Mazel tov, Sasheer.
Sasheer Zamata, the focus on an megawatt-intense spotlight, had her first show ever on Saturday Night Live last night, and she was actually in it! It may not seem like much, but for a new cast member that’s a very big deal. The new season of Saturday Night Live kicked off this fall with six brand-new cast members, collectively the focus of a flood of media hand-wringing over the big cast overhaul on the venerable late-night sketch show. But when all was said and done, none were given that much, if anything, to do. By the measure, Zamata’s big SNL debut was a rousing success.
Sure, she might not have been given more to do than stand in the background of a few sketches and deliver a few innocuous lines here and there, but she was a noticeable presence throughout the entirety of this weekend’s episode, hosted by an almost startlingly at-ease and on-point Drake. Letting the audience know she was there, almost always there, was a really smart move on SNL’s part. Because as excited as anyone might have been to watch Drake try his hand at hosting the show in addition to being its musical performer, all eyes were on Zamata throughout the outing.
Her hiring earlier this month came after a year of scrutiny on and backlash against SNL for its lack of diversity among its female performers. Cast member Keenan Thompson giving a few unchoice quotes about why the show hadn’t had any black female performers since Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007 only turned up the dial on the so-called controversy, to the point where the controversy was on the level of socio-political, cultural news the show skewers on a weekly basis. SNL was forced to lampoon itself as a result of the whole thing.
So in many ways it was smart to have Zamata’s presence felt throughout the whole episode, even if she didn’t play the lead in any of the sketches or deliver any real laughs. Could you imagine if, after all the attention paid to Zamata’s casting, SNL had not featured her at all? Wisely, Zamata popped up almost immediately, during Drake’s opening monologue, which took on the rapper’s half-Jewish, half-black heritage by flashing back to a parody of his awkward 1999 bar mitzvah. Zamata played his uncle’s mistress. She said, “Mazel tov.” She delivered it with gusto.
(Yes, the first line uttered by a black female cast regular since 2007 was “Mazel tov.”)
She’d go on to play a smattering of supporting characters throughout the night: a student in detention, a girl at a slumber party embarrassed by her dad. In a sketch reimagining cheesy ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms as if they had starred today’s hip-hop stars, she played Rihanna-as-Blossom. Basically, all she did was dance like Rihanna would while wearing Mayim Bialik’s unfortunate wardrobe. But it was funny! She then danced in a music video sketch in which Taran Killam, Jay Pharaoh, and Drake made fun of their inability to keep their New Year’s resolutions. It was funny! I mean, the sketch was. Her dancing was…dancing. But she was there!
There’s a pretty wide range of how a first week on SNL could go. You could barely be seen, like the fate that befell Brooks Wheelan back in September. You could totally “f” it up, like Jenny Slate did back on her first episode in 2009, on which she accidentally dropped an f-bomb during her big sketch. Or you could break out in a major way, leading and completely nailing your first big sketch, like Kate McKinnon did playing Penelope Cruz on her debut.
Zamata’s first outing fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. She didn’t mess anything up or bomb any laughs. She didn’t make a star-is-born impression. But you knew she was there, which, crazy as it sounds, is monumental for a new hire. It’s still unclear after this first episode what it is about Zamata that got her hired over the other women of color who were reportedly auditioned for the slot (Lorne Michaels apparently specifically sought out a black women of color to add to the cast for the second half of the season). One presumes she has a killer Michelle Obama, Oprah, or Beyoncé impression in her toolbox. Or perhaps all three. Or perhaps none, and she wowed with some really smart inventive material that blew Michaels’ socks off at her audition. We wouldn’t know it by this weekend’s show—unless Zamata’s Rihanna-as-Blossom dance was, in fact, the thing Michaels was waiting for the world to see. (All respect to Blossom, we doubt that.)
But in each sketch Zamata was magnetic. The camera loves her. You’re drawn to her immediately. And, truth be told, this was such a strong outing of SNL that, even if you tuned in specifically to see Zamata shine in a more starring role, you weren’t disappointed. Vanessa Bayer and Nasim Pedrad each had very strong nights, and Drake may rival Justin Timberlake as the show’s most valuable host/musical guest double threat. It’s hard to pick a sketch that you’d have wanted excise to see Zamata more in the forefront.
But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t patiently waiting to see one in the future. The very near future.