The only question that remained at the end of the genuinely funny episode: Why didn’t this happen sooner?
Zamata had one line in the first sketch, but you could hear the voices of new writers LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones in a bit that poked fun at Drake’s black-and-Jewish heritage by showcasing his family at his bar mitzvah. Zamata appeared as Auntie Rhonda, mistress to Drake’s Uncle Larry, played by Kenan Thompson.
“I’d like to thank my Uncle Larry and Auntie Kim who came all the way from Memphis tonight,” Drake said.
Uncle Larry: “Oh, dis is your Auntie Rhonda.”
Drake: “Um, what happened to Auntie Kim?”
Uncle Larry: “Oh, she back at the house.”
References to “all 150 cousins, both real and play-play,” Auntie Rhonda and a BET send-up entitled “Hip-Hop Classics: Before They Were Stars” demonstrated an intimacy with black culture that’s rarely been seen on “SNL,” and the Twittersphere took note.
I think Lorne sent all the white writers on an all expenses paid vacation this week.
— Top Bitch of Honor (@writeli) January 19, 2014
While many tuned in just to see how “SNL” would handle Zamata’s first night, it was almost a relief to see Drake take command of the show. He played Jimmy Brooks on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” for eight years, and hosting allowed him to showcase his considerable acting chops. He delivered a side-splitting impression of comedian Katt Williams, and no one who watched will be surprised if clips of him in Indiana Jones tour guide shorts become a new Internet meme.
After weeks of anticipation, Zamata’s debut was bound to be fraught. “SNL” had a very fine needle to thread in presenting Zamata: If she appeared too much, it would seem that she was being paraded in order to silence those who had been angrily clamoring for a black female cast member; too little, and it’s easy to dismiss the showrunners as racists who hired Zamata only to relegate her to a corner.
It certainly robbed her of the luxury of a “normal” debut, but Zamata handled it with aplomb, though her dialogue was kept to a minimum. She didn’t say anything in a sketch about writing bad poetry in detention, and she sang the hook and danced in a “Resolution Revolution” music video. She also played a wordless Rihanna in the “Hip Hop Classics” bit. Most of Zamata’s lines came in a sketch about a pervy sleepover guest where she played Drake’s daughter. Still, the presence of Zamata and Drake, plus the addition of Tookes and Jones, seemed to elicit stronger-than-usual performances from Thompson and Jay Pharoah, who were especially visible. Casting for sketches is billed as a meritocratic process, and it was impossible not to wonder if executive producer Lorne Michaels purposefully stacked the episode with sketches that were heavy on black talent.
It will be interesting to see ratings for this show, and I’ll be sure to update this post with numbers as they become available. Kerry Washington’s turn as host came at the height of the diversity fracas. Her episode garnered the highest ratings of the season up to that point. Though we didn’t see much dialogue for Zamata, I’m reserving judgement and hoping this episode allowed her to get her sea legs. Everyone, including Drake, realized what an important moment it was for her to be there. He thanked her personally, noting her first show during his speech as the credits rolled.
UPDATE: As promised, here are the details on the ratings: numbers were strong, and beat many recent episodes, with the exception of the record numbers from the Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake Christmas episode. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the episode had a 2.7 rating among adults 18-49 in the 25 markets with Local People Meters. For comparison’s sake, Washington’s was 2.6. The Fallon/Timberlake episode had a season-high 3.9 share in the same demographic.