Two weeks into Saturday Night Live’s 39th season is probably a good time to take stock of how well it’s dealing with the absence of three of its most prolific cast members: Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis. For the most part, the current season is doing the best it can, considering the circumstances, and is preparing Cecily Strong (who, along with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, CC ’06, was promoted over the summer from featured player) to take over for Seth Meyers when he leaves the show later this season to host Late Night with Seth Meyers.
With two solid episodes—the first hosted by comedy powerhouse and all-around incredible human Tina Fey with musical guest Arcade Fire, the second hosted by Miley Cyrus, who doubled as a musical guest and actually did a good job—the late-night sketch comedy staple is still going strong in most areas. But where it’s currently lacking, and where it seems to have lacked most especially in recent years, is in featuring actors of color—specifically, female actors of color.
Currently, the only actors of color on the show are Kenan Thompson (now in his eighth season), relative newcomer Jay Pharoah, and Nasim Pedrad. This summer, the show’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels, hired six new featured players, all of whom are white, and only one of whom is female. There isn’t a Hispanic or Latino cast member, nor is there a female African-American cast member this year, which is really a microcosm of SNL’s inability in recent years to be as diverse a show as its audience—6.5 million people, for its season premiere, not counting the number of times it’s been watched on sites like Hulu—might suggest.
In a sketch that followed Cyrus’ cold open on Oct. 5, the show’s cast trotted out its various—and impressive—impressions. This is one of the show’s most common ways of showing its actors’ skills, and it’s effective, but tends to shine light on what the cast lacks—minorities. In similar sketches, Armisen has been used to play Prince, and Pedrad has been used as both Nicki Minaj and Arianna Huffington. For almost an entire term of Barack Obama’s presidency, Fred Armisen showed off his rather lackluster impression of the president. And while you might chalk up an absence of impressions of minority celebrities to the fact that they’re a bit of a rarity in pop culture, that itself points to a larger problem in entertainment that could be the subject of volumes of writing.
At the same time, though, SNL is as much about finding humor in the everyday as it is about celebrity impressions. For many Americans—about 36.6 million who identify as minorities, according to the Census Bureau—their everyday is not represented by the dearth of actors of color on the show. Though the show used to have Horatio Sanz and Armisen (who is both Hispanic and Japanese), it’s now sorely lacking in diversity. If it continues to lag in representation in the same way that it does now, it not only ascribes to the notion that the white experience is ostensibly the American experience, but fails to represent on-screen a huge portion of the country.