It’s hard out there for a black actor. With the exception of the minstrel shows on Tyler Perry’s one-man chitlin’ circuit, there might be one black character — male or female — in the typical network TV ensemble cast. Movie studios have forsaken real actors in favor of casting rappers like Ice Cube, Ludacris, T.I., and Common (who really can’t act). The black thespian who has gotten the education, put in the work, and dedicated himself to developing his craft is still fighting an uphill battle to book work. But when the cultural and political icon of a generation, President Barack Obama, is black, then the job of playing him on the definitive satire showcase of the last 35 years, “Saturday Night Live,” should go to a black actor, not Fred Armisen. And a black actress should be playing Michelle.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have nothing against white people. I actually like white people. Some of my best friends are not only white, but white and Jewish. So when I say there has to be at least one black actor and one black actress on “SNL” to play the Obamas, I’m not playing the race card — I’m playing the ethnic card. I insist on authenticity. If Joe and Hadassah Lieberman were the first couple, I wouldn’t want gentiles playing them; and I think new cast member Nasim Pedrad, who is Persian, was perfect as Mrs. Ahmadinejad on “Weekend Update” this past Saturday. That bit was funny, but it bothers me a little bit that Iran’s first lady has been on “SNL” more times than America’s.
Part of the problem is personal. I’ve been boosting “SNL’s” ratings for as long as I can remember. As a kid, the whole point of owning and learning to program a VCR (Google it, young people) was to be able to record NBC between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. every Saturday night because I was prone to falling asleep before the first musical guest’s performance. In high school, the tape of the 15th anniversary show was coveted at parties and it still cracks me up to randomly text things like “chocolate babies” or “chopping broccoli” to my great old friends. But now it seems like “SNL” is less a means to the end of producing good sketch comedy as much as it’s about promoting the careers, movies, and albums of the hosts, musical guests, and anyone else they can get to make cameos (Scarlett Johansson, Madonna, Elijah Wood). U2 and Coldplay played the typical two songs, then closed the show with a third, which is a lot of airtime for a musical guest when compared to the small amount dedicated to funny sketches.
There are only so many Garrett Morrises and Eddie Murphys out there, and the chances of finding a talent like that double when there are two black actors on the show. From the reliable Tracy Morgan to the under-used Dean Edwards to the unfortunate Finesse Mitchell, Executive Producer Lorne Michaels had consistently cast the “Other Black Guy,” ensuring there were always two black actors in the cast. But four years ago, Michaels decided not to re-cast the OBG and left Kenan Thompson on an island where he’s had to play both Plaxico Burress and Charles Barkley. If you don’t know who they are, one guy is 6-foot, 5-inches and lean, and the other is known as the Round Mound of Rebound.
With only one black man and no black women in the cast, I find it hard to believe “SNL” would employ more than one black writer. Add that to our president’s maddeningly even demeanor, his administration’s famous aversion to drama, and Fred Armisen’s frustrating lack of range, and it becomes tough to mine comedy out of this White House. With no writers who can relate to the Obamas as a couple and no actress to play Michelle in any sketch ever, it becomes impossible. So we can forget about catching any of the comedic lightning in a bottle that we saw when Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman played George and Barbara Bush; or when Hartman played Bill Clinton opposite Jan Hooks’ Hillary; or Darrell Hammond’s incredible Bill Clinton with Ana Gasteyer’s or Amy Poehler’s Hillary.
It all comes back to Lorne Michaels because at 1 a.m. Sunday morning when the show wraps, everything happened the way he wanted it to happen. Despite the fact that the White House and the people who live there have been a staple — if not the staple — of “SNL” from day one, it doesn’t have an actress who can play the first lady or writers who know how a black power couple thinks and acts because Lorne Michaels didn’t bother to hire them. So there will be no new comedic ground broken in Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center until there is a new occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. or until the executive producer of “Saturday Night Live” wakes up and realizes the first family isn’t white any more.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who thinks Lady Gaga’s medley at the piano is the highlight of the “SNL” season so far. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.