Let’s talk about race and “Saturday Night Live”.

Let’s talk about it even though every time we do, it devolves into anarchy in the comments.
 
Let’s talk about it specifically because of that anarchy, which rather than dampening any desire to have a rational discussion about it only makes me want to keep attempting to have it.
 
Let’s talk about it not simply because Kerry Washington is the host this week, but rather because it’s a useful conversation to constantly have.
 
Let’s talk about it because I’ve already talked about it here, here, here, and here and the rage that inevitably flows from a small, vocal portion of the readership is often more instructive about the show’s than anything I can bring to the table.
 
Let’s talk about it because talking about it is in fact talking about ways to make a show near and dear to the hearts of many “SNL” fans better.
 
The show’s predominantly white cast isn’t the sole reason why the program doesn’t soar each week. Throwing in more members of different ethnicities doesn’t magically solve the show’s problems and turn it into a can’t-miss juggernaut. But as I’ve said before and will restate now and many times in the future: The issue here isn’t about adding diversity for diversity’s sake but rather expanding the types of voices that can be expressed on the show. That expansion moves beyond the temporarily-erected walls of the sets inside Studio 8H, but into the living rooms of those watching. Maybe “SNL” can’t think of anything funny about First Lady Michelle Obama. And that’s fine. (It’s a bit odd, yet speaks to lack of creativity more than anything else.) But the fact that the show can only portray Mrs. Obama when actresses such as Maya Rudolph or Kerry Washington hosts seems like a much bigger problem. If the show can’t accurately reflect the world around it, then what purpose does it serve?
 
And let’s be clear: this isn’t about having African-American women as part of the cast in order to play celebrities and politicians who are African-American. But without them on the cast at all, there’s no chance to cast them in sketches that don’t involve Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, or the other celebrities normally played by Kenan Thompson in drag. If you need to look any further to see the show’s limited sensibilities beyond the Caucasian spectrum, look at last week’s “12 Days Not A Slave,” a sketch that took one of the darkest parts of American history and turned it into a theory about why white people think twerking is a good idea. There’s no rule that says no comedy can be mined from slavery. But it was mined from the same perspective than nearly all comedy on the show is mined. And given both the make-up of the country and the make-up of the sketch comedy world, the show’s casting is going to continue to be a persistently problematic aspect of its overall makeup. Period.
 
Can the show be funny without any cast changes? Of course it can. But it can only be funny within the self-imposed limitations it has placed upon itself. These are boundaries no one but the show has placed upon itself. And there’s nothing funny about that.
 
We’re back to liveblogging here tonight. I’m putting this up a little earlier than normal so people can have the chance to read the lengthier-than-usual introduction before the show starts. I’ll be grading every segment in real time once things start at 11:30 pm EST. See you back here then.
 
We Don’t Have Any Black Women In Our Cast: Well, that didn’t take long. “It feels like it’s been years since I’ve seen you,” says Obama. The show had to address this topic in some manner, and this is probably the best way to do it…in the eyes of the show. But simply pointing out that they can never have FLOTUS, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce onstage yet can have six Matthew McConaugheys doesn’t make the problem go away so much as underline it. Washington’s fabulous here, even if the fourth-wall breaking stuff is really weird and slightly discomforting. But doesn’t Al Sharpton’s observation that we learned “nothing” from this just prove the point? I can’t even grade this sketch. I need to see how the show actually integrates Washington rather than highlight here. [Grade: N/A]
 
Monologue: The cast doesn’t know she’s Kerry Washington! They think she’s Olivia Pope! The cast needs helps with various problems, which Washington tries to fix. There’s probably going to be a “Scandal” sketch later, which will hopefully be funnier than this. Once the premise was established, it really didn’t go anywhere, outside of Vanessa Bayer saying “da’ club.” [Grade: C]
 
