AUSTIN — “I’m the new black girl on SNL!” That’s how Sasheer Zamata introduced herself to an appreciative comedy crowd at South by Southwest on Sunday night.
Held at venerable Austin comedy club Esther’s Follies, dozens were turned away at the door from the hot event, presented by Above Average and UCB Comedy and billed as Up Next with Fred Armisen. Top-lined by SNL alumnus Armisen, who has since gone on to score sketch comedy gold on IFC’s Portlandia and more recently surprised many by taking on band-leader duties on Late Nate with Seth Meyers, the showcase was an unofficial SNL reunion, featuring cast members old and new.
That included a performance by all-guy sketch comedy troupe Good Neighbor, the launching pad for two of this season’s new featured players, Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney. The skit involved a “mathemagician” whose performance gets derailed by four audience participants, each of whom insists the other is a plant.
An unbilled appearance from Tim Meadows, who starred on the long-running NBC late show from 1991 to 2000, drew a huge response from the audience. He was there only briefly, however, to introduce stand-up Chris Gethard, who cracked the audience up with the still-painful story about an Internet commenter who said he “looks like Drew Carey with AIDS.”
The evening’s master of ceremonies was Tim Robinson, who spent one season as a featured player before segueing off-camera to become a writer for the show. Explained Robinson, “Turns out no one wants to see a guy that looks like a fat eagle on TV.”
Robinson then warmed up the crowd with rejected SNL sketch pitches, including one for a character he calls Donnie Parton: “That’s where you’re the boy version of Dolly Parton but you have huge balls.” Judging by the laughs, the show might consider revisiting that one.
The 27-year-old Zamata, who debuted on SNL on Jan. 18 following a high-profile casting search for an African-American woman, devoted a portion of her set to the amusing story of how her mother and brother from Indiana flew in to New York to catch her first show. At the after party, Zamata’s mother asked to be introduced to SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. Reluctantly, Zamata escorted her mother to the table where Michaels was holding court.
“I was like, ‘Lorne, this is my mom. Mom, this is Lorne,'” she said. The two shook hands and started talking, and Michaels said the comedian was a great addition to the cast and “we’re glad to have her.” Replied her mom, “I know.” To Zamata’s horror, the proud parent then “produced a letter out of nowhere” and handed it to Michaels. As that was happening, she overheard her brother telling the show’s head writer, “This episode was actually pretty good. Seems like the season’s getting better!”
“I was like, ‘Everybody in the cab! Stop talking to people!” Zamata recalled.
As for the contents of the letter, “It was nice for the most part — it was a lot of like, ‘Congratulations to you for being so smart to hire my daughter.'” Her mother also told Michaels that she had been praying for his “health and the longevity” of the show, currently in its 39th season.
“I think that may have been why it’s taken them so long to hire another black girl,” Zamata joked. “Because the people we bring around are crazy.” She also added that the makeup department was thrilled she was there, “because they get to use products they haven’t used in a decade.”
Out last, Armisen performed a series of musical jokes, including his impression of checking into a W Hotel to the kind of electronic samba music you only seem to hear in hip hotel lobbies. “Who makes this music?” he asked, drawing big laughs. He later entertained the crowd by taking accent requests — the more specific the geographical location the better. When someone asked for an Israeli accent, he obliged, then asked for a city. “Tel Aviv? Tel Aviv is a little more here! Tel Aviv is a little more per-cuss-ive!”
During a question-and-answer session, Armisen was asked to relay the story of how South by Southwest actually derailed his career as a drummer and set him on the comedy path that made him a star.
He explained that he had come to the festival in 1998 as a frustrated musician. To entertain himself, he decided to go to seminars “and ask really stupid questions.” He edited the pranks together and distributed them on VHS. (The video now resides on YouTube. Watch it below.)
“It is South by Southwest that got me to do comedy,” Armisen said.
Thank the SXSW gods for that.