Who’s Going to Play Michelle Obama?: Saturday Night Live and Its Lack of Women of Color
Phillip Lamarr Cunningham / Bowling Green State University

Michelle Obama and Maya Rudolph

Michelle Obama and Maya Rudolph

Since Chevy Chase played a bumbling President Gerald Ford, send-ups of the American president have been an important part of Saturday Night Live’s repertoire. Over the course of SNL’s thirty-four seasons, skits parodying the president have become more prominent and, in fact, often lead off the show. Furthermore, with few exceptions, SNL has had little difficulty finding a member of its ensemble who actually resembles (and sounds like) the president whom he portrayed. The same also can be said of the former First Ladies, particularly Hillary Clinton, who has been impersonated by former cast-members Jan Hooks (who also portrayed Nancy Reagan), Janeane Garofalo, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, and Amy Poehler.1 In fact, since the 1980s, SNL has been quite successful at casting dead ringers for each president and First Lady.

However, the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first president of color, has proven rather problematic for SNL. SNL currently features only two cast-members of color—Fred Armisen, who portrays Obama, and Kenan Thompson. Unlike Obama, Armisen is not of African descent; however, he was chosen over Thompson, whose darker complexion and stout physique admittedly would make him a less-than-convincing Obama.2 Armisen’s casting met with some controversy, with some television critics lamenting the show’s decision to cast an actor with no discernible African heritage as Obama, whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was of European descent.3 However, much of these criticisms seemingly have assuaged—though Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak recently declared, “It’s time to replace Fred Armisen as Barack Obama.”4

Slezak also notes, “Fred Armisen’s impersonation of President Barack Obama… [is] like a neon sign pointing to the lack of diversity in SNL’s cast.” However, more indicting of SNL’s lackluster commitment to cast diversity has been its inability or refusal to cultivate female cast-members of color. To its credit, SNL has been the launch pad for prominent black actor/comedians such as Eddie Murphy, Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, and Tracy Morgan.5 However, SNL has shown virtually no commitment to female comedians of color, having only employed three black women (Ellen Cleghorne, Yvonne Hudson, and Danitra Vance) and one biracial woman (Maya Rudolph) in its thirty-four years. Of the four, only Cleghorne (1991-1995) and Rudolph (1999-2007) were featured prominently, as both Hudson (1980-1981) and Vance (1985-1986) lasted only one season and typically played marginal roles. Furthermore, unlike other SNL female alumni, none of these performers have had other vehicles developed for them by executive producer Lorne Michaels or NBC.6 The absence of women of color on SNL is particularly striking considering the prominence of women of color comedians/comedic actresses such as Margaret Cho, Jackie Guerra, Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes, and Aisha Tyler as well as the recent success of comedic showcases such as The Queens of Comedy (2001) and The Original Latin Divas of Comedy (2007). Furthermore, given how well MADtv—the only real challenger to SNL’s Saturday night dominance—embraced diversity, SNL’s poor attempts to do so are all the more troubling.7

cleghorne

Ellen Cleghorne

The show’s tarnished track record with women of color essentially hit critical mass early in the 2008-2009 season in the casting of First Lady Michelle Obama, who is of African-American descent. Currently, SNL has no women of color on cast. The last woman of color performer was Maya Rudolph, the biracial daughter of African-American R&B singer Minnie Riperton and Jewish songwriter Richard Rudolph.8 Prior to her portrayal of Michelle Obama on October 25, 2008, Rudolph had resigned from SNL and last appeared as a regular cast-member on November 3, 2007. During her tenure on SNL, Rudolph impersonated celebrities of virtually every racial background, ranging from Beyonce to Lucy Liu to Jennifer Lopez to Barbara Streisand. In many instances, the fair-skinned, freckled Rudolph bore a close resemblance to those celebrities whom she impersonated. However, a few of the roles she played by default of being SNL’s only woman of color, and in several instances, namely as darker-skinned African-American celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Patti Labelle, she was less than convincing (at least in terms of appearance).

