Yesterday’s 2021 Emmy nominations continued to rack up accolades for Saturday Night Live’s historic season 46, which was produced live under strict COVID-19 protocols. Bowen Yang’s (Saturday Night Live, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens) nomination for Outstanding Performing Actor in a Comedy Series earned him a position as the first Featured Player in Saturday Night Live’s history to be nominated for an Emmy Award, via NBC News.
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The status of Featured Player functions as a bit of a trial-period for comedians before they graduate into Saturday Night Live’s Repertory cast. Featured Players have been apart of Saturday Night Live’s legacy since 1977, the year in which Al Franken (Saturday Night Live) and Tom Davis (Saturday Night Live, Coneheads) were inaugurated into the position. Many talented comedians and performers such as Damon Wayans (My Wife and Kids), Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street, The Hangover), Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) and Tim Robinson (Detroiters, I Think You Should Leave) never surpassed their Featured Player status on the series. In season 46, Ego Nwodim (Saturday Night Live, Brockmire) was the only Featured Player to graduate to the Repertory position, a transition that usually happens during a performers’ third year on Saturday Night Live.
According to NBC News, Yang started his career on Saturday Night Live in 2018 as a writer during the sketch comedy series’ 44th season. Becoming a Featured Player in season 45, Yang became Saturday Night Live’s first ever Asian American cast member and “the first openly gay man to ever survive past one season on the NBC variety show” (Entertainment Weekly).
Even prior to Tuesday’s nomination, Yang seemed destined for the position of Repertory Player, as his contributions to the past season provided some of the most buzzworthy moments on the series. The comedian received much praise for coming on “Weekend Update” out-of-character to discuss the rise of anti-Asian hate in the United States in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. His impression of cultural critic and Pretend It’s a City subject, Fran Lebowitz, was likewise a hit with all but the subject of the impression herself, who refused to watch Yang’s segment (because she, characteristically, does not own a television or mobile device).
While Yang made a splash in many sketches this past season, he shared with Variety that, when it came down to submitting himself for Emmy consideration, one sketch rose above the rest. Portraying the Titanic-sinking iceberg , attempting to stage a re-branding and career-comeback, Yang sent the internet ablaze in his instantly-viral “Weekend Updated” segment late in the season. While speaking to Variety, Yang credited co-writer Anna Drezen (Saturday Night Live, Girls5eva) and Saturday Night Live’s hair and makeup team for bringing the nomination-worthy character to life.
Yang’s Emmy nomination contributes to Saturday Night Live’s whopping 21 nominations for season 46, which clocks in “just under its own single-year record of 22 nominations in 2017” (Deadline). Not only did the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic in order to deliver an in-studio election season, they went on an unprecedented six-episode consecutive run in the fall. Recently, the Saturday Nigh Live team released a behind-the-scenes video on their YouTube channel that lifted the curtain on the stressful pandemic production of season 46.
Aside from the Saturday Night Live of-it-all, Yang’s nomination marks an important moment in Emmy history as well. Yang stands among only a handful of Asian nominees in the Television Academy’s less-than-diverse history. Though Deadline cites Yang as the first Chinese American to earn an acting nomination, this is not exactly the case. Chinese American actor B.D. Wong (Jurassic Park) was nominated for his role as Mr. Robot antagonist White Rose in 2017, making Yang one of only two Chinese American acting nominees in the show’s history and the only Chinese American man nominated in a comedy category. Overall, there have been extremely sparse nominations and wins for Asian performers throughout Emmy history, with Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife, Blindspot) and Riz Ahmed’s (The Night Of, The Sound of Metal) acting wins and Aziz Ansari (Master of None, Parks and Recreation) and Alan Yang’s (Master of None, Parks and Recreation) joint writing win among the only Emmy wins for Asian nominees.
As one of Saturday Night Live’s openly queer cast members, Yang represents an even smaller portion of Asian representation to be included in the Emmy Award’s history. Between Yang and Mj Rodriguez’s (Pose, Adam) milestone nomination as the first transgender woman nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Award, Out posits that “this year’s Emmys are going to be one for the queer history books.”
In the category of Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, Yang will face-off against Saturday Night Live co-star Kenan Thompson (Kenan, Kenan & Kel) as well as Carl Clemons-Hopkins (Hacks), Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso), Brendan Hunt (Ted Lasso), Nick Mohammed (Ted Lasso), Jeremy Swift (Ted Lasso) and Paul Reiser (The Kominsky Method). A win for Yang could further secure his place in Saturday Night Live and Emmy history, though he will likely be an important voice of the sketch comedy show going forward either way. As rumors of massive cast turnover hung of Saturday Night Live’s season 46 finale, the fresh voices of the series may be left to steer the show’s future.