OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: Funny Ellen Cleghorne could give NBC's 'SNL' casting advice

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-11-27T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Funny Ellen Cleghorne could give NBC's 'SNL' casting adviceBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

NBC's "Saturday Night Live" might have netted big ratings this month with host and musical guest Lady Gaga, but the longest running comedy sketch variety show in television history is still lacking diversity for the cast talent.

Last month, "SNL" cast regulars Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson, the only two African-American comedians in this season's cast, announced they would no long don drag to portray famous black women, as has been the trend in recent decades, ranging from former "SNL" favorites Tim Meadows playing Whoopi Goldberg to Tracy Morgan's previous frequent turns portraying everyone from Star Jones to Maya Angelou.

But Pharoah and Thompson, who recently have had to play everyone from Beyonce to Oprah Winfrey, have both said they've told long-time "Saturday Night Live" Producer Lorne Michaels it's time he hire some funny women of color.

The last time the show had a regular female cast member with any hint of diversity, it was Maya Rudolph, who was with the show from 2000 to 2007, and often impersonated the late Whitney Houston. According to her biography, Rudolph's father, music composer Richard Rudolph is an Ashkenazi Jew, and her mother Minnie Riperton, is the late American singer-songwriter best known for her 1975 single "Lovin' You."

On the Nov. 2 broadcast of "SNL" earlier this month, African-American actress Kerry Washington of ABC's hit series "Scandal" was guest host, and joined other cast members for the opening sketch ribbing Michaels for not hiring more black female talent among the show's 16 regular cast members.

In the opening skit, Washington portrayed First Lady Michelle Obama, talking with her husband about an upcoming state dinner at the White House.

"Michelle, this is such a treat," says the president, impersonated by Pharoah.

"I feel like it's been years since I've seen you."

When a staffer enters the office and announces Oprah Winfrey has arrived for the dinner and wished to see the president, the performers appear worried as to who will have to step off-stage to assume the guise of Winfrey.

"Don't you think you should get changed?" Pharoah as President Obama asks Washington, as she wonders out-loud whether cast member Thompson will play Winfrey instead.

The last time "Saturday Night Live" had top diverse female funny talent it was Ellen Cleghorne, who still ranks as one of my favorite recent sketch comedy comediennes.

Cleghorne, who celebrates her 48th birthday on Friday, starred on "Saturday Night Live" from 1991 to 1995. In her bio, she is noted as being "the second African-American female repertory cast member of the sketch comedy show," succeeding Danitra Vance in the 11th season.

(The late Vance, who died in 1994 at age 40 from breast cancer, hailed from our readership area in Markham, Ill. and graduated from Thornton Township High School in 1972.)

As for Cleghorne, she was hailed as the first black female cast member to stay on the show for more than one season and still ranks as the third black female cast member overall.

During Cleghorne's time on "SNL,"  she performed impressions of Anita Baker, Florence Griffith Joyner, Debbie Allen, Mary J. Blige, Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, Marla Gibbs, Robin Quivers, Toni Morrison, Joycelyn Elders, Tina Turner and Marguerite L. Whitley, who is the first ex-wife of O.J. Simpson.

Cleghorne had two great recurring favorite "SNL" characters: Zoraida, a pushy NBC page who would bother celebrities visiting "SNL" and Queen Shenequa, the latter who appeared frequently on the "Weekend Update" segment providing commentary.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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