Sasheer Zamata, Saturday Night Live’s heavily hyped new cast member, appeared in her first broadcast on Saturday. On the surface, the episode didn’t seem radically different than any other. But the content of the sketches—at least in that first hour before I get sleepy and the show sends in the filler—hinted that this new hire, a smart, versatile comedian who happens to be a black woman, might mark a notable shift in the temperament of the show.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence that the host was Drake, who referenced his own background (his mother is Jewish; his father is black) in a monologue with a “flashback” to his bar mitzvah. Aside from being funny, the segment offered a pointed narration of Drake’s complex identity. And it dovetailed nicely with Zamata’s style of comedy, which often contorts itself into the awkward spaces between cultural worlds—like her standup bit about casting directors asking her to make her voice sound more “urban,” or the web video in which her one-night-stand clumsily admits he’s never slept with a black woman.
In the past two years, SNL lost a trove of veteran performers. In response, overlord Lorne Michaels and his team hired six new cast members at the beginning of the current season. Five of those new hires are men; all of them are white. This incited a major kerfuffle: The show hasn’t had a black female cast member since Maya Rudolph left nearly seven years ago. Did NBC trip and stumble back into 1994?
Problem is, it’s 2014, and there’s no shortage of powerful black women in entertainment. The lack of diversity on SNL feels more like an oversight than an intentional snub, but it promotes a disconnect between the show and the popular culture it skewers. From the beginning, SNL’s edgy political and social commentary was its bread and butter. How can the program continue to be relevant when it doesn’t reflect the world around it?
In November, Scandal’s Kerry Washington hosted an episode in which the actress ran on and off camera during the opening sketch in order to play Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé. A rolling message appeared on screen, beginning, “The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight.” It was funny, but it had that SNL tone that implies both an impish grin and a sneer.
The show has had more success riffing on the whiteness of its cast, like the self-explanatory bit from the season premiere, “New cast member or Arcade Fire?” and “White Christmas,” a send-up of Tyler Perry–style holiday films that starred only white people. There was an echo of the latter in the “Hip Hop Classics” segment on Drake’s episode, in which cussing hip-hop stars were dropped into family-friendly programs like Blossom and Family Matters. These skits felt like an attempt to gently poke holes in the presumed dichotomy of black culture and white culture—a nod to Drake’s opening-monologue acknowledgment that he contains multitudes, as do more and more and more of us.
It’s strange and sad that a show that has become synonymous with American sketch comedy needs to be confronted with grabby headlines about diversity to actually address its problem. But the swiftness of SNL’s response has been heartening. The hiring of black women writers Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes in particular speaks to something larger than a need to shut up the internet and get on with the show. It suggests the producers have come to terms with the fact that a comedy program needs to be agile in order to stay relevant (and funny), and that comedy has a lot to do with specificity and the kind of detail that only cultural insiders can provide.
The sketch show In Living Color, created by Keenen and Damon Wayans, premiered in 1990. The original cast had only two white members and won an Emmy its first year. MADtv had three black cast members when it premiered in 1995, and featured black comedians throughout its 14 years on the air. Two of those comedians were Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who went on to create their own sketch show for Comedy Central, the hilarious Key & Peele.
SNL may just be sketch comedy, but it’s a mainstream network show—one with a history. You know you’ve been noticed when you’re a target on Saturday Night Live. And if hiring from a wider and less homogeneous pool becomes the norm, we can look forward to the day when we can drop the “black female” descriptor and just call Zamata a comic.