My name is Sylvia Traymore Morrison. I wanted to share my personal Saturday Night Live experience, considering there is so much controversy and conversation taking place regarding the Black Women issue.
I am America’s first renowned Black Female Impressionist. I did my first professional show in 1969 at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. At that time I was singing and doing impressions. Shortly after that, in the early 70s, I entered the Miss Black America pageant (Black women at that time had no chance whatsoever of even thinking of becoming Miss America so a Black pageant was created by J. Morris Anderson. I missed Oprah Winfrey by one year, who was Miss Black Tennessee the year before). I ended up placing as 2nd Runner-up and going to Europe to entertain the American troops. The reception was magnificent. Apparently, they had never seen a Black Woman who did impressions. The day I returned to the states from Europe I got a call from a guy named Charles Brown, who was the manager for the group A Taste of Honey (known for their Grammy winning song, Boogie, Oogie, Oogie). He said that Redd Foxx wanted to meet me based on all he heard about my performances while overseas. They flew me to Los Angeles and long story short, his company signed me. He was my very first manager and is the only person I ever signed a long term contract with…to this day.
While living in Los Angeles waiting on my “break”, I was trying to work open mics with people like Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robyn Williams and a host of others. We were all on a mission to make it. While there never seemed to be a problem with the men getting time on stage, it was always a problem for me, especially since I was the lone Black Woman hoping to get a shot. Call it what you want. I called it racism and sexism but at that time, I could have cared less. I wanted to perform. Period.
Back home in DC, my father got sick. I headed back east to be with my family. My father died. I did not go back to Los Angeles because I wanted to be near my mother. I was back and forth to New York. She died 5 months later. I grieved for a long time and decided to move to New York to continue pursuing my career. I tried open mics, but it was basically the same story as the West Coast. A Black Woman in those days, and there were very few, did not have it so easy as their White Male counterparts. I remember a guy by the name of Jerry Seinfeld, who was hosting at a place called Catch A Rising Star, did not mind me getting on stage for 3 or so minutes every once in a while. By the way, Jerry had not “made it” at that time. I did that whole New York scene for quite a while, trudging up and down, most times on foot, going from club to club hoping for a break or a microphone to perform on in front of an audience.
In April of 1979, they were roasting the great Muhammad Ali at the Apollo Theatre. Richard Pryor was suppose to host. I decided I had to be on that Roast, so my idea was to dress up like a Black Ruth Bussey from the hit show Laugh In and crash the Roast. Unfortunately, Mr. Pryor was unable to go forward as the host so they asked Dick Gregory. He did not want the hosting job. He actually wanted to be one of the celebrity roasters. The woman who was Ms. Black America the year I was her runner-up and who I traveled to Europe with suggested me as a potential host. I could not believe it actually trickled down to me. I got to host one of the greatest roasts of all time, replacing Richard Pryor! Me, a young Black woman from Washington, DC who grew up 12 blocks from the White House in some of the most horrid conditions you can imagine was replacing Richard Pryor in the roast of the decade! That was a big deal for me.
That night there was a gentleman by the name of Garrett Morris who was also roasting the Champ. He was unbelievably funny and a regular on a show called Saturday Night Live (SNL). SNL was at that time I believe, was in it’s 4th or 5th season.
When all was said and done, and I was blessed with 3 standing ovations, Garrett asked if he could speak with me. He wanted me to meet his boss, a man by the name of Lorne Michaels who was the executive producer “who’s going to absolutely LOVE YOU!”
True to his word, Garrett/NBC sent a limousine to pick me up at my apartment and take me to the offices of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Garrett took me to Mr. Michaels office and the 3 of us sat there to discuss my future with Saturday Night Live. The show was not yet the icon it is today, but was certainly on it’s way.
I must admit I was a little nervous and excited at the same time. Other than the pageant and European television, I had not done a major TV show or even had a chance to do Sanford & Son. Mr. Michaels proceeded to tell me what my job would be like. I’m paraphrasing:
“It’s hard placing Black Women on this show. It seems as though everything offends them. If you can come up with some things that aren’t offensive, that would be good. You’ll start out sort of as an office assistant or should I say sort of like an office flunky/associate writer. You’ll be asked to get our lunch or run errands or whatever any of the staff needs. Of course you’ll be writing, but you will not appear on the actual show because you will have to work your way up. Eventually you will get there.”
