The November 13 cancellation of the unabashedly left-leaning Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell — due to low ratings and the ineptitude of a new network that had no idea how to take advantage of the show’s online presence and snare more young viewers that way — is disheartening, and it’s not just because I wanted a job at Totally Biased. (I would have taken anything: Photoshop assistant, ticket tearer, guy who tricks New York cabbies into driving around any of the show’s black staffers…) The Totally Biased writers’ room was the most diverse on not-so-diverse late-night TV.
Bell, who was previously best known for the one-man stage show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, looked out not just for black stand-ups but for stand-ups of other colors as well, giving voice to Asian American (and LGBT) comedians who are often ignored by writers’ rooms. Totally Biased was also funny as hell. Add to that show’s demise the continual inability of SNL to hire either its first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph’s 2007 departure or Asian American cast members who aren’t merely a quarter Asian (plus the Internet uproar that ensued over both SNL‘s lack of diversity and cast member Kenan Thompson’s controversial response to the criticisms), and you have a tumultuous past couple of months for comedians of color on late-night TV.
Every time SNL takes one step forward (like the increase in juicy comedic material for female performers that was sparked by Tina Fey’s stint as head writer or the hiring of a YouTube comedian like Jay Pharoah), it seems to take two steps back (the diversity problem, which results in cringeworthy moments like Nasim Pedrad’s skin being darkened when she imitated Aziz Ansari). The November 2 SNL episode guest-hosted by Kerry Washington (whose lead role on Scandal is a great example of how retrograde both SNL and late-night TV are in comparison to the rest of the TV landscape) was the SNL writers’ (kind of feeble) attempt to admit their show needs to fix its diversity problem. But the big winner that night was neither Washington nor women of color. The winner was Pharoah, who stole the episode with a hysterical impression of Shaq — he basically reimagined him as a googly-eyed Muppet — and a Lonely Island-style parody of the inexplicable viral sensation “What Does the Fox Say?”
Pharoah was also a big winner during the debate over diversity that preceded the November 2 episode when he became the first — and only — SNL regular to publicly agree with criticisms about how his own show has mishandled the diversity problem. “They need to pay attention,” said Pharoah to theGrio as he suggested that SNL should add actress Darmirra Brunson to the cast because of both her skills as an impressionist and the fact that she’s a black woman. Brunson posts videos of herself busting out celebrity impressions on YouTube, which is how Pharoah also gained notoriety before SNL.
Brunson does a dead-on Nicki Minaj and has the nasal Minaj voice on lock, just like how Pharoah is a master at capturing the voices of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Jay Z and Lil Wayne. Pharoah‘s freestyle as Weezy during Shade 45‘s Sway in the Morning was much funnier than his appearance as Weezy during a quick Weekend Update segment that was stolen by frequent SNL MVP Taran Killam as Eminem, mainly because Pharoah isn’t allowed on SNL to rap about putting his dick up in a wasp’s nest. The fact that Pharoah‘s rapper impressions are funnier when he does them outside SNL than when he does them during one of SNL‘s often interminable live sketches points to how broken and out-of-touch the Broadway Video/NBC franchise is as a comedic institution — unless it starts to get with the changing times. Things that were tolerated in 1976 or 1993 — seven-to-10-minute live sketches that quickly wear out their welcome and don’t seem to go anywhere comedically; Asian characters who are played either by white comedians or SNL production designer Akira Yoshimura (he’d appear on-screen whenever SNL needed someone to play Sulu from Star Trek); all-white writers’ rooms — don’t play so well in 2013 anymore.
If SNL can’t get with the changing times, maybe young comedians of color should stop turning to SNL as the promised land. YouTube has emerged as the promised land, where Asian American comedians like the Wong Fu Productions crew have found stardom (and are making mad C.R.E.A.M.) and where videos of impressions of rappers and other celebrities often outshine impressions of the same celebs on present-day SNL (and if Totally Biased had originated as a YouTube show instead of as an FX show, I don’t think we’d be mourning its demise right now).
Most of the following spot-on MC impressions, including Brunson’s Minaj and Pharoah’s material, originated on YouTube (Pharoah’s “I Am a Dog” parody of Kanye was produced not for SNL but for Broadway Video’s new YouTube channel Above Average). Whether it’s Pharoah’s impression of Kendrick’s flow, which seems to have been inspired by K.Dot’s killer guest verse on DJ Khaled’s “They Ready,” or former MADtv regular Aries Spears turning DMX into Sally whenever she orders food in When Harry Met Sally, these impressions are so entertaining that for a few minutes, they’ve made me briefly forget about the dual heartbreak of the creative stagnancy of a late-night show I grew up watching and the unjust demise of a late-night show that could have become a game-changer for progressively minded comedians of color. I’m just going to let the impressions, which are in order from funny to funniest, speak for themselves.