Last night, Saturday Night Live announced they have hired Sasheer Zamata as a mid-season addition to the cast, responding to months of controversy over the show’s lack of black female performers. The news suggests that the series might finally be taking public criticism of its homogeneous casting decisions seriously—and puts enormous pressure on Zamata to be a great performer.
Zamata is a performer with New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater who has appeared on shows like Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Inside Amy Schumer. She had auditioned for SNL the previous summer. Zamata’s YouTube channel (in particular her series’s “The Pursuit of Sexiness” and “Beyonce as a Mommy”) displays her serious comedy chops and ingenous knack for celebrity impressions, which certainly equal or surpass any of the show’s recent hires.
SNL scrambled to respond to criticism this fall after the show kicked off its sixth consecutive year without a single black female performer. Current cast member Keenan Thompson echoed the show’s traditional stance on hiring diversity when, in a mid-October interview with TV Guide, he declared that the black female comedians who auditioned for the show were simply not “ready” to appear on SNL.
Saturday Night Live’s party line has always been that the stage at Studio 8H is reserved for comedy’s best and brightest—and that most of those best and brightest, by pure coincidence, just happen to be white dudes. In 38-and-a-half seasons, the show has featured few performers of color, and until Zamata’s hiring, had only ever included four black female performers: Maya Rudolph, who ended her seven-year tenure on the show in 2007; Ellen Cleghorne, who appeared from 1991 to 1995; and Danitra Vance and Yvonne Hudson, who each appeared for only one season—Vance as the show’s first black female primary cast member in 1985, and Hudson as show’s first black female featured player in 1981.
Thompson’s comments contrasted sharply, however, with those of the show’s other black male primary cast member, Jay Pharoah. In a September interview with TheGrio.com, he said that SNL needed to hire a black female comedian and recommended Darmirra Brunson (of OWN sitcom Love Thy Neighbor) for the job.
Two cast members publicly commenting on—and disagreeing about—the issue allowed it to pick up some media heat and opened the door for a series of high-profile critiques of the show, its hiring policies, and its depictions of black women. On October 31, Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson posted an open letter to SNL that sums up many of the criticisms.
SNL’s November 2nd episode, hosted by Kerry Washington, attempted to address the controversy with a skit which featured Washington portraying Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyonce, while an announcer “apologized” to her for having to play so many characters just because the show didn’t have any black female cast members.
Rather than quashing the controversy, the skit opened the door for further public analysis of the show’s relationship with black female performers. In The Atlantic, comedian Kerry Coddett suggested that SNL had trouble hiring black women because “the roles it offers to them fall in line with much of the rest of popular media: stereotypical, demeaning, and scarce.”
Producer Lorne Michaels commented in an early November AP interview that “[hiring a black female performer]’ll happen. I’m sure it will happen.” The comment seemed designed to blow off the issue—until it was revealed that Michaels had been quietly holding a series of auditions in December to hire a black female cast member for the show’s mid-season premiere.
The speed and ease with which Michaels added Zamata to the cast confirms many of us have always suspected—that talented, black, female SNL-ready comedians are out there. It is simply a matter of the show deciding to hire them.
Of course, when Zamata makes her January 18th debut on the show, she’ll be under a degree of scrutiny that no other first-year cast member has experienced. While more than one skit this season has made light of viewers’ unfamiliarity with the show’s new cast members, Zamata has been profiled today alone on USA Today, CNN, the Daily Beast, and dozens of other major new sites. There will surely be immense pressure on Zamata to immediately “prove” that she is funny enough to be on the show, that she was not “only” hired so that SNL could dig itself out of a public relations disaster.
But while some will surely analyze every second of Zamata’s first performances for flaws, I believe the show will support her and I hope that her hiring is a sign that the show is finally registering some of the complaints about lack of diversity that viewers have expressed for years.
SNL has been in the center of many media firestorms in its nearly four decades on the air. This is one of the only times when the show has embraced the criticism and actually made change. Zamata’s hiring is the most recent in a series of small steps—like 2012’s hiring of out lesbian Kate McKinnon and first-ever fat female cast member Aidy Bryant—that imply that the show might be slowly expanding its concept of who gets to be funny on TV.
Still, hiring a single black female performer after months of public outcry doesn’t mean the show has suddenly decided to honestly reflect modern America, or become a pure comedy meritocracy. Holding up a single performer as a solution to your show’s decades-long race problems is an obviously flawed strategy, and not necessarily a sign that the show will permanently alter its troubled casting system in future seasons.
But for a show that’s never been eager to admit its mistakes, its response to this issue is encouraging, and gives me hope for the future of the show. Hell, I might even start watching again.
Until January 18th, you can watch the video below—written by and starring Zamata as both herself and the man who harassed her on the street—and think about how much cooler this would be to see on air than another “Drunk Uncle” skit:
Related Reading: A Brief History of ‘Women Aren’t Funny.”