Despite her departure from SNL and her bearing virtually no resemblance to Michelle Obama, Maya Rudolph was brought back on October 25, 2008, to impersonate the current First Lady. The skit required little from Rudolph: In lampooning Barack Obama’s half-hour campaign commercial, she and Armisen (as Barack Obama) briefly sang “Solid as Barack,” a parody of the hit Ashford & Simpson song “Solid as a Rock.” However, the decision to bring back Rudolph speaks volumes about SNL’s commitment to diversity: Instead of hiring an African-American female cast-member, who might be of great use given Michelle Obama will be First Lady for at least the next four years and given her prominence in the media, SNL chose to utilize a former cast-member whose similarities to Michelle Obama are dubious at best.

barackandmichelle

Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen

Rudolph was not the only former SNL cast-member to return during the presidential campaigns. Rudolph’s portrayal of Michelle Obama went virtually unnoticed given the great attention paid to Tina Fey’s impersonation of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.9 Fey’s impersonation of Palin was critically acclaimed and deservedly so: Her resemblance to and portrayal of Palin was exemplary. However, whereas SNL had four other cast members who could have played Palin (albeit perhaps not as effectively as Fey), no other cast-member reasonably could have played Michelle Obama.10 SNL either would have to rely on a special guest star (as was the case with Rudolph), to feature Kenan Thompson in drag (which SNL has done in several instances), or to let a cast-member perform the role in blackface (which SNL also has done on occasion).11

MadTV\'s Final Cast

MadTV’s Final Cast

The intent here is not to cast dispersions on Maya Rudolph’s capabilities as an actress or even to criticize her impersonation of Michelle Obama (though, admittedly, her portrayal came across more as Maya Rudolph as Whitney Houston as Michelle Obama). One must concede that impersonation is not exact replication; furthermore, as scholars such as E. Patrick Johnson and David Eng have theorized, race (as well as gender) has a performative quality. As such, the aim here also is not to question whether a biracial actress can or should play an African-American woman, for to do so would be an exercise in essentialism (as well as futility). Rather, the goal here is to interrogate SNL’s commitment to cast diversity by indicating how the show historically has marginalized women of color. Though it may not have been its intent, SNL’s casting of Maya Rudolph as Michelle Obama—particularly when considering its precedent of casting actors who greatly resemble each president and First Lady—speaks more to what little progress SNL has made in terms of hiring women of color than to Rudolph’s ability to impersonate. Given SNL’s centrality in political discourse and in popular culture, its failure to embrace more racial and gender diversity perhaps does not threaten the show’s relevance, but it undoubtedly undermines it.

Image Credits:

1. Michelle Obama and Maya Rudolph
2. Ellen Cleghorne
3. Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen
4. MadTV’s Final Cast

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. The late Phil Hartman, who impersonated Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, portrayed former First Lady Barbara Bush. Thus far, of all the First Ladies whose husbands were in office during SNL’s thirty-four year run, Laura Bush is the only one who was not impersonated. []
  2. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Armisen is of German, Japanese, and Venezuelan descent. Thompson is African-American. []
  3. According to an Associated Press story, “Obama’s ancestors hail from seven countries: Kenya, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany and the Netherlands.” Associated Press. “Obama’s Family Tree Has a Few Surprises.” CBS2Chicago.com. 8 September 2007. 11 March 2009. . []
  4. Slezak, Michael. “‘SNL’: It’s Time to Replace Fred Armisen as Barack Obama.” Entertainment Weekly. 1 February 2009. 11 March 2009. . []
  5. SNL has featured only two performers of Asian descent (Armisen and Rob Schneider, who is Jewish and Filipino), and only one performer of Hispanic descent (Horatio Sanz, who is Chilean). []
  6. Ellen Cleghorne starred in the short-lived Cleghorne! on the then-WB Network in 1995. The show only lasted twelve episodes before cancellation. SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels had no connections with Cleghorne! []
  7. Since its debut in 1995, the now cancelled MADtv (1995-2009) has often featured a rather diverse cast. In its initial season, MADtv had three black cast-members: Orlando Jones, Phil LaMarr, and Debra Wilson. Over the course of its 14 years, it has had cast-members of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Bobby Lee, who is Korean, and Pablo Francisco, who is Hispanic. Between 2003 and 2006, MADtv featured two black female cast-members, Danielle Gaither and Nicole Randall Johnson. In 2008, MADtv would again feature two black female cast-members, Johnson and Daheli Hall. []
  8. Prior to Rudolph, Ellen Cleghorne had been the last woman of color to be a regular cast-member. []
  9. Fey, who currently stars in NBC’s primetime sitcom 30 Rock, returned to SNL to play Sarah Palin on the September 13, 2008, episode. She would go on to play Palin on five other occasions. Fey last appeared as a regular cast-member in 2006. []
  10. Since Fey’s departure from SNL in 2006, three white female cast-members have been hired: Casey Wilson (2007), Abby Elliott (2008), and Michaela Watkins (2008). The remaining white female cast-member, Kristen Wiig, joined the cast in 2005. Amy Poehler (2001-2008) officially left the show in December 2008 but had appeared sporadically, usually as Hillary Clinton and in her regular Weekend Update anchor guise. []
  11. Like other black male cast-members before him, Thompson often performs in drag due to the absence of a black female cast-member. Thompson has portrayed hip-hop artist Lil’ Kim, former Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney, tennis star Serena Williams, and many other prominent black women. In the past, white actors have performed roles in blackface, such as Darrell Hammond as Reverend Jesse Jackson and Billy Crystal as Sammy Davis, Jr. []

