Black Jeopardy first debuted on Saturday Night Live in March 2014. It’s been spitting fire-hot truths about America ever since.
The brainchild of SNL writer Bryan Tucker (who is white) and Michael Che, the original sketch featured Louis C.K. as an African-American Studies professor from BYU. According to Dave Schilling’s excellent Black Jeopardy oral history for Vulture, Tucker and Che based the concept on those times when white people refuse to grasp that they’re a fish-out-of-water, and instead insist that “they get it.” It was meant to shine a light on how Blackness is perceived, but also mock those who feel entitled enough to take part in the culture, and more importantly, to claim the culture as their own.
The jokes themselves are almost always inspired. Case in point: “Sprite! How did we become the Black soda? We don’t know. Sprite!” Or the fact Black Jeopardy is “the only Jeopardy where our prize money is paid in installments.” Not to mention, the running joke that one category is the same for every show — “And As Always, White People.” Where else, too, are you going to hear Tom Hanks say of a Tyler Perry movie, “If I can laugh and pray in 90 minutes, that is money well spent”?
But beyond just being funny, there are five other Black Jeopardy moments that I think are particularly truthful about race, America and race (and racism) in America.
Truth #5: White People Lie to Themselves About Everything
For all of his transgressions, C.K. is legitimately familiar with Black culture. He was a writer for Chris Rock’s show on HBO, and he also co-wrote Pootie Tang. That’s all you need to say at the cookout, and you’re good. Basically then, he’s in on the joke, which helps make it that much funnier. Meanwhile, the truth comes out when he selects a question from “And As Always, White People.”
Keenan Thompson (as the “Alex Treblack” stand-in, Darnell Hayes): “White people are always lying about this?”
C.K.: What is… we don’t have any money?
Thompson: Yes! The truth is — we would have accepted any answer.
You could argue that whiteness as a concept is just one big lie. But in terms of money specifically, the common stereotype is that white people tend to self-report that they don’t have very much of it. Basically, white people think someone else is rich, not them. Whether they’re actually rich and lying to themselves, or if they’re just lying to themselves that they might one day be rich — and thus, they need to vote for a tax cut for the wealthy, even if it’s against their self-interest — it’s all the same thing: White people lying about money. But, equally, as Thompson says, “we would have accepted any answer.” Because it isn’t just money that white people lie to themselves about.
Truth #4: Americans — Even Black Americans — Don’t Define Blackness
Drake is from Canada. Drake is also Black. But even to Black America, our northern fam, the Black Canadians, aren’t really a thing. They’re mostly just a setup for a joke. Like when Drake tells Thompson that he’s a Black Canadian, Thompson has to fight back a laugh, it’s like Drake just said he’s a Black Martian.
Thompson: Wait, you’re a Black Canadian?
Drake: Obviously, dawg. I mean like, yo, there’s thousands of us. I’m sure you’ve met a few of us before.
Thompson: [Laughing] Nope. Never met one.
Drake, being a proud Black Canadian, wants to point out how Americans have a limited imagination of what Blackness is — from what it sounds like, to what it looks like and acts like. Thus, he puts all of Black America on blast for thinking we get to define Blackness.
Later on in the sketch, after Drake brings up hockey, and earnestly expects everyone to know about it, Thompson lays into him.
Thompson: I know you speaking English, but it ain’t my English.
Drake: Come on, Black people live all over the world, G. You can’t just put us all into one category, like…
Thompson: Hey, maybe so. But I’m gonna go ahead and let you tell that to our American police.
And there it is, the universal truth: Yes, it’s true that there are millions of ways to be Black, but we all look the same to racist American cops.
Truth #3: Black Pain Isn’t Painful Unless It’s Hurt a White Person, Too
Elizabeth Banks, the second SNL host to appear in the sketch, leaned hard into her blondeness by playing a white girl who believes she’s a great Black Jeopardy contestant because she “dated a Black guy once.” She does, however, grow more and more frustrated when none of her perfectly blonde answers score her a single damn point. At the close of the sketch, after she’s wrong about the fact that Tupac is secretly still alive and staying at an Illuminati hotel in Cuba, she pouts and exasperatedly whines, “It’s just like no matter what I do, I can’t win!”
To which, Thompson shouts, “Yes! That’s the Blackest thing you said all day! All the points go to you!”
For so many white people, what Black people experience every day is never considered real until it happens to them. Or at least, until they see it with their own eyes.
Truth #2: The Best Metaphor for America’s Discourse on Race… is Bland Potato Salad
When Chadwick Boseman hosted SNL, the Black Panther star specifically asked Tucker and Che to write a Black Jeopardy sketch for him. Che immediately saw the challenges ahead. “The Chadwick episode was the hardest one,” he explained to Schilling. “We almost didn’t do it.”
Tucker, however, found an angle for them to explore: “When Black Panther came out, I had the idea: ‘Oh, isn’t this interesting that people from Wakanda have grown up with all the advantages of anyone in the world, without any racism, in a place that flourishes and is happy and well-educated and basically a paradise. What would a Black person who came to America think of that?’”
Bozeman was understandably reluctant to do it when they came back to him with a Black Jeopardy segment that featured him as a clueless Black Panther, but to his credit, he was down. And by the end of the sketch, T’Challa is able to compassionately intuit how a well-meaning white woman might ruin a perfectly good potato salad.
Boseman: I sense that this white woman… does not season her food.
Thompson: That’s right.
Boseman: And if she does, it is only with a tiny bit of salt and no paprika.
Thompson: No paprika. No.
Boseman: And she will probably add something unnecessary like raisins.
Thompson: I know, right?
Boseman: So, something tells me that I should say—
Thompson: …say it.
Boseman: Aw hell naw, Karen. Keep your bland-ass potato salad to yourself.
Just like that, Black Panther understands that in America, education isn’t free, racism is real and not everyone shares in the country’s abundance. Instead, we fight about potato salad recipes, and we have Karens trying to break up the barbecue because the news has convinced her she doesn’t feel safe. Which is why we have no patience for her potato salad.
Truth #1: Tyler Perry Proves That, Black or White, We’re Not So Different After All
Tom Hanks is hands down the best Black Jeopardy guest ever. Doug, his MAGA-hat-wearing, low-information voter, shows up, and everybody expects it to go horribly wrong. But the opposite occurs: He wins everyone over, since Black or white, we’re not so different after all. This is never more true than when the question of big women comes up.
Hanks: Okay, let’s go to “Big Girls” for $200.
Thompson: The answer there — “Skinny women can do this for you.”
Hanks: What is… not a damn thing.
Thompson: Yeah, you got it right! Yeah, yeah, yeah. [A knowing laugh]
For those few minutes, there’s a small hope for America’s future — that we can remember how similar we all are even with our diversity. But, of course, such goodwill can only last so long. “Alright, let’s take a look at our final Jeopardy category — ‘…Lives That Matter,’” Thompson plays to the knowing crowd. “Well, it was good while it lasted, Doug.”