At that time, I was so excited to be sitting there talking about a job at NBC with Saturday Night Live as the “office flunky/associate writer” that I didn’t care. Please remember we’re talking the 70s and I just did not think to ask him, nor am I sure I would have, did Jane Curtin have to start out as an office flunky/associate writer/? Or how about Gilda Radner? Was she the first office flunky/associate writer? What about John Belushi or Dan Aykroyd? Were they office flunkies/associate writers? Was Garrett an office flunky/associate writer? Who was the original office flunky/associate writer? Were other Black women on board and were they being an office flunky/associate writer or what? Oh I forgot, he told me I was the first Black Woman they offered this job as an “office flunky/associate writer.” Why? Why was that? Why was it me? Why did the first Black Woman to come through that door have to be the first office flunky/associate writer? I don’t know. Those were questions I asked myself years later.
My first night working at SNL (with no contract), I was overwhelmed to be backstage looking at doors that had stars on them that read “John Belushi’ or “Jane Curtain” and several others. I must admit that Mr. Belushi was not necessarily friendly to me. Maybe he didn’t hear me when I spoke to him. Maybe his mind was preoccupied when I introduced myself and put my hand out for a shake. I later learned that he allegedly did not think women were funny. I can only imagine what he thought when he saw me…the new Black Female office flunky/assistant writer.
I’d like to think Mr. Michaels had a good eye and sense of talent when he hired me even though he never saw me perform or any of my work before that day in 1979. My job was based totally on Garrett Morris’ recommendation, I believe. The sad part is, I could and can do many, many impressions. I could do Black women as well as White Women. I could even do impressions of some men, notably Muhammad Ali (who I still do today), Richard Pryor, Gomer Pyle and several others. I could imitate animal sounds, and I could imitate instruments. At that time I was the only Black Female Impressionist in the country. When I think about it, maybe that’s why he offered me the office flunky/associate writer position since he had never seen me. Maybe. Maybe not.
After speaking with Alycia Cooper, one of America’s funniest Black Female Comediennes today, she said something very interesting. “Sylvia, you were a gold mine and they hadn’t figured it out. With your talent, impressions and looks, you could have done Lola Falana, Lena Horne, Theresa Graves, Diana Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn McCoo, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, Jayne Kennedy, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, etc. and almost any Black Woman they needed. They blew it as far as having THE Black Female talent back then.”
The show decided for years to use Black Men to mimic Black Women for the most part. What a shame. If they needed it, I could have done and given them so many impressions in comedy. I could have even done an impression of Flip Wilson while doing an impression of Geraldine. The list goes on. Let’s not even talk about created characters that they never got a chance to see or use.
In the book “Comediennes, Laugh Be A Lady” I was written about alongside some of the greatest females in the business, which include Chloris Leachman, Bea Arthur, Jean Stapleton, Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore. In it, the chapter on me says “A female impressionist of black skin may have been too novel for anyone to fully commit to at the time.” Was that the case with SNL? I don’t know, but I do know that they did not make a big deal of me being there. I had no office, no door with my name on it nor was I ever shown a desk or anything. They just called me when/if they needed me. I never “reported” to work every day.
During/after my very short SNL experience, I contracted what I thought was mononucleosis but in fact was a pregnancy. I never went back. However, the years that followed I worked for some amazing people. One was Whitney Houston. Of the hundreds of thousands of acts in this country, she chose me, at a time when she was one of the biggest names in show business to travel and tour with her. Nobody was on that show other than the 2 of us. I opened. She closed. Period. Sometimes the arenas housed well over 30,000 people. It was the time of my life.
Today, I do impressions of the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. I also do Wendy Williams, Monique, Diana Ross, T-Boz, Whoopi Goldberg, Patti Labelle, Nicki Minaj, Rhianna, Erykah Badu and many others.
As I sit back, watch, listen and read all of the hoopla surrounding Black Women and SNL I have a sense of sadness. What happened after me? Did the other 3 women who came on board have to act as office flunkies/associate writers to get on the show? Were they ushered in up front like the rest of the cast or what? I don’t know, but I do know this. I can recommend to you at least 50 of the most unbelievable, incredible, aspiring, amazing, truly talented, non-cursing, great acting, super creative Black Women comics you will ever want to see. Or how about this…I’ll come back as an office flunky/associate writer today, but trust and believe, there will be major changes. After almost 34 years since my last encounter with SNL, Mr. Kennan Thompson made it clear to many people that Black Women may not be ready. Sir, rest assured, I was ready then and I’m ready now, just like countless other Black Female Comediennes. — Sylvia Traymore Morrison
Sylvia Traymore Morrison is an author, comedienne, actress and singer. She recently received the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the LOLGCA – Living On Laughter Gospel Comedy Association for her contributions to clean comedy and the industry. She is currently in a one woman play entitled “Come See About Me…A Fan’s Diana Ross Story” which is touring the country. Her book “Almost There, Almost…The Many Faces of Sylvia Traymore Morrison can be purchased through Amazon or on her website at www.sylviatraymore.com.