Why the Tom Hanks SNL Sketch "Black Jeopardy" Matters

Politics Features SNL
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Why the Tom Hanks SNL Sketch "Black Jeopardy" Matters

Tom Hanks hosted Saturday Night Live last weekend, where he appeared in a hilarious sketch called “Black Jeopardy.” Hanks’ “Doug” was the only white contestant—competing against characters played by black SNL cast members Leslie Jones and Sasheer Zamata—and he portrayed him as a softly deadpan, drawling working-class white guy with a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

The “Black Jeopardy” game show (the host was played by Kenan Thompson) featured categories such as “Big Girls,” “Mm…I Don’t Know,” “I’m Gonna Pray On This,” and “They Out Here Sayin,’” with the winning questions being typically “black” folk wisdom, pop culture knowledge and common sayings.

Watch it Here:

With that premise, it’s easy to imagine this sketch going wrong; on paper, it’s a recipe for an awkward eight minutes full of easy jokes at the expense of working-class white people, or tired stereotypes about “white people say this, and black people say that,” etc.

But the sketch was actually something much better. Not only was it funny and well worth watching—it was also sneakily profound, quietly subversive and sweetly optimistic.

The sketch started out with Doug, Hanks’ character, looking obviously out of place; part of the joke was just the fact that there was a white dude in a Trump hat appearing on “Black Jeopardy.”

But as the game show went on, Doug kept surprising everyone on stage. The key recurring joke of the sketch was that this working-class white dude in a Trump hat had many of the same cultural tastes, interests and life experiences in common with working-class black people. Hanks’ character proved to be oddly adept at everything from knowing how to find a dude in the neighborhood who can fix anything for $40 (the “black” version was named Cecil and Doug’s “white guy version” was named Jim, who can fix “my refrigerator, my air conditioner, and my cat”) to his appreciation for Tyler Perry movies (“I bought a box set at Walmart, and if I can laugh AND pray in 90 minutes, that is money well spent.”)

It was heartwarming to see the characters gradually getting to know each other and finding common ground, with the host giving Hanks’ character a pass when he said “You people are fun,” and then the whole stage erupting into applause when Doug responded to “Skinny women can do this for you” with “What is: Not a damn thing.”

Unfortunately, the interracial harmony came to a close when the Final Black Jeopardy question came up: “Lives That Matter.”

The whole sketch is worth watching for the comic timing and delivery, and the great execution of a premise that, in the wrong hands, could have turned sour. Hanks portrayed Doug not as a dimwitted redneck, but as a likable everyman who had dignity and common sense; even though some of Doug’s beliefs were a bit extreme (believing in Illuminati-style conspiracy theories to fix the election, and worrying that the iPhone thumbprint security feature will take your personal data “straight to the government,”), and he occasionally seemed uncomfortable around black people, the Doug character was ultimately a humble, decent dude who seemed like he’d be happy to go out with his fellow contestants and have a beer after the game show.

And I also feel like this sketch was making a larger, important point about American politics in the Age of Trump. It seemed to be saying that, despite the negativity and vitriol of this campaign, lots of Americans on both sides of the partisan divide have more in common than they might realize, and we need to remember that we’re all human beings who aside from the rancor and toxic narcissism of Trump’s campaign, still need to live together in society. Maybe Trump supporters aren’t all hopelessly irredeemable after all, and maybe, despite the grotesque horrors of this election, Americans can go on to find common ground and live in harmony.

Lots of Trump supporters are unforgivable racists, it’s true. And they deserve to be defeated soundly at the ballot box on Election Day. But some of Trump’s predominantly rural-dwelling, non-college-educated white supporters really are like this guy Doug that Tom Hanks played on SNL—they’re hard working white people who are concerned about stagnant wages and declining populations in their small towns and who are right to be worried that their way of life is changing for the worse. Many Trump supporters are not openly hateful of brown people; they’re just kind of clueless and lacking in perspective. Lots of Trump supporters are not the next American Nazi Party in waiting; they’re just too willing to ignore or be oblivious to the terrible things that Trump says, because he happens to speak to their political, economic, and cultural concerns in a way that resonates with them.

Not all Trump supporters are “deplorables.” Some of them are just living in their own bubble where they have been too quick to dismiss the perspectives of the people who are most threatened by Trump’s ugly and divisive racist, xenophobic, sexist rhetoric. Does that sound like faint praise? Maybe; I don’t mean to “defend” Trump supporters, so much as to say: maybe liberals don’t have to permanently hate and alienate and dismiss the perspectives of 45% of the country. Maybe there is still the potential to find common ground. Maybe we can look to the better angels of our nature to create a future with malice toward none, with charity to all—the struggling small towns and rural areas where so many Trump voters come from really do need help; they really have lost lots of good-paying manufacturing jobs in the years since NAFTA was passed, and neither political party has seemed interested in doing a thing about it. As George Packer wrote in the New Yorker, liberals cannot write off the concerns of white working class Trump supporters: “They need a politics that offers honest answers to their legitimate grievances and keeps them from sliding further into self-destruction.”

Urban, educated, affluent, cosmopolitan liberals shouldn’t be smug and condescending about the legitimate concerns of Trump supporters, even though Trump supporters have self-defeatingly allowed those concerns to be cynically hijacked by the worst person on Earth. (And yes, if Trump supporters care about economic justice, they should have voted for Bernie Sanders instead—but a Jewish Socialist from Vermont with an old school Brooklyn accent was never going to be the ideal cultural fit for church-going white people in small-town Red State America.)

I want America to be better for poor and working-class people of ALL races, cultures and creeds. I want guys like Doug to have black co-workers at their union jobs, and I want them all to earn a living wage, and then they can hang out on weekends and watch Madea movies together. I want America to be more integrated by race and class, and I want all of us to enjoy universal health care and a robust social safety net and a stronger, better-funded education system, and public spaces where people from all walks of life can co-exist and interact as equals, without fear or resentment. We are all enriched by each other’s presence and it’s no fun to live in a bubble, no matter how comfortable that bubble might be.

This is a crazy thought, but bear with me: is it possible that this goofy SNL sketch could somehow become a model for national healing?? It’s a nice thought. Of course, most Trump supporters aren’t nearly as lovable as Tom Hanks.

More from SNL