The October 2016 sketch has become a mainstay on many memorable SNL moments lists.
Saturday Night Live - Season 42

In the middle of a presidential election cycle that pushed the entire nation to another brink, a sleeper sketch on Saturday Night Live used a game show, a movie star, and smart writing to underline the messy, uncomfortable nuance — but a core underlying issue — of race relations in America. 

On October 22, 2016, American treasure (and that evening's SNL host) Tom Hanks starred in the latest iteration of Black Jeopardy. The sketch, created by then co-head writer Bryan Tucker and writer/"Weekend Update" co-anchor Michael Che (who was promoted to co-head writer the following season), featured Kenan Thompson as host Darnell Hayes and Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones as contestants Keeley and Shanice. 

The usual conceit was simple: the questions were ones answerable by Black people, and the third contestant was often a white person hopelessly fumbling and failing through the categories. 

That is: until Hanks's drawler Doug. 

The inspo

"I had the idea brewing for a little while. If you're white, and you're in these worlds, like I am a little bit, you're still not totally part of things. There's a shared culture if you're Black that you just have, and if you're white, you just don't have. I was overhearing some people on the street, and they were talking about this one person in the neighborhood that a bunch of them knew, and there was a familiarity there that I didn't have, and I thought, Oh, I wonder … It started brewing in me that there might be a sketch in this," Tucker told Vulture in 2018.

Previously the sketch, which originally debuted in March 2014, had featured out-of-touch contestants played by Louis C.K. and Elizabeth Banks. With Hanks, the show capitalized on the Oscar winner's Every Person likability to bring depth to the relationship between the contestants and the audience. 

"Tom Hanks is incredible at taking any character and making him human. And at the time, there was a very large division in the country," added Thompson in the same Vulture interview. "So him playing a character that was so far on the other side of the aisle, it was super-bold."

Kenan Thompson as Darnell Hayes
| Credit: NBC

The prep: ad-lib, Forrest, ad-lib!

Like all SNL hosts, Hanks had a gauntlet to run through in the week run-up to hosting the show.

For the Black Jeopardy sketch, he had a total of three days to prepare. According to Thompson, the actor's performance evolved the closer they got to the show, with Doug's accent becoming a bit more pronounced. It wasn't until showtime that the finishing touches were made.

"Even during dress rehearsal, he was still trying to figure him out, but live, he blew all of us away with things he didn't tell us he was gonna do," Jones told Vulture in 2018. Remember when Kenan went to go shake his hand and he stepped back? He didn't tell those people he was gonna do any of that."

Tom Hanks as Doug
| Credit: NBC

The result: seven(ish) minutes in heaven

The six-and-a-half-minute sketch was a tight-rope act that managed to balance tension, anxiety, and humanity across categories and punch lines. While Doug started as a possible fascist fish-out-of-water, with each correct answer and shared opinion, he started winning over host Hayes and his fellow contestants (though not without some purposefully cringe-worthy moments, like when Doug said "you people" or when he initially stood back in fear of Hayes). 

Breaking down the acclaimed sketch, Che explained to Seth Meyers that they wanted the comedy to tease out commonality. 

"It made a lot of sense because all this comedy seems very divisive, and this is kind of a thing that says, 'Listen, we're not that different when you really break it down,'" Che said. "We've got the same kind of sensibilities; we come from the same places usually, we want the same things. This sketch, I thought, was a good way for people to laugh and say, 'Oh, we're very similar' … Listen, I grew up in Manhattan, in the projects, and I feel like I have more in common with Southern whites than I do with Upper West Side whites in Manhattan. There's a lot of Jesus and guns and big trucks."

The reaction: we saw, we applauded

Now a mainstay on many lists ranking memorable SNL moments, at the time, it sparked a cultural conversation about the tension in America in regards to race and politics. For not the first time in the show's lauded history, after the laughs subsided, the analysis began. 

On one hand, many applauded the way it underlined commonality across differences. "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," read a Paste article entitled "Why the Tom Hanks SNL Sketch 'Black Jeopardy' Matters." "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."

On the other hand, there were those who focused on the last category — "Lives That Matter" — and how it underlined the main issue driving division regardless of any shared beliefs.

As journalist Jamelle Bouie posited to NPR: "I think the sketch is push-back on that, which is that, yes, you know, if Trump voters are supporting a vision of America that does not have room for Black Lives Matter or for similar political movements — and that this is a real problem, that this is a real obstacle, and that we shouldn't look past it just because people might really be suffering."

Regardless of what people took away from it, the admiration for the talent that brought the sketch to life was widespread. Said Tucker: "Tom Hanks told me that Oprah called him about [the sketch], which was cool."

Check out our daily must-see picks — plus news, celeb interviews, trivia, and more — on EW's What to Watch podcast.

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