Chris Pine's Star Trek Sketch Exposes an Ugly Truth About S.N.L.
When Star Trek leading man Chris Pine was picked to host Saturday Night Live this weekend, it felt inevitable that the late-night comedy show would, at one point, have him captaining a space ship. (And, no, not just because they had that other handsome Chris do the same thing.) The sketch was based on a rather shaky premise (what if Spock had a blue-collar relative named ”Spocko"?), but gave both Pine and Kenan Thompson the excuse to show off their rock-solid William Shatner and Neil DeGrasse Tyson impressions. When it came to casting Hikaru Sulu, however, S.N.L. ran into a bit of an obstacle. In fact, in its 42-year history, there has never been an official cast member on Saturday Night Live who could play Sulu.
Credit where it's due, the solution S.N.L. arrived to this week was somewhat clever. The show tapped long-serving production designer Akira Yoshimura, and acknowledged the weirdness of his appearance in the sketch with a cute, self-aware line reading that nearly broke both Pine and cast member Alex Moffat.
S.N.L. buffs will be the first to tell you that Yoshimura—who has been with the show from the start—first appeared as Sulu opposite John Belushi's Captain Kirk in a 1976 sketch titled ”The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise" from Saturday Night Live's very first season.
He popped up again as Sulu several times throughout the show's run, in a 1986 sketch and in 1994 as well. (In fact, Yoshimura is one of very few original crew members still employed at Studio 8H.) So you might argue that short of roping John Cho or George Takei into appearing on the show, this was the best solution S.N.L. could possibly offer. It's tradition!
And leaning on an old inside joke would be entirely cute—were it not for the depressing fact that four decades into its run, S.N.L. has never employed a full-time Asian cast member. (Rob Schneider is a quarter Filipino and Fred Armisen a quarter Japanese.) And you can count the number of Asian hosts S.N.L. has had in the past four decades on one hand: Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Aziz Ansari. It's a deficiency the show itself addressed last fall when new cast member Melissa Villaseñor appeared in a sketch about the 2016 Vice-Presidential debate. "Hello, I'm the new Hispanic cast member," she said in a fourth-wall-breaking moment, ”and I'll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano. Because baby steps."
But the fact that S.N.L. is now at least addressing the issue with self-aware jokes for Villaseñor and Yoshimura means that the show could be on its way to rectifying the issue. A 2013 sketch where Kerry Washington famously had to play all the black women both living in and visiting the White House not only acknowledged S.N.L.'s lack of black women in the cast, but also pre-dated the hiring of Sasheer Zamata by only three months. (With Zamata in the cast, by the way, S.N.L. did not have to outsource the role of Nyota Uhura in this week's Star Trek sketch, as it did in 1976.)