8 comments

  • but where are the asians?

  • Thanks for the column. I think you point to an important issue here. I can’t help but think of the column written by Jonathan Gray, Jeffery Jones and Ethan Thompson in which the authors discuss SNL’spolitical humor. Rather than biting satire, many of the impersonations of political figures are simply very good impressions. In conjunction with your column, I think this points to a similar phenomenon in which impersonations of white figures attempt to recreate a person’s image and behavior as close as possible–In fact, the closer the impression, the better received it is. However, it seems that for non-white figures, any person of color will do, no matter how wide the gap between the person and the impersonator. Thus, not only should we worry that there simply aren’t enough cast members of color, but we should question the double standards of expectation vis-a-vis race, performance, and impersonation.

  • BERNARD TIMBERG

    The point of this essay was clearly and rather powerfully made. I wonder if anyone in SNL might actually read and respond to this article. Sometimes media criticism can make a difference – and though the idea might be a little utopian, perhaps this article is coming at the right time and could be brought to the attention of someone on the show who would take it seriously.

    I do think the show wants to remain relevant – and it might not be too much to ask that SNL re-think their diversity/representation issues in the year of the Obama election. The Wanda Sykes/Larry David duels show how good casting (and talent) can work together – and cut through bland clutter of much comedy on the air today.

  • É muito itersante ver como as pessoas são lá dentro!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Who cares..There are not many Asians or Latinos either. I don’t pay attention to that because it does not bother me in any way. Funny is funny regardless of who you are. May be a lot of African Americans have little to know interest in being casted in Mad TV or SNL. May be this is blowing it out of proportion making it a racial thing.

  • This is an interesting post although I wish it was able to bring more “behind the scenes” aspects of SNL to the fore, which might help legitimize some of the author’s claims. It reads more as commentary (which I largely agree with) than a blend of scholarship and journalism which I think is Flow’s main effort. Although I think the author’s point is very valid – esp since comedy and humor have been one of the few in-roads black actors and actresses have been able to leverage in the realm of popular media (films and tv). It is very odd that the “premier” comedy variety show in the US isn’t more diverse in its casting – if Rae’s position (the comment above mine) is indeed a true reflection of our world as a colorblind utopia where race doesn’t matter, then I suppose we should see more people of color on SNL. But if LeBron’s subtle stab at SNL during his hosting monologue skit in 2007 (I think) is any indication (“I thought it went off the air when Eddie Murphy left too”), then it hints at Rae’s other (contradictory) statement about blacks having little to no interest in SNL – but I would venture a further elaboration of that claim and suppose that if there is a lack of interest among blacks to try-out for SNL then it specifically is a racial thing due to a lack of inclusion, or at least, a sense of feeling included. But like I said, it would’ve been great to see the “behind the scenes” of SNL in regards to these issues.

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