In 2008, sketch comedienne Nefetari Spencer got the call of a lifetime — the chance to audition for a spot on “Saturday Night Live.” Her experience feels especially relevant now that “Saturday Night Live” is under scrutiny for the lack of African-American women on its cast. Since the show started in 1975, that cast has included just four black women. The last, Maya Rudolph, left in 2007. On Saturday night, the show even wrote the controversy into a sketch in which Kerry Washington had to play both Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Spencer talked to Salon about Saturday’s show, Kenan Thompson’s comments, and her experience as an African-American woman auditioning for one the most coveted spots in comedy.
How did you get to test for “Saturday Night Live”? Walk me through it. I hear it’s a very mysterious process.
About six months prior to [my test day], my commercial agent said there was a project that he thought I’d be good for and asked me to send over my sketch/improv reel. I sent it and thought nothing of it. About two days later my agent called me back and [asked me to shoot 30-45 seconds of me doing characters/impressions and to turn it in over by the weekend]. I [thought], “What the hell commercial is this for?” After handing in the reel, I got a call from my manager telling me that my agency was going to submit me for “SNL.”
I was speechless but also thought, “What are the odds?” About a month or two passed and honestly I had forgotten about it because rejection is a daily occurrence in an actor’s life. My manager called and in his special, I’ve-got-great-news voice said, “Nef- e- tar- ri, we just got word that the producers at ‘SNL’ like your reel, you have moved on to the next phase, which means your reel has gone up to Lorne Michaels. He has to watch your reel and decide if you should come out to New York and test for the show.”
I was told it could take weeks or maybe months to get a response, but I needed to start preparing like I was going to NYC because when they call, they only give you one-day notice. So I prepped hard. I studied mannerisms of celebrities, people on the street, wrote jokes, and watched lots of YouTube.
How did you find out that you’d be hopping on a flight for “Saturday Night Live”?
On Monday, Aug. 4, 2008, my manager called and in his special voice says, “Well, I have a great birthday gift for you. You are being flown to NYC to test for ‘Saturday Night Live.’” Say what, now? Did I hear him correctly, “Saturday Night Live”?
To test for a show is essentially the audition that means the part is between you and someone else. You sign your contract for the next five years before you test for a show. So a test is a completely different level from the first audition. By far, this was the biggest audition of my life.
It was my birthday so a few friends were coming over for cake. I made sure to use that time for punching up jokes with my sketch friends.
[In the hotel in New York] I stayed up all night. I rehearsed my impressions and characters over and over and over and over again. But I wasn’t feeling great about my Michelle Obama impression. At the time there just wasn’t a lot of material on her online so I was struggling trying to figure out her “thing.” About 2 a.m., I finally got it! At that point I hadn’t slept in two days so when I finally laid down I slept for more than eight hours. Later that afternoon I got a call from “SNL” production telling me my call time was 7 p.m.
What was it like when you got there?
I was in the same space that raised Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen Cleghorne and Maya Rudolph. And I was there, me, Nefetari Spencer, the same little girl from the south side of Chicago who performed “skits” with my cousin in the living room. The Holy Grail of sketch comedy called and I was ready.
I came “camera-ready,” meaning my hair and make up were already done. As a black woman in this industry, I learned my lesson the hard way about going through “the works” and coming out looking worse than when I sat down. We have all gone through that but that’s another story.
While I sat in the chair for a touch-up, in walked Seth Meyers. Come to find out he went to Northwestern, and I used to visit one of my BFFs there, so we were able to talk about that and Chicago. [I hoped] Seth would be able to see me as more than a head shot.
How many other people were testing at the time?
There were 20 of us testing that year. I was the only African-American woman and Jordan Peele was the only African-American male there.
[After two hours, my name was] called. The assistant director introduced himself to me and asked me to check the set and if I needed anything. As I checked the table, set up my wigs, and props, I noticed that Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers and Marci Klein were sitting at a table à la “American Idol” adjacent to the camera and behind them in the bleachers were possibly the writers. It was about 10-15 people, mostly white men.
I started my audition.
“Hi, I’m Nefetari Spencer and this is Michelle Obama.”
Six-point-five minutes and seven characters later I said, “Thank you.” Two people in the hall told me, “That was so funny, you were great.”
How did you find out that you didn’t get the gig?
I found out I didn’t get it the day they announced the new cast members. It was hard to digest because it seemed kismet. I thought of the contract that I signed that could have changed my life and about me moving to NYC. With Maya Rudolph no longer being on the show, they were going to need a Michelle Obama. I mean all of the signs were there. I had been working tirelessly for years to get to that level. I couldn’t help but feel sad, but I also felt I left my heart on that stage and that’s all I could do.
What’s your background in comedy?
I’ve taken improv classes at Improv Olympic West and the Groundlings. Plus, I started my own sketch comedy group, Elite Delta Force 3, known for the “Real Housewives of Civil Rights” sketch with Wayne Brady. I was also a part creator of another group before EDF3, called Cleo’s Apartment known for the YouTube sensation “Condilicious.” At that time, a million hits (on YouTube) was really something.
How did you react to Kenan Thompson’s statement about black women and “SNL”?
I can’t speak for all African-American women who do sketch but I can say I think there are some out there who are ready. Hell, I thought I was ready but maybe not.
How do you feel about Kerry Washington guest hosting? Did you watch?
Of course I watched. She was fearless and I loved her commitment. Although she was great, I do think that “SNL” missed an opportunity to capitalize on some of the things they haven’t been able to do because they don’t have an African-American female in the cast. Like, where was the “Scandal” parody sketch?!! I wish I could have been in that writer’s room and pitched some sketches for her.
Do you still want to work for “SNL” or are you more focused on your own pursuits?
I will stress that to me, “SNL” is the Mecca. If the Mecca calls again, I will go and do my best. Meanwhile, I will continue to focus on my own pursuits.
I know you started your own sketch comedy troupe. What made you start it? Tell us about it. What have you done? Did it stop? Are you going to bring it together again?
I created along with a friend my own sketch group, Elite Delta Force 3. I created it then because there was and still is a void for funny African-American women. We needed an outlet and, more importantly, I wanted to show people that we can be smart and funny without being stereotypical. We performed for several years at Improv Olympic West. We’ve been on hiatus and I think it’s safe to say we’re putting the band back together.
Are you surprised at all of the attention “SNL” has been getting regarding black women in comedy?
I’m not shocked at all about the attention “SNL” is getting regarding black women in comedy. Since I live it, it’s a conversation that I hear all the time. I hope all this attention helps reopen that door that’s been closed for the last six years.