Career Week: Two weeks in a row with Nasim Pedrad in the prime, post-monologue slot? I’m dreaming and loving it. She’s a Yemen-born woman with Kerry Washington as her beach towel-carrying assistant. Her keys to success? “Self-confidence”, “having a computer”, and “power”. Also, apparently: sound effects. Lots and lots of sound effects, courtesy of her son. Sketches that involve lots of sound effects can sometimes lead to complete train wrecks, but Pedrad’s energy coupled with the precision of the effects make them work effectively. Washington doesn’t have a lot to do, but her line reading of “Respect my ability to assess a bucket!” was funnier than 80% of anything else this season. Nothing memorable, but a fine way to spend five minutes. [Grade: B] 
 
What Does My Girl Say?: Any chance that Jay Pharaoh gets to do something that doesn’t involve an impression? Incredible. Any chance for Kerry Washington to unleash her inner pop diva? Even better. Deploying both inside a parody of Ylvis’ “What Does The Fox Say?” shouldn’t work. And yet it does. Like gangbusters. Yes, it’s borrowing from an admittingly catchy track. But who cares when the re-appropriation works this well? In fact, the repetition of the chorus actually mirrors the topic (the cycling fighting between the couple). Furthermore, the song doesn’t settle for recycling the same joke, but actually tells a complete story in three minutes. Awesome stuff all around. I’ll be watching that for the next two weeks until Lady Gaga comes in and tries to match that. Good luck, Gaga.  [Grade: A]
 
How’s He Doing?: If I told you we haven’t seen this sketch since Maya Rudolph hosted, would you be surprised? Of course not. Here’s a sketch that shouldn’t happen every week, but as part of the overall spectrum of political comedy, it’s absolutely useful. The jokes here just normally don’t exist in weekly sketches. (“What I wouldn’t give to get a white person’s mail for a day? Nothing but pre-approved credit cards and a Pottery Barn catalog!”) And again: sketches like this don’t have to be omnipresent. Just part of the conversation! This is a great example of that, even if the bizarre diatribe against episodic recaps of “The Wire” came out of freakin’ left field. My anger in the opening sketch wasn’t against the content but rather its ultimate applicability. If it was a mea culpa that results in more hosts of color leading to more cast members of color, awesome. Because wouldn’t you want a sketch like this over another round of Bobby Monyihan’s Kirby every day of the week? [Grade: B+]
 
Miss Universe 2013: Normally, while watching the show, I can get a feel for a sketch early on and start writing up what’s happening. Here? I had to watch the whole thing first, not only to figure out what the hell was going on but also determine if it was actually the most offensive thing ever. Having seen the whole sketch, I’m still a little bit unnerved by the “isn’t it funny how third-world countries are completely effed up???” aspect of the sketch. But there’s still a lot of funny offense here, which puts it somewhere in the realm of the David Paterson “Weekend Update” segments. All the women on display were given specific–and funny–mannerisms as well as back stories. At gunpoint, I’d go with Kate McKinnon’s Miss Bolivia and Aidy Bryant’s Miss Greenland as my favorites. (“Now there are three of us up there, and I’m the woman!”) I’m still super queasy about the optics of this sketch, which probably means I’ll regret my positive grade at a later date. Oh well. I’m still riding the high of the last few segments. [Grade: B]
 
Eminem takes the stage along with Rick Rubin to perform “Berzerk”. I’m old enough to remember Bill Squier’s “The Stroke” on the radio. So this is fun, as far as reminders of mortality go. The production here feels like old-school Run-DMC, another thing I remember from my younger days. Know what I also remember? An Eminem that was vital in the pop-culture scene. There’s nothing bad about this song, but there’s little necessary about it either. As both a poet and pop-culture provocateur, The Real Slim Shady used to have something to say. He still sounds good, but it’s sound and fury signifying that he used to bury songs like this near the end of his albums, not as lead singles. [Grade: B-]
 
Weekend Update: Chancellor Angela Merkel (McKinnon) appears to discuss her recent comments about news that the US government had been spying on her phone. If McKinnon did an “Update” segment every week, I’d be the happiest person recapping “SNL” ever. (Not that “SNL” likes recaps, and not that I’m bitter in the least!) What’s great about her Merkel is the approach: she’s not a world leader so much as a woman lonely for love. It’s an understandable feeling that takes the esoteric nature of world politics and turns it into a slightly endearing three-minute profile. (McKinnon also pulled this off with Ann Romney, if you’ll recall.) Afterwards, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal appear to talk about the NBA. And I think I speak for all of America when I say HOW IS JAY PHARAOH DOING THAT WITH HIS EYES? MAKE IT STOP! It’s weird that I just mentioned the Paterson stuff a bit ago, since Pharaoh’s mannerisms here seem inspired by Fred Armisen’s interpretation. After a rough start, I’m downright impression by the energy of tonight’s show. Across the board, it feels like they had something to prove. It hasn’t always translated into perfect segments, but there’s a lot of energy all the same.  [Grade: A-]
 
