Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Meet Sasheer Zamata, The Sista SNL (Finally) Just Hired.

I guess we can finally stick a fork in this one. After years!!!! months of ignoring public pressure, most notably from its only two current black castmembers, Saturday Night Live finally did the right thing and hired a sista. She will join the cast in a few weeks, and yes, she is funny.
“Saturday Night Live” concluded its search for a black female cast member on Monday when it hired Sasheer Zamata, a young sketch comedian who has been performing in the New York area for the last four years.

The selection of Ms. Zamata came at the conclusion of what amounted to a midseason talent search by “S.N.L.,” which had been criticized for what was described as a glaring omission in the show’s cast.

Ms. Zamata will be what the show calls a “featured player,” the conventional post for new cast members. She is scheduled to make her first appearance on Jan. 18, the next new edition of the show. (It will be hosted by the singer Drake.) The news of Ms. Zamata’s hiring was first posted by the Deadline Hollywood website.

Ms. Zamata, who is 27, is from Indianapolis and attended the University of Virginia. She came to New York in 2009 and began working with the improvisational group Upright Citizens Brigade.

She has performed stand-up comedy in New York and around the country and has also appeared in online videos for sites like College Humor. She has appeared in sketches on the Comedy Central series “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on FX.

The addition of Ms. Zamata will bring the current cast of “S.N.L.” to 17 players, seven of them women.
If you're not familiar with Ms. Zamata's brand of comedy, get familiar. She's funny, versatile, can write as well as act, and I thinks she could be a breakout star on SNL if given good material. Again, that's a huge if.

The truly odd thing here is that Zamata's hiring flies completely in the face of SNL Head Lorne Michaels' prior assertion that SNL simply couldn't find any black women that met their criteria. While I'll admit I hadn't heard of Ms. Zamata before now, it's insane for Michaels to make his statement given the fact that Ms. Zamata was a member of UCB (which is essentially SNL's talent incubator) and has been in New York for damn near 5 years. Seriously, how hard would it have been to find this clearly qualified woman? Black women can run Ivy League universities and Fortune 500 companies, but you can't find one who can read jokes off a cue card? Really?

In a strange way, this whole story is eerily reminiscent of the very same excuses we hear when corporations don't hire people of color. If you value something, you invest the time and energy in cultivating it. Any company that wants black talent simply needs to go where it exists. In this case, Zamata was in all the right places and had all the right contacts. SNL clearly didn't hire her (or anyone else similarly qualified) because they simply didn't want to.

So props to Jay Pharoah for putting his neck on the line and going public with his (then) controversial comments about SNL. And props to Keenan Thompson, whose "they aren't ready" comment was taken waaaay out of context, for also weighing in on the matter and refusing to dress up as a woman anymore. Those guys both put their necks on the line to make this happen, and that, probably more than any other factor, is why SNL is finally balancing out their roster a bit. Too bad they pissed away 5 perfectly good years of Michelle Obama sketches in the interim. But I digress.

I'm sure plenty of people are now gonna complain that SNL needs to hire a Hispanic woman, an Asian male, and a bisexual Eastern European hermaphrodite. And on all accounts (does that 3rd one exist?) I would agree. Michaels doesn't really care about ratings, and he doesn't have to because the show is an American institution and will air as long as it wants. But if Michaels cares about comedy, he'd realize that a more diverse cast (and writing room) gives the show more limitless comedic potential. Which could presumably mean a better show and better ratings. So there's that.

In any event, congrats to Mr. Zamata, whose celebration might be shortlived. Let's face it: 75% of America is convinced she was only hired because she's black. Not because she had the exact same (or better) pedigree as the rest of the current cast. The minute she flubs a cue card, the criticism is on the way. To succeed, she's gonna need to be the Lebron James of sketch comedy.

And in a strange way, those of us who work daily in a workplace in which we haven't traditionally succeeded know exactly how that feels.

Best of luck, Ms. Zamata. Something tells me you'll do just fine.

Question: Did SNL bow to public pressure or merely hire someone qualified for the job in the first damn place? Do you see any parallels between this story and the affirmative action battle that goes on in corporations every day?

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