Just over a week ago, the New York Knicks finally allowed Chinese American Jeremy Lin a shot on the court and to say he took the opportunity and ran with it would be an understatement. Not only did Lin turn the fortunes of the Knicks around, but made one of the most impressive starts in NBA history (the 89 points he scored in his first three starts is the most of any player since the 1976-77 season so chew on that, Michael Jordan).
While Asian Americans are justly proud of Lin’s accomplishments, all of America is in the grips of LINsanity—Asian, white, black, purple, everyone. But you wouldn’t have known this if you were watching this past weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live. There was nary a mention of Lin during all of the hour-and-a-half—not in any of the sketches, not a walk-on cameo, not even a measly joke during Weekend Update.
Well, you may be thinking—so what? Who says SNL is obligated to do anything about Lin anyway?
Fair enough. Of course the producers can do whatever they want on their own show, but I think the absence of Lin during a week when you couldn’t avoid mention of him speaks to a larger issue the show has constantly faced regarding Asian American representation.
I’ve touched on this topic before when I playfully suggested that Harold and Kumar’s John Cho and Kal Penn would be ideal hosts (with Far East Movement thrown in as the musical act for good measure) so why am I picking on them again? After all, there’s plenty of other programs that are equally problematic in this area?
Partly, it’s because of what Saturday Night Live represents to our zeitgeist. Whether you think the show itself is good or not, SNL, more than any other non-news entertainment program, is the cultural barometer of the week’s events. The Daily Show or The Colbert Report may be sharper in its take on current events, but they don’t have anywhere near the reach of SNL even on its bad nights. As the first President George Bush remarked when asked how he felt about Dana Carvey portraying him (and I’m paraphrasing)–to be even mentioned on SNL is a badge of honor. It means you’ve made an impact. Hell, it means you’ve made it. I think that’s still true.
I physically felt Lin’s absence in this last episode because he was, arguably, the biggest news story of the week. If SNL is about our cultural zeitgeist, he should’ve been represented in some way. In addition, let’s not forget that SNL also has a history of favoring stories that are New York-centric. After all, this is the show that turned former New York Governor David Paterson (and his “blindness”) into a recurring character despite the fact that most people outside of the New York area probably had no clue who he was. The same can’t be said about Lin and if LINsanity was this strong outside of the Big Apple, imagine how crazy it must’ve been in New York where the show is based? And come on, SNL did a sketch about Tebow, why not Lin aka the Asian American Tebow (but one piece of advice, instead of going the “yellowface” route, can I suggest casting Lin himself—he’s in NY after all and it’d be great for your ratings)?
The other reason I’m particularly hard on SNL is because of how important it’s been to me personally. I grew up watching and loving SNL. As a kid, I idolized guys like Eddie Murphy, John Belushi and Mike Myers. But, most importantly, the show’s rebel spirit instilled me with the confidence to be unapologetically proud to be myself, which was huge as an Asian kid growing up in white suburbia. Eddie Murphy, in particular, had a profound impact. The characters he played during his SNL tenure were strong and badass and, though he was black, he definitely wasn’t a second-class citizen. And fuck it, I wouldn’t be either! As a minority, that realization was significant for me. If I’m especially hard on SNL, it’s only because of what it’s meant to me.
Yes, cast members like Fred Armisen and Rob Schneider are part Asian, but the fact that there hasn’t been a visibly “out” Asian American cast member in its 37 years sends a subtle message that we’re not a part of the “rebel spirit” that meant so much to the 15-year-old version of me.
And never mind Jeremy Lin, last week also saw the news of artist David Choe’s
$200 $500 million Facebook windfall and Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s racist “yellowgirl” Super Bowl ad—both national stories that extended beyond the Asian American community and both ripe targets for a show like SNL to poke fun at, but again…nothing.
Despite all of this, I still believe in the show and, like a dedicated sports fan, I’ll stick with it through the good and the bad. But I hope the producers realize that for their work to truly represent the zeitgeist, it has to accurately reflect the cultural landscape. And while Lin’s performance may have surprised everyone, it’s certainly not a fluke when you look at the bigger picture.
I mean–come on, it’s the 21st Century and Asian Americans are excelling in every field, including those that seemed “off limits” in the past. There’s going to be many more Jeremy Lins in all facets of our culture/zeitgeist and if SNL isn’t on board to address that, it’s going to find itself left behind in the 20th Century. And for a die-hard fan like me, that’d be heartbreaking.