The Genius of That SNL Sketch on Race

On the latest episode, the show departed from its dependence on guest stars to deliver a fresh, hilarious take on stereotypes.

“Mid-Day News” stood out—eschewing the gimmicks and guest stars that have come to dominate SNL. (Will Heath / NBC)

Newscasters should never riff on race while reading the day’s headlines, let alone play games on the subject. But during Saturday Night Live’s latest episode, a group of anchors did exactly that in a memorable sketch from an otherwise uneven night.

Mid-Day News” began with a classic SNL setup: the local news program, set somewhere in Florida, with four anchors (played by the host Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the cast members Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim, and Alex Moffat) reading the top stories. When the perpetrator of a gas-station robbery turned out to be white, the black anchors cheered. “We’re just glad we know what the criminal looks like, and he ain’t one of us,” Thompson’s character explained to his baffled colleague. The newscast then swiftly turned into a ferocious competition: With every crime, the foursome anticipated the race of the culprit. And with every reveal, the group found their expectations subverted.

Much like 2016’s “Black Jeopardy” sketch, in which Tom Hanks played a Donald Trump supporter who surprisingly had a lot in common with his fellow contestants, “Mid-Day News” thrived by toying with stereotypes. Some were rooted in economics: Waller-Bridge’s Pam assumed that the woman at a nail salon who attacked the cashier for refusing a welfare card must have been black. And Nwodim’s newscaster believed that the mastermind behind a Ponzi scheme must have been white. Others were rooted in lifestyle assumptions: Nwodim’s character also figured that the man mauled by a bison during a rock-climbing trip was white—until the victim’s name was revealed to be Laquan.

The sketch didn’t touch on politics via the goings-on in Washington, D.C., but its commentary was political nonetheless. In avoiding the daily minutiae of Capitol Hill, “Mid-Day News” stood out—eschewing the gimmicks and guest stars that have come to dominate SNL’s takes on the topic.

The segment also succeeded in its pacing, as the absurd competition steadily descended into chaos. The foursome grew more and more enthusiastic with each story: Nwodim and Thompson’s high fives became full-on celebrations, while Waller-Bridge’s and Moffat’s initial reluctance gave way to obsessive excitement. (In one of the funniest punch lines, both Nwodim’s and Moffat’s characters united in passing over a headline about a Latino man. “Skip that one; we don’t need that,” Nwodim said, dismissively waving the story away.) By the end of the sketch, Chris Redd’s meteorologist, who’d been keeping score, had loosened his tie and looked frazzled, as if he’d been reacting to the match offscreen the entire time.

While watching “Mid-Day News,” I was reminded of Key & Peele’s “Black Ice,” a similarly sharp and chaotic sketch in which a newscast’s black meteorologists (played by the stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) squared off against the white anchors’ not-so-subtly racist descriptions of “black ice,” a homophone for black guys. The comedy there came from Key’s and Peele’s obvious consternation at being unable to call their white colleagues out.

“Mid-Day News,” however, mined its humor from having the ensemble collectively engage in—and subsequently lose their minds over—the racial stereotypes that influence their perceptions of one another. After “winning,” Thompson’s character turned to shake the hand of Waller-Bridge’s. “Good game,” he said. “Good game.” Such a wholesome final shot illustrating sportsmanship makes for a sweet, if idealistic, capper. Outside of Studio 8H, it seems implausible for a “game” like this to end with a handshake.

Still, “Mid-Day News” successfully explored an uncomfortable truth: Everyone harbors assumptions about race—and when it comes to the news, it’s important to read past the headline. Perhaps that’s an obvious reminder, but in real life, it’s an embarrassing one to admit. On SNL, however, it’s the perfect fodder for a standout sketch.