Give credit to “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels. The man knows how to build—and rebuild—a franchise. Marking the show’s 39th season as a late-night fixture on NBC, Michaels has managed to keep the cast fresh, and this year is no exception, with six new members, including Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, Noel Wells and Brook Whelan, added to a line-up in which holdovers Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon are looking to fill the shoes of recently departed stars like Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, with Seth Meyers slated to leave early next year when he takes over ex-cast member Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show.
The show has come under criticism lately from those who cite its lack of African-American female cast members, an issue that was addressed, in typically self-deprecating fashion, by the opening sketch on last Saturday night’s show, hosted by Kerry Washington. In its four-decade-long history, “Saturday Night Live” has had four women of color as cast members—Danitra Vance and Yvonne Hudson lasted a season apiece in the ‘80s, the former leaving after complaining of being typecast, while Ellen Cleghorne was part of the “SNL” troupe from 1991-’95. Maya Rudolph, the biracial daughter of R&B singer Minnie Riperton and white composer Richard Rudolph, spent seven years on the show, leaving in 2007.
Washington joins a list of seven previous African-American female hosts of the show, including Cicely Tyson (February ’79), Oprah Winfrey (April ‘86), Queen Latifah (March ‘03), Halle Berry (October ’03), Janet Jackson (April 2004), Rosario Dawson (January ’09) and Gabourey Sidibe (April ‘10).
Washington more than lived up to the task, including expertly portraying both Michelle Obama and Oprah in the cold opening sketch opposite Jay Pharoah’s President, which included an “SNL” disclaimer critiquing itself for the lack of racial sensitivity in its casting, apologizing to her for “the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight… because ‘SNL’ currently does not have a black woman in the cast.” Admitting “this is not an ideal situation,” they promise to “rectify it in the future… unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”
With that, the series’ highest-rated episode since last March unfolded—ironically, with a white rapper in Eminem its musical guest—as Washington proved her versatility. Along with her double-duty as the First Lady of the White House and TV in the opening, here we list her top performances on the show:
Playing the sassy, gum-chewing, platinum-wigged, leopard skin-clothed assistant to Nasim Pedrad’s wacky, Middle Eastern dancing, sound effects-accompanied career advisor Heshi, Washington proves her comic chops in the skit. “Respect my ability to assess a bucket,” she tells Pedrad with a great head shake when requested to count ballots placed in a pail.
Kerry then acquits herself nicely as a jealous Beyonce-type girlfriend who inspects Jay Pharoah’s cell phone for incriminating text messages in “What Does My Girl Say?” one of those faux digital music videos that was previously the domain of Andy Samberg.
Washington segues to playing straight-laced, Angela Davis-style commentator Alice Rogers Smith, “a political science professor from Spellman University,” on the Sunday morning public affairs show “How’s He Doing?” in which Barack Obama’s approval rating among black voters has dropped to a “startling 93.6%,” according to jovial moderator Kenan Thompson. “Yes we can and yes we did… twice,” declares Kerry in the sketch poking fun at African-Americans’ unwavering support of the President. “Have you ever seen a white person at a hotel when they’re told the room isn’t ready yet?” she asks about disapproval of Obamacare. “They act like there’s been a death in the family.” The three then go on to discuss white people’s love of “The Wire.” She also gets off a great line in response to the question “What would it take for Barack Obama to lose your support?” if he converted to Judaism. “Mazel tov, Baruch.”
Kerry also portrays a Ugandan contestant in a televised Moscow beauty pageant with a hilarious deadpan African accent, who wanders onstage and keeps interrupting the proceedings, furiously wondering, “What is dees? Who are dey? Where are we? When are who?”
Washington plays a game-show host for cartoon catchphrases, then dons a rainbow-colored afro wig and a clown outfit as Miss Terry, a teacher with a thick Noo Yawk accent who raises money for the Fall Carnival benefit by volunteering for the dunk tank. “I’m a black lady,” she insists. “Know your history!”
Washington plays a hair-twirling, Valley Girl teenager on the MTV parody, “Date or Diss,” admitting, “I once swallowed a bullet that was shot at me,” then boasts, bobbing her head,”You should choose me because my bush goes all the way around” and “I was born out of an egg.”
When she arrived at the traditional wrap party after the show, the N.Y. Post’s Page Six reported the history-making host was greeted by the cast with a standing ovation. Not only did “SNL” score points for political correctness, but they also had one of their most entertaining, and highest-rated, shows to boot.