are also so many ways to feel great. I didn’t have a lot on [one] show, but I met Solange, and I was like, that’s all I need.”
Leslie Jones becomes a breakout star despite backlash about her slavery jokes.
Jones’ Weekend Update appearance talking about slavery was met with major backlash. Critics found the comedian’s piece highly offensive but Jones defended her comedy and her unique perspective.
Jones was promoted from writer to Featured Player and then repertory player. She remains on the show and has found mainstream success in films like Ghostbusters.
SNL hires Natasha Rothwell as a writer for season 40.
LaKendra Tookes would not return for season 40 but Natasha Rothwell joined the writer’s room for season 40. She would stay for only one season before leaving to write and act in HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s The Characters.
Saturday Night Live parodies their diversity issue on the 40th Anniversary.
In a faux Q&A sketch on SNL 40, Jerry Seinfeld took questions from the audience, landing on former cast member Ellen Cleghorne asking, “Why aren’t there more black women…in general.” Seinfeld apologized to her for not “do[ing] all [they] could to cure society’s ills.” Some critics did not find the exchange funny.
Cleghorne opened up about the sketch with VH1 in 2014, “Black women need to take responsibility for forming and creating a space for our own humor narratives — a revolution. I’m not saying people should ignore authority, but let’s take a chance and make more funny things. [Let’s make] a concerted effort as Black women from a Black woman’s perspective.”
VH1 hosted a Black Women In Comedy event featuring SNL’s Cleghorne alongside some of today’s brightest comics. Watch their discussion in the panel below.