Entertainment

NBC Quietly Removed This Racist Sketch From a 1986 'SNL' Episode

Lorne Michaels asks Oprah to play Aunt Jemima, and that's somehow not the worst part.
March 10, 2020, 3:42pm
Lorne Michaels and Danitra Vance
Image via Getty

In a lengthy examination of Oprah Winfrey's recent stretch of stumbles published by BuzzFeed last week, the publication takes a critical and detailed look at the mogul’s past. In the piece, there is mention of a Saturday Night Live sketch so bad, it makes a comedy-less impression of Hillary Clinton singing Hallelujah seem like a fantastic idea.

The sketch in question is from April 12, 1986, in the eleventh season of SNL, in which Oprah Winfrey is a guest host. In the cold open, Lorne Michaels checks in on Oprah in her dressing room to go over the night’s proposed sketches. Oprah says she will not be performing in a number of skits, specifically the ones in which she plays Aunt Jemima, a maid, Br’er Rabbit, and an undisclosed role in “the Refrigerator Perry sketch.” Then comes in Danitra Vance, the show’s first Black woman repertory actor, dressed as Celie, Whoopi Goldberg's character from The Color Purple, serving Michaels coffee and calling the executive producer “Mister Lorne.” After Lorne asks Vance what he should do with Oprah, who won’t listen to anything he says, Vance suggests he beat her. But in a surprise twist, Oprah ends up beating Lorne.

The skit, as the BuzzFeed piece notes, does not appear to exist on the internet. However, there are digital remnants that confirm it aired in the first place. An unofficial transcript is available, as are screenshots from multiple unofficial sites. The rest of the 1986 episode is still on the NBC website. According to the NBC website, there are 609 episodes online. There have been 883 episodes of SNL in total, and it's not clear why some episodes are available while others are not. What is clear, however, is that NBC currently has the Oprah episode up, seemingly in full, with no mention or inclusion of the cold open.

It is unclear when NBC stripped the cold open from the episode, but it did appear in a broadcast 13 years after it first aired. Nova Scotia-based writer Ben Douwsma, who writes SNL reviews at his blog Existential Weightlifting, told VICE they recorded the episode during a 1999 SNL rerun on TV, and the cold open was still included. At least one person uploaded the sketch to YouTube, but it was removed by NBC on copyright grounds. Reps from NBC did not respond to multiple inquiries from VICE.

There is a logic in SNL quietly disappearing the sketch, though it is unclear when it was removed from the episode. The network was likely trying to avoid the Streisand effect, which postulates that trying to delete something to avoid attention will only make it more public. Errors and gaffes on the show have turned into news in their own right and highly trafficked moments, like when Ashlee Simpson clearly lip-synced, or when Bill Hader consistently broke character as Stefon.

Given the skit’s over-the-top use of stereotypes, it is even more remarkable that it might be based on a real-life occurrence. The skit itself is an apparent reference to something that happened at that week’s pitch meeting, according to one unofficial SNL review. This detail is ostensibly confirmed in a memoir by Brent Runyon, "The Burn Journals." In his account of a meeting with then-SNL cast member Dennis Miller, Miller told Runyon that Al Franken had actually asked Oprah if she would play Aunt Jemima.

The skit is also representative of Vance’s short one-year stint at SNL. In a 2018 Vulture interview honoring the late actor and comedian—Vance died in 1994 of breast cancer—fellow comedian Marina Franklin described Vance’s tenure on the show as an unhappy one because she was stuck doing stereotypical roles.

In the Sun-Sentinel, a reflection on Vance’s life claims that the actor’s one year tenure on the show was “in part because she resented routinely being cast as a maid or a prostitute.”

This is not the only skit that NBC has tried to disappear. A 2017 sketch in which a SafeLite AutoGlass technician alludes to being a sexual predator was removed from the air after the windshield company complained online. In 1999, after condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, the show promised to remove a sketch called "And So This is Hanukkah," though Michaels disagreed with the decision (the sketch is not part of the episode online).

Other older, more controversial but better-executed skits on race remain available online. A famous example is the 1975 “Word Association” sketch featuring Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. In this sketch, Chase is interviewing where Chase throws out increasingly offensive racist slurs, and Pryor responds with white slurs as the situation escalates. Finally, Chase arrives at the n-word, to which Pryor replies “dead honky.” The tension of the skit is intensified when you know Pryor didn’t like Chevy Chase in real life.

The recall of Oprah’s cold open in a 1986 SNL episode might’ve continued unnoticed if BuzzFeed had not included the memory-holing in its recent Oprah coverage. But it’s a reminder that misinformation is not an internet-exclusive phenomenon. NBC edited their archive, without any mention that they had, letting new viewers think this show always started with Oprah’s monologue. If a sketch went to air, then suddenly disappears from the archive, it's the network's responsibility to explain why that is the case.

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