Saturday Night Live still manages to surprise once in a while. The long-running sketch comedy show has drawn criticism for its lack of diversity and questionable joke decisions of late, but this past weekend saw its satirical gears in rare form:
The sketch features guest host Bill Hader as Charles Daniels, a soft-voiced, thick-bearded incarnation of a common late night infomercial trope, the philanthropy fund spokesperson. The clip opens with shots of an unnamed African village, where residents pass the time by gazing longingly into the camera and dolefully stirring pots of stew.
"For only 39 cents a day," Daniels says to his viewers, "you can provide water, food and medicine for these people ... That's less than a small cup of coffee."
"Ask for more," whispers a villager played by Jay Pharoah. "Why you starting so low?"
So begins a three-minute interrogation around why this "cheap-ass white man" is asking for so little money — "[the] number has been decided by very educated and caring people," Daniels claims — and more importantly, why he thinks throwing money at this problem will solve it in the first place.
The sketch ends with Daniels' implied abduction, along with demands for a larger sum in exchange for his release. The question of where he's getting a 39-cent cup of coffee remains unanswered.
While it's unclear why the black performers are talking like they're in a Good Times parody, the sketch brings up some valid political points. For one, the long-term effectiveness of foreign aid has been questioned for years, with critics at outlets ranging from CNN to the Wall Street Journal claiming it can foster a relationship of "dependence" while ultimately providing cosmetic solutions that fail to address systemic issues.
Even CARE, one of the biggest charities in the world, rejected $45 million a year in federal funding in 2007 because American food aid was so "plagued with inefficiencies" as to be detrimental, according to the New York Times (by the same token, many such organizations disagree).
SNL illustrates this perfectly when Daniels implies the villagers are ungrateful when they ask for more. "You know, for a starving village, you people have a lot of energy," he says.
The sketch also touches on monolithic Western views of African diversity: When the villagers ask Daniels which country he thinks he's in, he simply responds, "Africa."
Considering SNL's less than sterling record on racial humor, the overall pointedness of this skit is a pleasant surprise. Best-case scenario, it indicates that producer Lorne Michaels' recent emphasis on casting and writer diversity is incrementally starting to pay dividends.