Like thousands of kids since the 1970s, staying up late on Saturday nights to watch Saturday Night Live was a tenant of my childhood. For a long time I didn’t even know the musical guest had a second performance — I could rarely make it that far into the episode before falling asleep. My sister and I quoted the show incessantly and constantly watched reruns on Comedy Central and the E! Channel. My parents were fans of the show too, and our entire family would compare and contrast their favorite skits and players. I was lucky that I got into SNL at, arguably, its peak moment. I got to see a cast full of talented women, and a show full strong occurring characters. For me, that show is tied to people like Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Samberg, Kenan Thompson, Rachel Dratch, and most importantly, Maya Rudolph.
Maya Rudolph is one of the funniest people on this planet. She is a wildly gifted physical comedian — a master of funny faces and silly voices. Just thinking about her National Anthem skit makes me laugh. I loved every skit she was in, from Beyonce to Donatella Versace to Brooklyn Beat. I also loved her because like me, she is biracial.
I was a biracial kid raised in a predominantly White area. I was never bullied or harassed for my race, but being the only one of something, whether it be race, gender, sexuality, or something else, is inherently lonely. I felt disconnected from my “Black side” and I would often get that lovely backhanded compliment, “You’re like the whitest Black person ever!” I never watched BET, or listened to Hip Hop or Rap in any serious way. I was oblivious to Black singers, actors and movies. Instead the type of pop culture I consumed was made by and acted in mostly by White people. I enjoyed it but there was always a fundamental loneliness, a disconnect. If you have been represented all your life in pop culture and media, you have no idea how strange and painful it is to lack that representation.
I loved these shows and movies, but why didn’t they include me? Lizzie McGuire could be half black — my connection with her was proof of that! So it was wildly exciting to see someone like me doing something I connected with and loved, and it came at such a formative time in my life. Rudolph was on SNL from 2000 to 2007, spanning from when I was 8 until I was 15. Her ethnicity was so ambiguous that she would play characters of various races, often times in the same show, but that just excited me more. Her race, or better yet her races, were an advantage.
Around those same formative years, I started watching The Office. The show significantly influenced my taste in comedy — its lack of laugh track blew my mind as a 13 year old. Those awkward pauses and glances into the camera were so exciting and new back then, and it quickly became my favorite show. Like millions of girls and women, I fell in love with Jim Halpert. I was an awkward middle schooler who loved comedy and a sweet, funny guy like Jim was my dream boy (I was also a fan of Seth Cohen in the OC — I had a type).
Also like millions of girls and women, Jim and Pam’s Will They Won’t They relationship was my favorite part of the show. I remember watching Casino Night, the episode where Jim finally confesses his love for Pam, and screaming with excitement in my room. He loved her! He cried! They kissed! I was pleasantly surprised when they introduced a new love interest for Jim, played by Rashida Jones. Like lots of biracial people, Rashida Jones could pass for a variety of races or combination of races, but like Rudolph, I knew no matter what people thought or said, she was half Black and half White just like me.
At that point, I had never seen a Black girl, let alone a mixed race Black girl, be the love interest in anything. Racism is so insidious because it can be so small. In the 21st Century, it is not as obvious as separate lunch counters or seats on a bus. Racism can feel like a constant, tiny, punch in the arm. When you try to point it out, people think you’re being dramatic. It’s just one movie starring a White woman, it was just one joke in class, it was just one punch in the arm. But as people of color we have endured hundreds or thousands of these movies, these jokes, these metaphorical punches. All those punches eventually form a bruise, and all those jokes and movies and images eventually form how you see the world. It’s just how the story goes — guy meets girl, guy gets girl. Good guy wins, bad guy sees the error of his ways, or loses, or dies. No one falls in love with a Black girl. Half black girls don’t exist. But watching The Office let me think that maybe one day I too could have a sweet, funny guy fall in love with me.
That representation, however meager it was, helped to fuel my love of pop culture into my teens and twenties. Once I saw that Rashida Jones was going to be in Parks and Recreation, I was immediately a dedicated fan. I have followed Maya Rudolph’s career since she left SNL, and unsurprisingly, she knocks it out of the park in all her roles, both dramatic and comedic. The most recent comedians to inspire me have been Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele on their hit show, Key & Peele. Both comedians are half Black and half White and ridiculously funny. When their show premiered, I was already excited because I knew them both from MADtv. My sister and I would frequently watch MADtv at 11 pm on Saturday nights, and then watch SNL at 11:30, flipping between both shows when one was on their respective commercial break.
Since its premiere, Key & Peele has been a hit. The show’s success can be attributed to its ability to talk about race and society in a consistently smart, accurate and funny way. I loved Rashida Jones and Maya Rudolph particularly because they were treated like any other actress or comedian regardless of their race, but Key and Peele are so refreshing because their race is so central to the work they do. In a time when representation is so lacking, it is inspiring to see two people of color ban together as a united force and create an entire world relevant to people like them (I think this is the secret to Broad City’s success too). Their exploration of race, and how being biracial affects that, is something I connect with very deeply.
Zadie Smith writes in her article, “Brother from Another Mother”:
“The essence of [Peele’s] talent is multivocal, and he has, in the past, attributed this to his childhood anxiety at having the wrong voice, which, in his case, meant speaking like his mother — that is, speaking “white.” (“It cannot be a coincidence that I decided to go into a career where my whole purpose is altering the way I speak and experiencing these different characters and maybe proving in my soul that the way someone speaks has nothing to do with who they are,” he told Terry Gross, on “Fresh Air.”) In improv, the question of authenticity becomes irrelevant: the whole point is to fake it.”
This anxiety around being “authentic” is familiar to biracial children, who are always in between, never enough to be categorized into one race or the other. Knowing that what was once a source of anxiety for Peele is now partially responsible for his success is reassuring to an equally anxious biracial kid like me. Like Rudolph, Key and Peele’s ethnicity is an asset. They are able to play characters whose race is essential to the joke, like their fantastic skit about slavery, while also thriving as characters whose struggles are universal, like their skit about texting.
Representation is important, as anyone from an underrepresented group can tell you. But there is something so uniquely isolating and confusing about being biracial, and so it means that much more when you see yourself represented. Knowing these talented, funny people waded through the same questions that I am makes that inherent loneliness a little less lonely. Watching Rudolph, Jones, Key and Peele be unapologetically biracial and still killing it in the comedy game makes me proud of something I once struggled to understand, and that is a powerful feeling.