It seems some TV networks have gotten the message on late night diversity and others have not.
Friday’s news — that Saturday Night Live hired comic Michael Che to join Colin Jost behind the anchor desk on its popular “Weekend Update” segment — shows NBC’s venerated late night comedy franchise may, finally, stand among those in the first group.
Che, who is black, was a writer at SNL when he was hired in April by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show to fill out the program’s increasingly diverse collection of correspondents. He’s had a meteoric rise through the comedy ranks in New York City, earning complimentary notices in Variety and Rolling Stone before he landed at SNL last year.
But he went to The Daily Show just as SNL was making history for hiring its first African-American female castmember in years. The NBC show also hired two black female writers amid controversy over the program’s past lack of diversity. In his new SNL job, Che will be the first black co-anchor of “Weekend Update” and half of the segment’s first-ever all male anchor team.
“It’s always difficult to make changes and make update different from what’s gone before,” said SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, speaking to the New York Times on trying different combinations of performers before deciding to replace Jost’s last co-host, castmember Cecily Strong, with Che. “This is about a new era; what feels appropriate for now.”
What critics like me find appropriate is more humor reflecting a wide range of cultural perspectives – like Che’s Daily Show pieces advising black folks not to even attempt carrying guns the way some white, open-carry activists do, and traveling into outer space to find a safe place for a black person to talk about police brutality.
The “Weekend Update” anchor slot is a plum job; the one position on SNL which guarantees a performer will get screen time every week. It’s also a major farm team for the upper echelons of comedy; past anchors include everyone from Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd and Dennis Miller to Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Seth Meyers.
One of the biggest problems with a lack of diversity in key SNL jobs is the way it can affect Hollywood’s comedy pipeline. With so many movie and TV comedy stars pulled from the ranks of SNL castmembers, adding diversity to a high profile gig like “Weekend Update” just might help diversify the world of comedy overall.
SNL‘s move comes just after CBS ended the latest musical chairs shuffle of late night TV hosts, confirming British comic James Corden would take over its Late Late Show in 2015. Talented as Corden is – with a history as a witty, funny TV star, producer and show creator in Britain – his hire also confirmed that white males would continue to host every late night talk show on network television into the foreseeable future.
(Critics might say Che’s hire limits diversity in another way, taking a woman off the anchor desk to make room for him. So this diversity thing can be tricky where there’s a limited amount of jobs available.)
Che seems to have a bold comedic voice that would be successful regardless of his race.
But SNL has reached its 40th anniversary by staying in step with America’s evolving pop culture in ways that remain compelling and entertaining.
Adding a little more ethnic diversity to its highest-profile job seems a fitting way to stay relevant while reflecting our increasingly multicultural future.