W. KAMAU BELL

It doesn’t get easier being Black on SNL

After watching Leslie Jones’ Weekend Update appearance on Saturday Night Live, one thing remains crystal clear. From Garrett Morris to Leslie Jones, it never gets easier being black on SNL. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about SNL’s black problem. Usually it’s that SNL doesn’t have enough black people… OR they don’t know how to use the ones they have. But this is different.

Much of the outrage surrounding her appearance (We really need a better word for being mad on the Internet than “outrage”.) has focused on the bit itself, either it being funny or not funny. It happens every week, in real time, during SNL, on social media. That is totally fair. (Although some of the outrage has used words like “coonery” which is totally fucked up.) But I would say that the real sticking point with this bit is the audience.

The challenge that I had when I watched Leslie’s bit wasn’t about the bit itself. I laughed several times. Sometimes it was that “Ouch!” laughter. But I’m a fan of that. My real challenge was the old black trope of, “Uh oh! White folks are seeing her do this!” When I watched the bit I kept thinking about white people. And thinking about white people doesn’t make any activity better, unless your activity is “Thinking About White People”.

I was thinking about the white people who (I’m sure) make up the vast majority of SNL’s studio audience, the white people who (definitely) make up the vast majority of the TV audience, and the white person (Colin Jost) who was literally sitting next to Leslie during the bit. I took a scientific poll of myself, and I determined that it just felt like too many white people were watching her bit. Especially for a bit as potentially (and actually) incendiary as the one Leslie did. I didn’t trust that those white people understood the historic context behind the bit. I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t lead to frat boys walking up to black women with Afros and saying, “I’d totally do you over Lupita Nyong’o!… Hwey! Where you going?”

IMHO, context is what made Leslie Jones’ bit seem weird to some (like me) and offensive to others. Imagine, just for a second, that instead of Chris Rock taping his classic (CLASSSSSSSSSSIC!) bit, “Niggas vs Black People”, in Washington, DC, in front of what appears to be a mostly black audience, that he had taped that bit on SNL… at the Weekend Update desk…. next to Norm MacDonald… right after another Norm joke referencing Frank Stallone. Would it have been as immediately heralded as a new high in cultural criticism and satire? Or would Norm’s awkward laughter and the studio audience’s “whiteness” have made it harder to focus on the brilliance? In fact, I vote that Rock’s bit is better on HBO because we can see through all the audience reaction shots that black people are fully (FULLY!) onboard. (I do think the bit would have killed with SNL’s audience too, but the laughter would’ve been more “REEEEEALLY?” instead of the black audience’s laughter of, “YES!!!”

There’s an interesting thing that happens when POC experience entertainment. We feel like if we are the only ones “in the room” — whether that “room” is an actual room like a comedy club, OR a TV taping, OR just the “room” that exists when the majority of the TV viewing audience is black. (See: Fox’s 90’s sitcom “Living Single”.) When we feel like we are the only ones privy to the material AND the person onstage is one of us, then we will laugh harder, celebrate louder, and applaud more ferociously than if we feel like we are being watched by white folks. Why is that? Well actually it has to do with that whole slavery thing and how white people were LITERALLY watching us all the time and us feeling like we couldn’t relax. No, most of of black Americans today aren’t slaves, but slavery is like phantom limb syndrome. Even though it’s gone, we can still feel it.

The laughter that POC have when we are amongst ourselves is like the drive home after you have Thanksgiving dinner with your relatives. When you get in the car you can finally say, “What the fuck is up with grandma?” But Leslie basically said, “What the fuck is up with grandma?” in front of grandma! (Colin Jost makes a great grandma.) And if you don’t believe me that black people react bigger when we are “alone”? Watch any episode of “Showtime At The Apollo” from the late 80’s/early 90’s. If you don’t see that black woman in the front row get up less than four times, I’ll eat Pharrell’s hat.

