Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “White Like Me”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

A few years ago, Neal Brennan was interviewed by The A.V. Club about his comedy touchstones, and he recalled watching a certain 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch with a statement that should be absurd, but I suspect holds true for a lot of white people who grew up part of Generation X.

“I think that is probably the first time I thought, “Oh. Being Black is different. That is a totally different experience,” Brennan said.

The sketch was known as “White Like Me,” and it was at the center of the episode that Eddie Murphy came back to host, his first time in that role since leaving the late night comedy program for movie stardom. The premise was that Murphy wanted to conduct an experiment, stirred by curiosity over whether it was true that “there are actually two Americas: one Black and one white.” He worked with the makeup artists up on the eight floor of 30 Rockefeller Center to adopt a convincing guise as a white man, and then he ventured into the world. It was sly satire, building its comic hyperbole without ever tilting Murphy’s experience undercover to pure cartoon. It was exaggerated, but it was clear that it was only by a matter of degrees. Brennan’s epiphany was a reasonable response. But maybe I think that because it was probably the first time I truly landed upon that thought, too.

“White Like Me” can be watched at NBC’s website for Saturday Night Live.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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