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Sasheer Zamata’s Impressive, Frustrating “Saturday Night Live” Debut

This weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” was the debut appearance for Sasheer Zamata, the first black cast member since Maya Rudolph’s departure six years ago, and Zamata was excellent: confident without being overstated, handling the pressure of the disproportionate limelight impressively well. The show, on the whole, was one of SNL’s best in awhile—Drake rivals Justin Timberlake in the easy charm of his stage presence and the versatility of his impressions. (His Jay-Z was scarily accurate.) Zamata is clearly a terrific addition to the cast. But SNL’s handling of her debut was somewhat frustrating.

Being nearly invisible in your first show has come to feel like a rite of passage for new SNL cast members. In Kristin Wiig’s first episode in 2005, hosted by Jason Lee, her one featured role was playing Jason Sudeikis’s wife in a sketch about an oblivious couple that picks up a serial killer as a hitchhiker. Maya Rudolph’s first appearance, in the episode hosted by John Goodman in 2000, was impersonating MTV VJ Ananda Lewis. Kate McKinnon co-starred in one sketch, playing Penelope Cruz in a Pantene commercial alongside Sofia Vergara, in her very first show on the air last year.

These were brief, small roles that nevertheless provided a memorable introduction to the actresses’ particular styles. But Zamata’s first show was different in that she was in nearly every sketch, featured prominently in many—as a middle schooler whose dad is the object of a friend’s weird crush, in a sketch about Drake’s bar mitzvah in which her one joke was saying “mazel tov,” as a disco dancer in a song about New Years’ resolutions—but they were all slight parts with few spoken lines. 

Granted, there were many great moments in the show overall that seemed like evidence of an expanded writers’ room with newly diverse perspectives. The sketch “Before They Were Stars,” about hip hop artists starring in kids’ TV shows, was easily the best of the night; Zamata was a delight in the role of Rihanna-as-Blossom, showcasing some stellar dance moves. Still, it felt a bit self-congratulatory of SNL to include Zamata in every sketch in conspicuous but silent roles, as if trotting her out as evidence of their compliance with the demands of the public. Of course, Zamata's hiring was so high-profile that it was necessary for SNL to make an event of her debut. But I would have rather seen Zamata in one, meatier role that did more to introduce us to her specific talents than in a medley of bit parts that seemed designed mostly as a way for SNL to applaud itself on her addition to the cast.