In the penultimate episode of its 35th season, Saturday Night Live featured its oldest guest host ever, Betty White. Did SNL’s unexpected choice have to do with the fact that White’s career has been on a bit of an uptick lately after a scene stealing role in The Proposal, an upcoming sitcom and a very funny Super Bowl Ad? No, SNL's powers that be gave into the force known as Facebook and for their troubles, they garnered their highest ratings in almost two years.
So why can't they invest in creative casting more often? The successful Facebook campaign would suggest that audiences are open minded and willing to watch more than the latest heartthrob or pinup. Starting with the regulars, the show is the finest selection of vanilla and cream ever televised: six white guys (five, if you count Fred Armisen as multiracial), one woefully underused black man (Kenan Thompson) and one annoyingly (albeit talented) overexposed white woman (Kristen Wiig). With such a dearth of diversity, is it any wonder that Armisen (in makeup) is the go to guy for impersonations of black men (President Obama, NY Gov. David Paterson) or that Thompson is reduced to drag queen duties to get screen time?
The problem starts at the head, long time executive producer, Lorne Michaels, and trickles down to its fingers, the 27-member writing staff which is (shock! shock!) predominately white and male. I'm not saying that SNL needs to institute an affirmative action program; talent isn't issued democratically especially the ability to make others laugh, but one wonders why in a world with Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, David Chappelle and Amy Sedaris is SNL so one dimensional?
The problem with their current setup is that the scope of the humor is limited; they can only joke about what they know, which leads to smaller audiences and when they joke about what they don't know, you get walking, talking stereotypes (see link, http://www.hulu.com/watch/11206/saturday-night-live-virginiaca). In the hands of talented and knowledgeable writers, a stereotypical character can be funny and incisive commentary, but coming from the less capable, it's just offensive. I don't expect a bunch of Ivy League elites who grew up in gated communities to have their fingers on the pulse of humor in the minority community. I expect them to write black people as though their only contact with them is through rap videos and COPS because it likely is.
It's no surprise that black female characters on the show are attitudinal and ignorant (Thompson's Virginiaca, Ellen Cleghorne's NBC page) or that black males characters range from the priapic (Leon Phelps, Bishop Don 'Mack' Donald) to the idiotic (Brian Fellows, Lorenzo McIntosh) and don't get me started on Latinos who are usually portrayed with 'ay-ay-ay,' Charo-style panache.
If SNL wants to build an audience without using ratings ploys, it has to change in three ways: One, hire a diverse group of people for the cast and as hosts. In its three decades plus on the air, SNL has only had 11 non-white cast members and 52 non-white hosts. The repertory players are cast strictly from improv groups, but there are funny stand up comics who know how to write material and perform it on regular basis. Just go to local comedy clubs; there's lots of talent waiting to be discovered. Second, this is a suggestion to Mr. Michaels: usually the writer(s) of the script get to pick who performs in a sketch, but to increase spontaneity, which has been sorely lacking from the show, try randomly casting a skit. Put names in a hat and match a role to a person, one by one. Give your performers a chance to stretch their muscles outside the limitations of your writers' imaginations. And lastly, let your cast show off some of their improvisational skills (a la 'Who's Line is It Anyway?'), involve your audience and shake up the format a little bit. Bring some much needed fresh air to what is now a ageist, sexist and racist institution.