Cartoon Catchphrase: Well, that was a fun ride of quality comedy while it lasted. I’m a charter member of the Aidy Bryant Fan Club, but this sketch was over once her character made her first “Phone A Friend”. When the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches aired, the stupidity of the characters made no sense but was funny all the same. Here? It makes no sense why these contestants don’t know the answer to any questions, which renders the reason for making so many calls involving the extra-small condom-wearing Duane null and void. It’s a small thing, but really reveals the puppetmasters at play here. Yes, all sketches are written. But the good ones don’t FEEL written in the moment. This one did, which made things a slough. Oh well. [Grade: C-]
 
Booker T. Washington High: Principal Frye is back! Pharaoh is everywhere tonight. I don’t remember a single episode that featured him this much. With each return to the stage in this particular sketch, he looks 15% more likely to break mid-monologue. Washington plays Miss Cherry, a teacher suffering at the hands of students whom she failed during midterms. Kenan Thompson also makes an appearance as the school’s gym coach, as he has in each version of this segment. (Know who didn’t make an appearance? Any of the Matthew McConaugheys, who have essentially been absent this week.) Past iterations of this sketch have all been fine, but never really leaving me wanting more. Given the strength of Pharaoh in other sketches tonight that didn’t involve character affectations, maybe it’s time to retire Principal Frye once and for all. [Grade: C+]

Eminem returns to the stage to perform “Survival”. For a man that knows how to craft a hook-y chorus, this is some pretty weak sauce. But hey, I bet all the “Call Of Duty” fans enjoy this playing against footage from the upcoming iterations “Ghosts”. So my thoughts on the merits of this song are moot. (Yes, even more so than usual, which is certainly saying something!) “Berzerk” felt like Run-DMC, but this feels like Kid Rock. Spoiler alert: that’s not a good thing. [Grade: C] 

Date Or Diss: I’m pretty sure no one at “Saturday Night Live” knows that “Next!” was cancelled. On the other hand, this is a 12:55 am sketch dressed up as a “normal” sketch, so the segment’s lack of timeliness can be forgiven. But there’s “strange” that is actually funny (last week’s final sketch, any and all “Ex-Porn Stars” sketches), and “strange” that’s just a bunch of non-sequiturs thrown on cue cards. The premise ensures a choppy pace throughout, with little flow connecting either the three contestants to each other or their various stories into a cohesive narrative about them as individuals. There’s probably a good sketch here, but it needed a few more rounds of drafts before locating its prime material.  [Grade: C-]
 
Ice Cream: Kyle Mooney is the show’s go-to pre-produced presence this year, and the results have been mixed. Some have been funny, others not so much. I’m not sure this is actually funny, but I’m also not sure that’s the actually point. This was “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Ice Cream”. The dreamlike nature of the sketch represents a strong narrative POV, which is in line with the best shorts of the post-Lonely Island era. It’s an off sketch upon which to end the show, but as a standalone piece of entertainment, it’s pretty interesting stuff. It doesn’t ultimately hold together within its own dream logic, but the ride is fascinating. [Grade: B]
 
Best Sketch: What Does My Girl Say?
 
Worst Sketch: Cartoon Catchphrase
 
Do I Want to Grade The Cold Open Now? Nope. It’s fine and dandy for the show to address the inherent issue. That’s a great first step. What it actually does about it is the more important thing. If it’s a case of flipping off critics while the attention is focused on the show, then who cares? If it’s the start of a new approach to casting and writing, then I’m all for it. But either way, there’s no way to grade that cold open for a while to come.
 
What did you think of tonight’s show? Sound off below!