Note to Kenan Thompson and the talent scouts for ‘SNL’ – Kerry Washington is ready to be a Not Ready for Prime Time Player

A few weeks ago, Saturday Night Live cast member Kenan Thompson stepped in it, when he gave his assessment about the paucity of black women on the cast of the legendary sketch comedy show. Thompson suggested that the black comediennes that have auditioned were simply not ready for SNL. Now, let’s make it clear: Thompson wasn’t arguing that black women as a whole aren’t funny – he was just saying that the black women that managed to get in front of the faces of the talent scouts for SNL weren’t qualified to make it.

Let’s for a moment take Thompson’s guess as true – let’s say that there wasn’t even one funny black female comic that auditioned for SNL since Maya Rudolph’s departure in 2007. How about these talent scouts go out and look for a funny black comedienne – why not go to comedy clubs in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Boston, or Chicago – why not raid the improv theaters throughout the country and see if they can find one funny black woman – because apparently, they’re about as rare as unicorns, if you believe what Thompson is saying…

Or they could just poach Kerry Washington from her current ABC drama Scandal. Washington – known primarily for her dramatic work – showed a wonderful comedic side to her talent, easily outshining every host this year (and that includes Tina Fey who hosted this season’s premier). What I hope Washington gets out of this is more comedies in her repertoire.  Also, often hosts don’t dominate their gigs unless they’re comedians, but this was a very Washington-heavy episode, and I was thrilled with that.

The cold opening seemed to be a political riff on President Obama’s rough few weeks – the glitch-filled rollout of Obamacare plus more revelations of the NSA spying, including that the United States has been spying on German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (more on that later). But instead it became a commentary on the minor controversy that Kenan Thompson stirred up when he made those comments about black female comics and SNL. The conceit of the skit – and it was very meta – was that Obama was meeting up with his biggest supporters: his wife, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce. Now, in the past Maya Rudolph had to play all three women – so the producers get to thank god because Kerry Washington is on hand to do it. The impressions weren’t all that great, but that’s not the point – the point was that Washington had to play all the roles and is expected to because again, she’s the only black female performer on the show.

The sketch gets even more pointed with a scrolled apology that read in part, “The producers…would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because “SNL” does not currently have a black woman in the cast.”

Even though the apology is a joke – it’s true on both counts: Washington is a very talented actress and no black women in the cast.

The sketch is funny and pointed – and it’s good that the writers and producers get to take one on the chin with such good cheer – but – the problem I had with the sketch is that because it’s so self-deprecating and self-referential, it gives the show an “out” – the writers can pat themselves on the back and claim social consciousness by acknowledging this debit of their show, but at the same time, there still isn’t a black woman in the cast. Hopefully, this small hiccup will make its way to Lorne Michaels’ head and next season we’ll see this problem rectified.

But regardless of my minor misgivings, the sketch worked – mainly because Washington was such a good sport (there will be a lot of that in this review). Her monologue was good – though, you have to be a fan of Scandal to understand the jokes about Washington bailing out various cast members who interrupt her monologue to ask for advice.

The first monologue has Nasim Pedrad play a  low-level motivational speaker. Washington plays her weary assistant. What was essentially a stereotype, Washington livened it up with her sullen performance. She played well off Pedrad’s hyper-sincerity. Motivational speakers are a favorite for SNL and while it’s not as great as the classic Chris Farley Matt Foley sketches, it benefited from the two performers who obviously went all in.

The next sketch was a parody of the Ylvis song “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” but instead was about a domineering and ball-busting girlfriend. SNL has been portraying girlfriends as shrews – and in this parody, this is no different – Washington plays a territorial, jealous girlfriend, hounding her hapless boyfriend. As with SNL‘s other music video parodies, this one is on-point and expertly done. It’s a funny parody, but an easy  one.

In “How’s He Doing?” Thompson, Jay Pharoah, and Washington play panelists who discuss the president’s popularity with the black community. I’m split on this sketch (it’s appeared before). On the one hand, the three actors do a great job – especially Washington, who again, easily runs off with the sketch – but the implication that black voters are merely indulging in identity politics who are blindly following the president, regardless of his actions is a little dicey. This is an argument that lots of conservatives make when trying to denigrate the president or stir up anti-black sentiment among their base.

The Miss Universe spoof is decent – but it was just a chance for some of the female cast members to march on in gowns and sport funny accents. Vanessa Bayer – a very talented, but still underused performer – gets special mention for Miss Moldova who nails her lines (which mine cliches). Washington again steals the show as a surly Miss Uganda, who is nonplussed by the concept of a beauty pageant, firing out confused questions in a spotless accent. I wish the writers would’ve tweaked the idea of having a beauty pageant in Russia, in light of the country’s anti-gay laws.

The Weekend Update sketch was good – not great – but solid, highlighted by Kate McKinnon’s appealingly geeky Angela Merkel, who is mortified by the revelations that she was spied on by the U.S. government. I’m not loving the Seth Myers-Cecily Strong pairing: Myers seems to be phoning it in, and Strong seems a bit constrained by having to play second banana. Maybe when Myers leaves SNL, Strong may be able to free herself up and build on her potential.

The “Cartoon Catchphrase” skit was okay. Washington plays a game show host – the only sketch that doesn’t use the actress to her potential. The sketch dissolves into a sordid tale of infidelity – it was the only bona fide bummer of the show.

The Booker T. Washington High carnival sketch with Washington playing a teacher wearing a clown wig and sporting a Noo Yawk dialect. As with all of her sketches, her charisma manages to make a so-so sketch watchable (though Pharoah’s lampooning speech impediments isn’t funny). Thompson also manages to inject some good laughs doing his patented wide-eyed crazy guy. Like the game show sketch, this skit is very much a late-in-the-evening sketch, dumped in the back.

The “Date or Diss” sketch had huge potential – whenever adult cast members portray teens – particularly dreadful teens like the kind that appear on MTV dating shows. It’s a shame that the writers couldn’t backup the committed performances of the cast members, and it’s clear that this sketch was dumped at the end, as it went nowhere (though it was nice to see Taran Killam, normally an MPV, but strangely absent in this episode, anchor a sketch – too bad it was pretty much a stinker).

The final skit of the night was one that wasn’t funny, but still well done – and that’s okay – I like it when SNL tries to grow and expand on just jokey segments. In this skit, a guy orders ice cream at a parlor, only to confound and confuse the cashier, who doesn’t understand the joke; his confusion leads to a long and convoluted process. Like I said, not a huge laugh, but a skit that was thoughtful and well-written.

I have to say I really liked this episode – this season has been rather spotty, and it’s nice when a host lands – and Kerry Washington was really inspiring. It’s always cool when a host surprises and confounds expectations – like when Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara hosted and revealed an unexpected range and comfort with the material. Washington is always so serious, so it’s nice to see the actress cut loose and join the proceedings with a high level of enthusiasm. When Scandal closes its doors, Washington should seriously look into a comedic vehicle for her talents – SNL proved that she has the chops.

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Filed under Celeb, Comedy, commentary, Television

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