The consensus has emerged: in his response to President Obama’s address last night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was channeling 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page. Which raises the question: since there’s already plenty of cast cross-over between Tina Fey’s Lorne-Michaels-produced comedy and Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live, hasn’t someone from SNL already placed a call to Jack McBrayer to have him do a stint as the Mr.-Rogers-inflected Guv on the next SNL?
Well, the answer to that is most likely no, unless NBC does some major reshuffling, since Saturday’s scheduled SNL is a rerun. But if it were possible, how cool would that be? Or how offensive?
A McBrayer performance would, of course, essentially be brownface, as he imitated the country’s best known Indian American politician. SNL has already taken heat for having Fred Armisen, who is not black, do Obama. Then again, SNL has not taken the character away from him.
I’ve never had a problem with Armisen playing Obama because he’s not black. My problem is that his Obama is not funny, or more to the point, it doesn’t really seem to capture his essence as did Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin or Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton.
But the idea that McBrayer could play hillbilly Kenneth Parcell and Bobby Jindal is encouragingly—to throw around that overused word—”postracial.” Well, not really postracial, but it makes an important point: that skin color is only one of the atrributes that make up our appearance and identity and, often, far from the most important one. The reasons that McBrayer is more like Jindal than, say, Aasif Mandvi is, are about affect, the cadence and tone of their voices, the childlike emphases, the eerily determined smiles, the chinlessness. (I say this as a proud Chinless American.) It’s not a bad thing for our society to realize that, in this day and age, a Bobby Jindal can be more Parcell than Patel.
This kind of question gets thorny when you’re talking about playing characters of an ethnicity underrepresented in Hollywood. The Armisen-Obama controversy was really a stand-in for an argument about the general whiteness of SNL’s cast. Likewise, you have actors of Indian heritage regularly playing Arabs—like Naveen Andrews as the Iraqi Sayid on Lost. Conversely, for a column on Comedy Central’s Axis of Evil special (featuring Middle Eastern American comics) I talked to Iranian-American Maz Jobrani about playing an Indian cabdriver on Knights of Prosperity.
But it’s not generally white European Americans who get substituted for, though there had to have been good black George W. Bushes out there. In other words, easy for me to make this argument, right? It’s always “postracial” when it comes to finding a job for the white man!
Of course, if we listen to Jack Donaghy, Kenneth the Page is, socioeconomically, the equivalent of an inner-city Latina, so can’t we make an exception for him?