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Kerry Washington helps 'SNL' address the elephant in the room

By Claire Zulkey

Los Angeles Times

9:45 AM CST, November 3, 2013

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In case you missed it, here is a brief timeline of race relations regarding “Saturday Night Live” recently:

Sept. 27: “SNL” cast member Jay Pharoah tells the Grio website that he thinks the show is “too white.”

Oct. 14: Longtime cast member Kenan Thompson tells a TV Guide interviewer that he doesn’t want make up the lack of diversity in the cast on “SNL” anymore by playing black female characters.

Thursday: Civil rights group ColorofChange pens a letter to “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels asking him to address the paucity of diversity in the cast. Michaels tells the Associated Press that finding black female performers for the show is "a priority."

Saturday: “Scandal” star Kerry Washington is the first woman of color to host the show since early 2012 (Season 37).

Washington and the show’s writers wasted no time in addressing the issue in the episode. In the cold open, Washington played a luminous Michelle to Pharoah’s Barack Obama (“I feel like it’s been years since I’ve seen you!” he said to her pointedly). However, when the script called for Oprah Winfrey to enter the scene, it became clear that Washington would have to play her as well as any other black female characters who were part of the sketch. Washington directly mentioned Thompson’s refusal to don drag, and while she quick-changed off-camera into her Winfrey costume, the show scrolled an explanation for why the sketch was occurring.

One might have expected that Washington was going to have to hurriedly come out in an increasingly disheveled array of costumes and wigs, but ultimately she only portrayed the two women (although the possibility of a Beyoncé impression was raised). Instead, the writers made the most of their white male surplus, sending out six “All right, all right, all right”-ing Matthew McConaugheys instead. The scene was capped by a very svelte Al Sharpton addressing the audience with a stately, “What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing.”

Was the scene a step in the right direction of “SNL” tackling its diversity issues, or to use Sharpton’s words, did it contribute “nothing” to the discussion (or even make light of the situation?). Obviously it would be impossible for Michaels and the “SNL” team to modify its casting decisions immediately, but pretending the tense last few weeks didn’t occur would also not be wise. It will be interesting to hear how the scene came to be written and what, if any, input Washington had in it.

Race was mentioned a few other times in the episode after the cold open, once in a talk show called “How’s He Doing?” featuring Thompson, Pharoah and Washington as “nonpartisan” black intellectual talking heads addressing the likelihood that President Obama would ever lose their support (answer: highly unlikely). The poor, innocent television recapper was written into the sketch too, as the characters referenced how much white people love the television show “The Wire:” “I had a white friend who wrote episode recaps of the ‘The Wire’ on the Internet. Can you imagine? He would watch it, write about it, and then other people would read it!” Hey! What did TV recappers ever do to you, “SNL”? (Oh ...)

In miscellaneous but of-note news from the episode, Kanye West may not want to queue up the show on his DVR, as he was targeted twice. At the end of “How’s He Doing?” the next installment of the fake talk show promised to address, “Kim [Kardashian] and Kanye: Who do you think is the difficult one in the relationship?” Also, on Weekend Update, when discussing West’s claim that he’s reappropriating the confederate flag, Cecily Strong flashed a photo of West with Kardashian, quoting him as saying, "Whenever I see something that upsets people, I make it mine."

Additionally, the ghost of Miley Cyrus still cannot rest peacefully, as she was invoked in the monologue. When Vanessa Bayer came to Kerry Washington (using the skills as a fixer she picked up playing Olivia Pope), for help after punching a bouncer at “da club,” Washington advised her to leave town. “But who will play Miley?” asked Bayer. “Haven’t you played Miley enough lately?” Washington replied. The additional reminder of Cyrus’ existence was balanced out, however, by a short tribute to Lou Reed with a clip of him performing on the show.

Lady Gaga returns as host and musical guest Nov. 16. She will probably not wear anything interesting. 

Twitter: @Zulkey