And we (black people) love to give ourselves the luxury of feeling like we are the only ones watching — even if we EMPIRICALLY KNOW IT IS NOT TRUE! And I believe if Leslie Jones had done her bit on “Comic View” or “Def Comedy Jam” or at a random Sunday on Hannibal Buress’ night at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn — where there are a TON of white people, but the lens through which they watch is BLAAAAAACK! — she would have killed! And she may have been heralded as one of our (black people’s) favorite types of comedians, one who goes there! But because of the venue and the audience, it felt weird. Well, here’s hoping that Leslie Jones continues to make it weird at 30 Rock, because I certainly prefer this take on a black woman and all the “ouch” she brings to Kenan Thompson’s take in assorted wigs and dresses. #TeamLeslie

21 Responses to It doesn’t get easier being Black on SNL

  1. Akilah says:

    I understand that it was edgy, and went there. I totally agree that had this been a venue with mostly Black people it would have felt different. I just think her reaction to being confronted was poor, and that we are all ignoring the whole, “All black women are made to feel the way Leslie sees herself,” thing. It’s not a “big black girl” issue. All black women are made to feel like they aren’t socially attractive. And screaming to the White SNL audience and the Norm MacDonalds of the world that yes, Black women are big and scary and undesirable and unlovable now and forever amen–does nothing to help. Black people already know how society views us, and most of the people in the audience were like, “yeah, she is big and black and undesirable, and unlovable.” So where’s the funny?

  2. John says:

    I apologize in advance – I’m stealing this: “…slavery is like phantom limb syndrome. Even though it’s gone, we can still feel it.” I’ve been talking about scars to the psyche that are going to take many more generations to heal – in both black and white people. But the phantom limb analogy is much better. Thanks. PS: I always give credit when I steal stuff.

  3. Shannon says:

    As a white lady who doesn’t even watch SNL but is trying to pay better attention to and understand what POC’s actually think and feel about depictions of themselves in entertainment, Leslie Jones’ bit was illuminating and, dare I say, teachable for me. That’s one of the reasons I want and appreciate greater diversity in entertainment – so I can understand and empathize with people who have different experiences than mine. Her bit did that for me. This post also further illuminates for me one of the reasons why a lot of people didn’t find it very funny…

  4. Kathy says:

    Speaking as a woman who has been fat and white rather than tall and dark, I felt for her pain, some of which I know as more conventionally attractive women can’t, of any color. The world is literally not built for us, and we are passed over for relationships and jobs constantly. I was also worried for her beginning her career in a shitstorm, being targeted by racists who would like the bit all too well, and oh Lord, the central problem of making forced breeding funny……

    Akilah makes the point that the audience accepted the premise that Leslie was big and unattractive. I can’t say what they felt. I wasn’t sure what to feel, and still am not, besides, “Oh no, this young woman needs to be supported!”

  5. Gardner says:

    I just saw the clip in the midst of reading this post, and I’m not at all tuned in to the criticism/reaction/whatever, but I do want to respond to both Alikah’s and W’s point. ‘The funny’ is that it is uncomfortable, and it rubs salt in an open wound. That isn’t funny for everyone, but it’s the same kind of comedy that makes the best comedians of all time. Of course there are going to be fools who don’t get it, but there will also be white people for whom this is the first time these ideas even enter their consciousness. People who aren’t going to be exposed to old episodes of Late Night at the Apollo or have any other avenues to insight into real issues that affect black people on a day to day basis. When white people (or any group of people, look at how China reacts to black people) aren’t exposed to people that look/act/think like them, they don’t know how to process difference. A black woman talking honestly about how she is perceived by society to a national television audience is a good thing, even if it is in the context of comedy. Exposure is often uncomfortable, misunderstood, and difficult, but in the long run it’s the only way forward. Comedy shouldn’t be the only way that the connection is made, but it’s an effective icebreaker.

  6. Adía says:

    I agree with everything you said here. Her joke was funny but it felt more suited for the middle of a stand up set and not a couple of seconds on SNL. Comedians know their audience and do jokes appropriately… most of the time… And saving her jokes for another audience isn’t being false or anything

  7. Kate says:

    Over-reliance on cue cards is distracting and, given its history, disappointing on SNL. Emma Stone, in the opening, referenced the importance of minding the cards in case of last-minute re-writes. It’s so unfortunate because we KNOW these folks are funny. The best bits always have that funny/scary thing that happens when a comic is in the groove. Cards can kill the groove.

    Leslie Jones’ bit thrilled me … she was so IN it. I’m assuming Ms. Jones wrote the piece. We can discuss the various angles, the context, etc., but she was the best part of the show. What a huge and delightful relief to see a ‘prime time player’ rely on her wits instead of the cards. What a debut!! I can’t wait to see what she brings us next.

  8. Roger Stetson says:

    Just saw the clip. It was funnier than I thought it would be. Great article.

  9. Serenity says:

    I thought it was funny. And not necessarily offensive. Black people can be too sensitive… and I get why we are like that. But this was really very entertaining.

