Back in September, Saturday Night Live earned the ire of outspoken fans when the show announced its new cast lineup, which failed to include a black woman, a glaring omission. It didn’t help matters when black cast member Kenan Thompson blamed the show’s diversity problem on a weak talent pool.
The SNL cast had not included a black woman since Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007 (and it’s only had a handful since its debut in 1975). Yesterday, SNL producers announced what many skeptics thought would never happen: A black woman would be joining the show. When I heard the news, my heart did one of those flip-flops, and in my head, I shouted something like, “Go, black girl, go!”
Enter Sasheer Zamata, who will debut on Jan. 18. The young comedian, who earned a drama degree from the University of Virginia, moved to New York City in 2009 and began performing with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, according to her website. SNL viewers may recognize her from commercials she’s appeared in for Target, Verizon Wireless, New York Lotto and Apple, or from her hilarious (and extensive) selection of online comedy videos, many of which she writes and performs.
I’m happy for her. For a comedian, landing a gig on SNL is a dream come true, and if played correctly could be a launching pad for a rewarding career. If nothing else, her addition will keep Kenan Thompson out of drag costumes (which he vowed not to do anymore), which had been SNL’s baffling (and annoying) solution to portraying black woman instead of doing the obvious a long time ago and hiring one or some black women to actually perform in sketches.
Like I said, I’m happy for Zamata. But forgive me if I’m still not doing the same mental backflips to celebrate SNL. They finally did the “right” thing, but it’s what they should have done years ago. Adding a black woman to a nationally televised show that pokes fun at American culture in which black women prominently exist should have been a no-brainer. As soon as Rudolph went in search of brighter horizons, the search should have been on to replace her with one or, yes, more than one black female comedian.
But it wasn’t a priority or even an afterthought. It took six years and a loud outcry for anyone to say, “You know, maybe something’s missing here.” Zamata is undoubtedly talented and deserves to be on the cast, but the timing of her addition seems like more like a PR move to quell the angry masses than the genuine result of a teachable moment or even a desire to change.
I’m also a little queasy about what SNL will do with Zamata’s talents. I haven’t watched with any regularity since Rudolph departed, but I recall the recent hullabaloo when media darling Kerry Washington took on a hosting gig. The sketch included Washington hurriedly switching outfits and hair to portray different black women, SNL’s way of taking a dig at the backlash it received from not having a black female cast member on the show. It garnered a chuckle, but I received it more as Olivia Pope-esque crisis management than funny.
Washington’s sketches were downhill from there—not because of lack of her talent, which isn’t in question, but because the material was lacking. Too many of her characters played into the stereotype of black women as unsophisticated and inappropriate, which, as a natural part of comedy, would have gone over better if this wasn’t a one-shot opportunity to see a black woman on the show or if the skits weren’t just plain unfunny. Many who had been waiting for their black-girl moment were left disappointed.
My hope is that Zamata, for whom I am rooting, will be better utilized and won’t leave folks with a similar feeling.