Last night Saturday Night Live alum Ellen Cleghorne returned to 30 Rock for the show’s 40th Anniversary Special and took part in one of the night’s biggest highlights: a faux question and answer with Jerry Seinfeld and members of the starry audience. The sketch allowed Cleghorne to pose the question, “Why aren’t there more black women?”
Only the second black female cast member cast on the show, Cleghorne has all but disappeared from the spotlight since the early aughts until popping up in the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups 2 in 2013.
VH1 chatted with the funny lady about SNL’s diversity problem, working with Lorne Michaels, and that infamous Family Guy joke.
What was it like to return to Saturday Night Live last night? What was the energy like in that room?
Ellen Cleghorne: It was magical. I had my daughter with me and she articulated it very well: It was like a cleansing, or a rite of passage. When you leave the liminal stages, you move on but you remember that everything is in preparation for something else.
Who were you most excited to see or meet?
I have to be honest with you, the person I really, really wanted to see was Eddie Murphy — because I’ve always had a crush on Eddie Murphy. [Laughs.] My daughter said she used to think that he was her father because I used to play Eddie Murphy tapes and records her whole life. I was just totally in love with him and what he did.
Did you get the chance to speak with him at all?
A little bit, but I was like a star stalker.
How did you get involved in the “Audience Q&A” sketch with Seinfeld?
They called and asked me if I wanted to be in a sketch and I went to the rehearsal. [SNL producers] Michael Shoemaker and Lindsay Shookus were instrumental in involving me. Michael Shoemaker has always been a friend and he explained to me what the tone should be, so it was like old times and I really really appreciated it. Then I met the writer of the sketch, John Mulaney. What a talent! I always liked him on Comedy Central and Mulaney. I had a good time!
People are often wondering, what happened to Ellen Cleghorne? You took a break before reappearing in Grown Ups 2. You have fans on the hunt for you — where have you been?
That’s a beautiful thing. I’m so flattered. I know people have spoken [about me] but I thought that was just my neighbors and crazy people. For the last seven years I have been in graduate school at NYU. My PhD study is in performance studies, and what it has come to be is a manifesto for a black women comedy art movement. What it says is, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. Like Jerry [Seinfeld] was saying in the sketch, “I’m sorry that our show didn’t cure the ills of society.” I understand that. 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.
Were you aware of the controversy when SNL was called out for not having a black female cast after Maya Rudolph departed in 2007?
Of course, I was aware.
Did you have an opportunity to impart any wisdom on any of the younger comedians on SNL last night, specifically newbies Sasheer Zamata orLeslie Jones?
I said hello, I kissed them, and I told them good job and that I was proud of them. They don’t need me to lecture them — that’s not my place. I saw Whoopi [Goldberg] there so it was just a great thing to be a black woman, and a black woman in comedy. I saw Maya [Rudolph] and we kissed. Did I lecture them? No. They know what it’s like to be a black woman in comedy. I just wanted to say good job.
You’ve found a new life in academia, but are you open to returning to the film and TV world if the right project came along?
I totally would! You know my daughter just graduated from dental school and we have a lot of bills to pay — they don’t make money yet. [Laughs.]
There’s a joke on Family Guy (from “Stu and Stewie’s Excellent Adventure”) where Stewie asks in the future if they ever found a “suitable vehicle for Ellen Cleghorne.” Are you aware that you have somewhat of a cult following?
I saw that Family Guy thing and then I also saw that they said I called and screamed to them about having that on there? I never did such a thing. I did no such thing. I heard about it but I was in graduate school and I wasn’t googling my name. [Laughs.]
Is there anything lined up for you right now besides finishing your PhD? Anything we can look out for?
I don’t have anything coming up but I do want to say this: My hat is off to Lorne Michaels and all the writers and producers of Saturday Night Live. That man is amazing, and whatever he’s doing, I would like to take a class in that because he has done so much for the comedy world, black and white. If I was going to do anything next I would first ask him if he had something I could do with him because he seems to know what he’s doing — everything from 30 Rock to Parks & Recreation.
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