This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
Another fortuitous Black History Month birthday, that of Garrett Morris, born 1937. Being of a certain age, I have an unfortunate tendency to think of Morris almost entirely in terms of being a member of the first cast of Saturday Night Live, The Not Ready for Prime Time Players (1975-80), forgetting that he’d done a lot of stuff both before and after his stint on SNL. But that show is where he made history. He was of course the first African American cast member of the show.
We didn’t know it at the time, but there were other things that created more of a gap between Morris and the other cast members than race: age and education. After Chevy Chase (b. 1943) left the show, Morris was a decade or more older than every other cast member — in the case of Laraine Newman, 15 years older. Besides this, he was a Julliard educated classical singer — the rest of the cast members were not just kids and unknowns, but their orientation was strictly improv comedy. Some hadn’t even been to college. Morris had taken his undergrad degree nearly two decades earlier, been in Broadway musicals, had been a regular on the sitcom Roll Out (1973) and appeared in the movies Where’s Poppa (1970, directed by Carl Reiner), The Anderson Tapes (1971), and Cooley High (1975) before SNL launched, and Car Wash (1976) soon afterwards. At times, he must have seemed more like an uncle or a vice principal than a peer to the rest of the cast.
Morris’s work on SNL was popular though sometimes problematic. His characters included Dominican baseball player Chico Escuela (“Baseball been berry berry good to me.”), Idi Amin, the “Hard of Hearing” translator for Weekend Update, and Cliff, the friend of Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy Guys.” But when he was asked to do stuff like portray Uncle Remus, or a Flying Monkey in a Wizard of Oz sketch, many thought it beyond the pale. Through the influence of National Lampoon, the source of many of SNL‘s writers, there was a vogue during the ’70s for supposedly ironic racist quotation. Stuff of that nature sometimes made it onto the show. It was presented as “hip” at the time, but from the vantage of our time it seems more in keeping with the days that came before than those that came after.
After leaving SNL, Morris went on to do a ton of other stuff. He had regular or recurring roles on the tv shows The Jeffersons (1983-84), It’s Your Move (1984-85), Hill Street Blues (1985), Hunter (1986-89), Roc (1991-92), Martin (1992-95), Cleghorne! (1995), The Jamie Foxx Show (1996-2001), and 2 Broke Girls (2011-17), and appeared in movies like Coneheads (1993), Black Scorpion (1995) and Twin Falls Idaho (1999).
Today Garrett Morris is widely regarded as the pathbreaker he is, and has enjoyed a large number of cameos in films and on TV, referencing his past triumphs. Even more so than when he was on SNL, he is a comedy Senior Statesman.