It was announced on Tuesday that Aziz Ansari will host Saturday Night Live next Saturday, marking the first time a Southeast Asian American will host the show in its 42 year run. It will be the first time in 15 years the show will be hosted by an Asian American.
As a recent Asian American college graduate who aspires to make a social impact through comedy, this announcement was a huge deal. As a comedy buff, I’ve watched SNL since I was in the 8th grade, knowing full well that there has been an absolute dearth of Asian Americans on the show. Growing up I thought it was just impossible for Asians to be on that show because no Asians were ever represented on that show, period. Just this season, during a cold open, Melissa Villaseñor, SNL’s first Latina cast member, made a joke about this issue as she played Filipina Vice Presidential Moderator, Elaine Quijano. “Hello, I’m the new Latina cast member. And I’ll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano. Because baby steps.” I remember the audience laughing at that “joke,” and then cold open continued with no time to question, “Wait, yeah there are no Asian cast members!,” or “Wait, is Melissa Villaseñor kinda doing yellowface right now?” or “Why couldn’t they just have an Asian comedienne come on the show for this cold open, similar to when Queen Latifah impersonated Gwen Ifill?”
“Baby steps.” As in “Asians, wait in the comedy line with no guarantee of ever being on SNL!” SNL making a joke about their lack of progress both distracts the audience to thinking that this isn’t that big of a problem, and justifies that although SNL is still in diaper phase, it’s ok to still be in diaper phase at 42 years old. Being complacent with its mostly homogenous racial track record says to comedians of color, and in this case Asian comedians, "It’s easier that we dismiss you or pretend you’re not there. And while we’re at it, we’ll make fun of the fact that you’re weren't even invited to the party.”
But the presence of an Asian American comedy super star may allow SNL to see how far behind they are. Aziz Ansari is no stranger to comedy. He performed for several years at the Upright Citizens Brigade and as a stand-up in the early 2000s before being cast as outlandish but semi-redeemable Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation. He is now the star and executive producer of his Emmy award winning social issue focused comedy, Master of None. His comedy tours have been highly successful, and he even wrote a New York Times best selling comedy about dating in this age in the book Modern Romance: An Investigation. SNL would be fools to overlook Ansari’s undeniable talent and popularity. I cherish his show Master of None because of its unique reflection of modern day struggles, social interactions and issues, all while having a multifaceted and diverse cast. The second episode of Master of None called “Parents” reflected on Asian generational and cultural differences between Aziz’s character and his parents. The writing of the episode was particularly reflective, heartfelt, and nuanced, revealing a decently realistic experience Asian kids have growing up as first or second generation Americans to immigrant parents. People who don’t generally have to think about this dynamic did for perhaps the first time. I hope that his presence, and other Asian American comediennes (shoutout to Queen Mindy Kaling!) will allow shows like SNL to see the real talent and strength of Asian American comedians, resulting in a trickle down effect of more visibility of Asian American comedians. Maybe Ansari’s presence on hosting will motivate SNL to hire its first Asian cast member on its show. I believe that influence IS possible. Just look at Dave Chapelle, who hosted SNL for the first time this season, and how his presence, through the sketches he was in and his opening monologue, shaped the tone and comfort zone of SNL post Trump’s election win. He commentated on race politics during this election so poignantly, yet it was really one of the first instances that SNL tackled race during this election. Hopefully SNL realizes the power of bringing in more hosts of color, who offer a radical perspective compared to the cookie cutter one that SNL decides to continue using every season, and continue to expand the perspectives and representation of the show in a long term way.
In general, Asian comedians do make up a smaller population of the comedy world because there are less of us in the US than some groups (Asian Americans make up about 5% of the US population), and access and engagement of the arts due to cultural and financial reasons prevents Asians Americans to be in the arts. So yes, it may make more sense that there haven’t been a ton Asian American hosts on the show, but it doesn’t make sense that there hasn’t been only 3 in 42 years. Some would argue that in order to get on SNL as a cast member, you have to do improv at the improvisation training grounds like The Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and the Groundlings and be good enough to be on the main stage of those training grounds to get noticed by SNL. These training grounds are hubs for aspiring sketch performers and improvisers, not just because that’s where you learn sketch and improv, but because they are platforms that attract talent agents and are a part of a pipeline for shows like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. But, if you look at the list of alumni of those improv companies, you WILL see Asian Americans on those stages improvising and performing sketch comedy since the beginning, like Jack Soo with The Groundlings in the 1970s. And since then, Asian comedians have continued to perform on those stages. When I visited Chicago last March, I saw Peter Kim, an openly gay Korean comedian, perform on The Second City stage in full drag and queer empowerment. And there’s Tien Tran, another Asian American comedian in Chicago who is currently on The Second City stage. It just shows that Asian comedians have been here and continue to be present on comedy stages. So Saturday Night Live, no more baby steps. It’s time to stop making excuses and get potty trained.