Sasheer Zamata
Sasheer Zamata (courtesy of her website)

Saturday Night Live has been on the air for nearly 40 years but the legendary comedy program is still venturing into relatively uncharted waters.

Yesterday, news broke that African-American comic actress Sasheer Zamata would be joining the cast this month, and she is, remarkably, only the fifth black woman to be be a regular on the show.

In 1980, Yvonne Hudson appeared sporadically as a featured player but did not have much of an impact. Five years later the late Danitra Vance became a full-time cast member but she struggled with what she considered deeply offensive and stereotypical roles. Behind the scenes, she reportedly struggled to remember her lines because she battled dyslexia.

In 1990s, comedian Ellen Cleghorne became the first African-American woman to stay with SNL for more than a single season. And while she scored laughs impersonating the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Quivers she left the show in 1995 amid rumors that she clashed with her cast-mates and occasionally, even the host.

By far the most successful black woman in SNL’s long history has been biracial comic actress Maya Rudolph.

She has parlayed her popular stint in SNL, where she performed a slew of impressions and headlined several recurring sketches, into a successful film and television career (including her next project, a variety show for her own for NBC).

Her recent return to host the show was a personal and professional triumph, netting her an Emmy nomination and also inadvertently highlighting the need for an African-American female voice on SNL.

Now, after considerable controversy, Sasheer Zamata has arrived on the scene. Her background in stand-up, acting and improv (she has roots in New York City’s famous Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater) suggest that she has the perfect pedigree to become a breakout star on the show.

Only time will tell if she will be another Rudolph or just an obscure answer to a Saturday Night Live trivia question.

Zamata will make her television debut on the January 18th episode featuring rapper Drake as host and musical guest.