Kenan Thompson Says ‘Black Jeopardy’ Opened ‘SNL’ to New Audiences

A guy will see a few things when he spends 21 years on a comedy show. For Kenan Thompson, he’s inevitably been witness to several Saturday Night Live evolutions over the course of his record-breaking run. SNL is “always changing,” he said this week at Cannes Lion, as reported by Deadline. “Every week there’s a new host, every season there’s a new cast. Also, it’s weird how the crowd all seems to stay young, and I keep getting older.”

The biggest change Thompson has seen? The diversity of the show’s cast. “For decades, SNL had only one, maybe two Black cast members,” he said. “Today, I’m one of five, and we also have Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQ+ members in our cast. It’s just not about appearances, it allows the show to do comedy it never could before.”

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An example? How about “Black Jeopardy,” a series of sketches that went viral for Tom Hanks and Chadwick Boseman.

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“With a sketch like ‘Black Jeopardy,’ it only works if we have enough Black cast members to make it feel authentic to the community,” Thompson explained. “Sketches like ‘Black Jeopardy’ open up the show to a whole new audience who never felt the show was for them.”

Thompson said it’s a conscious choice for the show and producer Lorne Michaels, who “likes to remind us that we’re on in all 52 states. It’s his way of saying we’re a big tent show and our mission is to appeal to all ages and ideologies, just one night when we Americans and all of us across the globe come together and laugh at stuff. The big tent that Lorne Michaels always talks about just keeps getting bigger.”

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The irony is that both Michaels and Thompson received flak in the past over diversity issues. In the early 2010s, Thompson blamed the show’s lack of Black female comics not on Michaels but on Black female comics. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson told TV Guide. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”

Yikes. In the entire comedy world, there wasn’t a single Black female comic ready for SNL in 2013? The blowback from Thompson’s remarks — and the show’s general lack of diversity — led to Sasheer Zamata’s hasty hire in early 2014SNL’s first Black female cast member in five years. This came after a Kerry Washington episode in which she had to play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce in the same sketch, an admitted self-own about the show’s inability to feature those characters without putting Thompson in a wig.

Cast changes allowed sketches like “Black Jeopardy” to go viral, but it’s not so easy to create those moments, Thompson explained. “This past year, SNL did many sketches about people in the national spotlight – Taylor Swift, George Santos – and yet the biggest sketch of all was about Beavis and Butt-Head, two cartoon characters from 30 years ago,” he said. “You can’t manufacture a cultural moment.”