When I heard that Sasheer Zamata was joining the cast of Saturday Night Live, I was hesitantly excited. There is a part of me that wants to trust the system, to believe the keepers of the system that says that they have not found the right person. But there is another part of me that lives in this country, have seen minorities getting the short shrift because the majority culture won’t take the time to understand them. There are a plethora of black comedic talent, but fewer black female talent. Even as we laugh uproariously at the likes of Alicia Tyler or Sherri Shephard (and there is a part of me that feels the need to name other black female comedians so that the list doesn’t seem paltry, but I won’t), we still marginalize female comedic talent leaving black female comedians even more on the back burner.
Shonda Rhimes has become a television sensation, creating show after show or hits. Even the duds have been optimistically received. She became a success in a field that doesn’t give much credit to female writers much less black female writers. While her greatest ensemble achievement is Grey’s Anatomy, her greatest achievement in characters is Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington.
Kerry Washington has taken the television world by storm. Anecdotally, I’ve seen more and more people of all races becoming “gladiators,” based on the strength of the writing, the excitement of the plotlines, and the quality of the actors. Kerry Washington has been the first black female nominated for a best actress Emmy since 1995. Though she didn’t win, as no black actress has in 65 years of Academy Awards, she certainly deserved to be in the running with the caliber of actresses nominated alongside her. The variety of people who love the show are not just along race and sex lines, though that is how it started. With a homicidal maniac working for the good guys and a woman who is probably one of the strongest women you’ve ever met, black or white, the show does a good job of connecting with people from all walks.
So what does Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington have to do with Saturday Night Live hiring Sasheer Zamata?
Plenty. Shonda Rhimes’ writing has proven itself to be three things that Saturday Night Live needs and Kerry Washington’s popularity shows why they really needed to hire a black woman.
Accessible – Grey’s Anatomy. When the show originally came out it took the television world by storm. A well written ensemble cast with hints of humour, gripping storylines, and relatable characters that was a surprise hit. The even bigger surprise was who was at the helm. For me, it was a welcome surprise. A black female showrunner? Even though I hated living in Los Angeles, my tv writing alter-ego was very excited. If Grey’s Anatomy continued to be successful, this could be the ticket for other female writers, especially black females. The lack of diversity in the writing room has been a much talked about subject for a number of years. The big deal of a black female having several hit shows notwithstanding, Shonda Rhimes showed that being black didn’t mean you couldn’t relate to the majority of tv watchers. Week after week, season after season, Rhimes crafted a great show that thousands watched. She made a show seemed authentic, that was emotional to everyone who cared, and that told the tales of love and loss that resonated. Then, she continued to replicate that over several other shows. Scandal’s initial audience was mainly black and female, but as the show has gained notoriety, particularly after Washington’s nomination, they have picked up many more white fans both male and female. Shonda Rhimes fandom can relate to the stories she tells and it doesn’t matter that she’s a black female. Despite the Shakespearean-esque humour of having men play women, the nuances that women add to impersonations and storytelling would bring some accessibility. Not only would the notoriety of hiring the first black female cast member after 6 years bring viewers, but it will be black viewers and if SNL does a good writing job, they will mirror Shonda Rhimes’ accessibility and gain more viewers. That’s a success SNL is hoping to achieve.
Versatile – The stories that Shonda Rhimes writes move in surprising ways. Whether it is Denny’s death and Izzie’s eventual collapse, the loss of George, the hospital shooting, or Meredith adopting a baby, there is always an interesting path that the writing takes you on. The emotion, the connection that you feel towards the characters, and the storyline created by Rhimes shows versatility. Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope and while the part was specifically about a black female, the way the character is written only required a strong actress. Strong actors gives the characters a backbone that will make you follow them wherever they take you. The hiring of Sasheer Zamata comes after 6 years of not having a black female on the show. This means, hopefully, that the comedian is the best fit for the cast, but it also allows for ultimate versatility for the writers of SNL to create memorable characters for her to play.
Connection – Shonda Rhimes writes gripping stories that people, no matter their lot in life or their beliefs, can connect to. Viewers feel close to the characters because truly, while they are portrayed by actors of different races, could be of any race. Even as we talk about having more black female comedians, more Asian actors, more substantial roles for gays, when a character could just as easily be anyone, we can feel closer to that character. However, we like the actors that stand out and make us connect to their character no matter their race. In Grey’s Anatomy, I feel Sandra Oh’s character is struggling hard to be the best, in a way that my mom taught me to be the best. She always said it was not enough to be good, but that I had to be twice as good as my contemporaries to be noticed. As a black female, it can be a struggle to be noticed and to be considered good at your craft when others who might not try as hard get accepted ahead of you, but doing the hard work will eventually put the spotlight on you. Shonda Rhimes has worked hard to have her characters speak to millions of people and hold them entranced for 10 seasons. She is succeeding in doing the same with Scandal. I’m sure SNL hopes that Sasheer Zamata, for her duration on the show, garners as many laughs, as much connection, and as fierce a loyalty as Shonda Rhimes has garnered through her many characters and as Kerry Washington has developed through her role as Olivia Pope.
Sasheer Zamata has a long road ahead of her, but in the end all we really care about is whether she is funny. If she can bring the funny to every character written for her, then I have no doubt we will enjoy her for as long as she remains on the show.