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I hosted NBC’S Saturday Night Live back in April 1977, during its second season. I used to say that I was an SNL host when it was a comedy show, and people would laugh. More recently, I had taken to saying that I hosted SNL when it had black people on it. So as a former host, I was happy to read the news that an African-American woman (Sasheer Zamata) and two black female writers (LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones) were hired for the show because people of color, especially women, have been conspicuous by their absence.
I’m a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, so I’m delighted that Zamata is a UVA grad. But I’m also a civil rights activist, so I’m appalled that the circumstances of their hiring would lessen — in some viewers’ minds — the talent and skills they bring to the program. There are sure to be those who think that their race, not their talent, won them their jobs. The women were hired after an explosion of outrage at SNL‘s shameful record of minority employment. Before Zamata was hired, in the 39 years since SNL began in 1975, the show had 137 castmembers. Only 14 of those were African-Americans, and only four of those were women. The tally for Latinos is even more negligible — only three in the show’s history, all of them men. Looking back at the episode I hosted, I felt discomfort with a skit we did. Appearing as myself on a mock television interview show about black issues, I told Garrett Morris, one of SNL‘s original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks. Morris, who is darker skinned than I am, did a perfect double take. I felt squeamish then but did the skit anyway, and I feel uneasy about this joke even today. I believed it treaded dangerously on the fine line between comedy and poor taste.
But that always has been SNL‘s fine point, the line delineating comedy — and especially satire — from tastelessness. I always have believed that a skillful comedian — or comedienne — can make a joke out of anything. No subject is immune. Comedy is crucial in our lives, especially political satire. The ability to make fun of life’s vagaries helps us deal with them. That may be why there are so many black and Jewish comedians and why their presence on the air is so important.
SNL used to be on the cutting edge. Let’s hope Ms. Zamata helps restore some of its sharpness.
Julian Bond was chairman of the NAACP board of directors from February 1998 to February 2010 and now is chairman emeritus.
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