Permit me to engage in a round of very slow applause for Saturday Night Live, which has just hired Sasheer Zamata into its ranks as a featured player. She will be the show’s first black female cast member since 2007, when Maya Rudolph left the show. That slow clap becomes even more torpid when you realise that Zamata is SNL’s fifth black female cast member of all time, in a programme which has been on the air since 1975 and had more than 130 cast members. I am a huge fan of Zamata’s (she’s one of the women calling for more penises on television in the skit I wrote about last year) and wish her a long, fruitful and incredibly funny time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
But let’s look at the wider context of her appointment. In the last few years, we have seen the pop scene expand to give us a solo Beyoncé, Rihanna and Azealia Banks (Samantha Cameron is a fan) among others. In 2009, we watched a black man get elected to the highest office in America, and then renew his mandate with a second term, effectively placing a black family at the heart of American culture for four more years. In 2012, we let Scandal’s Olivia Pope into our homes via primetime television.
To my mind, America in the Obama years has been about many things - the financial crisis, healthcare reform, the Tea Party, drones etc - but the thing that stands out to me, looking at a post-2009 world as a pop culture enthusiast, is race. America with a black president has been looking at itself in new ways, and the cultural landscape has largely reflected that. Black women, from Oprah to Michelle Obama to Beyoncé, have been right at the core of the social and cultural zeitgeist for years now. Consider the New Yorker cover of July 2008, in which Michelle Obama is depicted as an afro-sporting militant with a gun. Think on just how many pieces you have read about the politics of black women’s hair, or Beyonce lyrics, or intersectional feminism. Analyse the speed with which Olivia Pope as played by Kerry Washington gripped audiences in Scandal. Black girls have been having a moment for a very long time now. So why did it take SNL, that juggernaut bastion of American television and arguably the US’s most obvious source of TV comedy, this long to acquire a person who could play several of these pop cultural figures without blacking up? It has been the most glaring and baffling of omissions.
There was fuel added to the fire when one long-term cast member, Kenan Thompson (who has put on a dress to play Maya Angelou, and Oscar-winning actresses Mo’Nique and Jennifer Hudson among others), said the reason for the absence was because, “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” The response was swift and harsh; indeed, Zamata’s name came up as a counterpoint to his argument more than a few times. The other black cast member, Jay Pharoah, proposed Darmirra Brunson as a cast member, saying: “I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year . . .” The show finally acknowledged this anomaly late last year when Kerry Washington hosted the show. In the cold open she played Michelle Obama, Oprah, and an off-stage Beyoncé. A voiceover apologised for the many roles Washington would have to play, and that they were going to rectify the black female cast member issue soon before ending on a joke: “. . . unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” The studio audience erupted, but my laughter at home was hollow; the real joke was the set up to the gag. How could SNL not have a black female cast member in 2013? In any case, after rumours of an exclusively black and female audition, here we are: Zamata makes her debut on the show’s return on 18 January. It’ll be interesting to see what material she writes and what they give her to perform.
Looking closer to home, SNL’s recent appointment throws UK telly into sharp relief. If we had an SNL, would we have a stable of black and Asian female comics to draw from? A cursory look at the panel shows suggests not. But hey, this is a country that once gave us Blouse and Skirt, Goodness Gracious Me and The Real McCoy. It took SNL six years to reset its rudder. There remains a sliver of hope.