Why So Few Black Women On SNL?


Sasheer Zamata, the 27-year-old comedian seen above, has been tapped to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, becoming the first black woman on the show since Maya Rudolph’s departure in 2007. Drew Grant comments:

It’s an uneasy victory: While it’s definitely a good thing to have more diversity in the cast, the fact is that Ms. Zamata was hired in direct result to the backlash caused by Kenan Thompson’s comments to TV Guide last October, when he claimed the show had a hard time staffing black women because many of them were not qualified. The show’s producers were under considerable pressure to address the problem, and held several auditions to find someone who could reprieve Mr. Thompson of having to put on a dress every time the show needed an Oprah character. (SNL, which does have a sense of humor about itself, did a brilliant send-up of the issue in its cold opening with Kerry Washington last year.)

This is not to say Ms. Zamata is not qualified. A graduate of the University of Virginia, the acting major has been taking classes UCB, a popular feeding pool for late night, since 2009. Her YouTube videos show that she has a wide array of characters and impressions up her sleeve, including Beyonce and Michelle Obama. She’ll make a great addition to the show, and hopefully going forward, SNL will not have to hold seperate auditions for black women.

Erik Voss explored the controversy back in October:

The lack of diversity on SNL has always been a thorn in the paw for the show’s progressive fan base.

Since SNL premiered in 1975, only 15 black performers have been in the cast (and only two Latinos and zero Asian-Americans), and only four of those black performers have been women: Yvonne Hudson (1980-81), Danitra Vance (1985-86), Ellen Cleghorne (1991-95) and Maya Rudolph (2000-2007). Since Rudolph left, viewers have complained that SNL has no one to play zeitgeist celebrities like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Beyonce — not to mention a wealth of original black female characters. In the past, Thompson donned drag to play Whoopi Goldberg and Star Jones, but he now refuses to play such roles. SNL‘s casting process is notoriously secretive, leaving outsiders wondering why the show hasn’t diversified its cast. Is it, as Thompson suggested, simply a matter of the SNL‘s producers being unable to find black women who are “ready”? How is that possible when those of us in the alternative comedy scene know hilarious black women who have auditioned, only to be mysteriously rejected? Is anyone ever “ready” for SNL?

Poniewozik says SNL’s writers have work to do as well:

The next step will be making sure Zamata has someone to play besides Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. Impressions, for better or worse, have been SNL’s bread and butter for decades; pretty much everyone in the cast needs to do them (Rudolph had a famous Oprah) and presumably so will Zamata. It’s one reason that diversity on SNL matters for practical reasons and not just social ones: you need people who can play everyone in the wide world of public figures.

But what will make Zamata’s hire worthwhile, for her and for the show, is making sure that she gets written great, memorable characters who aren’t black female celebrities as well. It’s the difference between being an African American woman SNL star (a funny performer who is black and female) and being the African American woman SNL star (a performer who’s specifically there to be black and female). That may seem like semantics, but it’s also about what real diversity on a cast means–giving a performer like Zamata the kind of range that the show’s most successful white men have had (and white women, and black men like Eddie Murphy).

Watch five impressions by Zamata here and many more videos of her work here.