  10. RK says:

    To me, the inside audience in that sketch was people like ME — strong, brawny, “useful” women who aren’t on the cover of magazines. I have jokingly fantasized about living in a time when my hips would fetch my father many lucrative offers. If my ancestors were slaves, I would have probably imagined that as well. As a white Oberlin graduate in her thirties who enjoys a lot of comedy, I am extremely familiar with the feeling that I am not allowed to be laughing at something (I frequently say to myself “Don’t be the laughing white guy who made Dave Chapelle quit.”), but I really didn’t feel that with this sketch. It didn’t seem to be about self-mockery of black people (this is the kind of stuff I’m most wary of), but maybe I was missing it. It felt more like a joke about a lot of things that was set on a slave plantation. (Somehow I feel like I have to add that I think slave plantations were bad. They were. They really, really were. The worst.)

    I also thought it was hilarious.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. Lynda Scheer says:

    Just read your piece on Leslie Jones and was surprised to find the video hilarious, after reading your reservations abt response of the SNL audience. I laughed out loud, really, and am looking forward to more Leslie Jones. What a truly funny person she is. I am, btw, a 71 year old caucasian female–maybe a new niche for Ms Jones. Hope so!

  12. Ben says:

    It bums me out to think that black people might feel weird laughing at something they think is funny because it’s happening in a white venue. But it seems like the only way to reduce that weird feeling is for black performers to keep doing this stuff in front of all kinds of audiences until everybody’s used to it.

    SNL needs black performers and writers because they need authentic black voices and points of view, not because they need more of the same white guy humor written by people with darker skin. The hope is that the more we hear these voices and laugh with them, the less weird people of all colors will feel.

    It is and will continue to be a clunky and even painful process, but if we can freely and comfortably laugh together, that means we’ve made real progress.

  13. Dan says:

    Finally, something interesting on SNL. Back in the day (1981?), Michael O’Donoghue spray painted “DANGER” in someone’s dressing room saying this is what the show has been missing. Finally.

  14. Pingback: Leslie Jones and the Problem with Misplaced Outrage | Strong And Free

  15. Meg says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I relate to what Shannon wrote regarding the sketch being a teaching moment (I am also white and I’ll call my physique chunkily useful). I didn’t laugh out loud probably because I felt some shame, and I actually think shame is a great emotion, unlike many people. To me it’s like pain – if you have a pain, you need to fix it. If you feel shame, you are probably doing something wrong, and the piece seemed to speak this to me. I’m not saying I caused slavery or that we are not out of literal slavery. But it seems to me that white supremacy is a big part of a caste system in which we are still very firmly entrenched, and we white people need to wake up and recognize and understand this if we really want peace. Leslie Jones also outlined another tool of the caste system – narrow definitions of female value through beauty. The difference for me there is that I am queer, and if I were asked to say who is more attractive, I would have to say Leslie Jones not only because of her powerful physique, but even more because she is such a powerful comedian, BECAUSE her commentary was so effective at kicking my ass. I can see why many Black people would be concerned about white audiences co-opting the meaning of the piece to fit our own narrative thereby avoiding the painful irony and our continued complicity in it. I honestly hope more of us would respond to it as an indictment and call to change and action, and not as something for us to laugh at/be entertained by. Our quality of life in the future requires that we wake up.

  16. Mel says:

    I tend to forget to look at things in the context of the consumer, in this case the snl audience (white) and the seller, a black woman showing her private parts.

    I get it now because of this post. I get it! Black people want to remain invisible to white people. This reminds me of what my grandmother used to say, “White people don’t want us in their neighborhood because then we would see the dirt they do”. I never understood what she meant either, especially since I lived in a mostly white neighborhood.

    Now, I do.

    We all, even in the information age, want to continue to wear our masks in public.

    Wow, live and learn.

  17. joe G says:

    Being a delectable caucasion, my favorite line was, “I don’t even like working for you white folks and you people pay me.”
    Hilarious bit but I do agree, had she reserved it for her own act, the roof would have blown off the venue from the deep laughter.
    I don’t watch SNL bc frankly it’s a half-baked show with only a few great skits/episodes per season. I’ll be keeping my eye’s and ears peeled for Leslie Jones standup…. she’s awesome! Mr. Bell, thank you for doing your show! You give white folks a chance to laugh at the absurdity of white people without condescending or lumping us all together.

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