Fresh off of SNL and clad in the chicest vintage fashions, Sasheer Zamata is making her mark on stand-up with her outspoken, outstanding show.
By Briony Smith
We’re spotlighting some of the chicest comedians RN, all of whom will be straight killing it at the JFL42 festival in a quick min. First up: Sasheer Zamata! Fresh off of SNL, she is making her mark on stand-up with her outspoken, outstanding show. (Stay tuned for our chats with comics extraordinaire Rachel Feinstein and Jen Kirkman next!)
Imagine you are applying for a highly coveted job that everyone in your field wants. Now imagine that everyone in your field knows you’re applying for this job. And now imagine that pretty much everyone else knows you’re applying for this job, too. No presh, right? This was the unenviable spot improv star Sasheer Zamata found herself in 2013 when she was in the running to become Saturday Night Live’s first black female cast member in years. Zamata scored the much-publicized gig and spent several seasons on SNL, but the ACLU Celebrity Ambassador for Women’s Rights was often relegated to bit parts or impressions that were not a perfect fit, and she left the show this spring. Zamata’s stand-up special Pizza Mind, released earlier this year, features a hilarious interstitial bit that lampoons two stand-up audience members complaining that she “didn’t do enough impressions.” But why would she bother? The stand-up stage is where Zamata triumphs, speaking her truth, not languishing on the back benches of SNL, at the mercy of a writers room. Is it selfish that we’re ecstatic she’s been released from Lorne’s clutches, loosed back into comedy clubs to do her own material? There, she can kill, hard, with sharp sets that skewer racism, entitled audiences, the general ridiculousness of white people (including their woeful inadequacies in how to say her straight-forward name properly), and Hollywood diversity (or lack thereof). No Beyoncé. No Nicki. No Rihanna. Just Sasheer.
You can catch Sasheer Zamata as part of comedy festival JFL42 in Toronto, September 28 and 29.
What do you love most about being a comedian?
Being able to express myself and say what I want to say—and do it through a way that gets people laughing and on board, easing people into understanding an idea I want to get across, without trying to jam a point down their throat.
What is the hardest part about being a comedian?
It can be long nights and it can be a lot of writing and rewriting and rewriting.
Why is comedy so hot at the moment?
People really wanna laugh right now and comedians are there to provide that.
Do you have any material in this show that you found especially challenging to write, or that was especially meaningful to you to talk about?
I just write what I think is funny: what I want to say. Some people may think these things are risky or controversial; I talk about rape, my family, gender, privilege—which might be things people are surprised to hear me talk about, especially if they don’t know anything about me. It all seems normal to me since it’s all I talk about on the regular.
Do you feel there’s more diversity and representation in comedy these days?
I’ve seen more growth, which is great, and more opportunities for people to be able get their diverse point of view out. But, of course, there’s always room to grow. I am ready for more types of people to do what they do best, and to be praised and celebrated. Who knows if there’s a point in time where we go “Okay, everyone’s spoken for. We’ve got everyone!” and there’s equal screen time across the board, but it would be nice to see if things get closer to that.
What’s the most meaningful thing someone‘s said to you after a show?
Someone said watching my show was like getting a kiss on the cheek and then a left hook. Like, I’m funny, I’m nice and sweet, but I don’t hold back. When they said that, I thought, yep, that sounds right.
What’s the weirdest thing someone’s said to you after a show?
I’ve had people be rude, and then give me advice on how to do comedy…when they don’t do comedy. It’s crazy. I don’t understand why you, the person who paid for this show, can tell me, the person who is the show, how to put together a show. Men have problem [having] stuff they can’t do so they find a way to still put themselves into a position of power.
What’s the hardest part about being on the road?
Missing my bed. I love hotels, I love traveling, but after a while, I’m ready to go back to my bed. And if I’m traveling alone, then finding things to do alone, trying not to be a hermit and stay in my hotel room the whole time. Also trying not to be bored and wandering the streets. But one thing I do in most of these citites I go to is I try to find a thrift shop. I’ll ask around or check Yelp, trying to find their cool stores. It’s fun to see what people in different towns wear and what their different styles are—and what they’re choosing to give away. I usually come out with some good finds. I live in New York so its picked over because everyone’s trying to look their coolest, but I go to other cities and they aren’t trying to do that necessarily so I can go ahead a steal all their treasures.
What have been some of your best thrift store finds?
I was just in Boston and I got so many good pairs of pants. I really cleaned out their pants selection. I love high-waisted pants, and these are kind of loose on the bottom. I also went to a store in Edmonton when I was performing at a festival there and they had great acid-wash things. I got acid-wash jeans, this romper I still wear, which has crazy colours and patterns. And also any time I go to Canada, sweaters are the big thing.
You rock a killer cobalt jumpsuit on your last special. What sort of vibe are you going for with your tour outfits?
Usually, when I put together my stage outfit, I think about what is the most functional. So a lot of times I’ll try to do sleeveless tops since I sweat a lot: it’s really just trying to figure out what’s not going to show sweat. I also try to cover up my goodies—not wear anything low-cut or lace or super-short. I have tattoos and I don’t want people to focus on what’s on my body. I want them to focus on my words. I don’t try to cover up completely, where you cant see any of my skin, but I do try to cover up enough where you’re focused on me and what I’m saying, not my body. And sometimes I can’t help that some people are still going to look at my body and think of me sexually because I am sexy. Even if I wasn’t trying to be sexy, it doesn’t matter: people are still going to sexualize me no matter what. I try not to worry about that too much, but I do think about it. Men roll out of bed, wear anything and go on stage and people will listen. Whereas women it’s like, “what you’re wearing is too revealing” or “what you’re wearing isn’t revealing enough.” People will judge you for whatever reason.
You do material on your partner and family in your act. How do you balance your relationships and writing content true to you?
I usually run the joke by my family. I do it in front of them and they have to let me know if they like it or not. And there have been moments were they haven’t, and they asked me to not say certain things. So it’s all a growing process were I’m trying to figure out what I’m willing to reveal and what I’m not willing to reveal and what other people will allow me to reveal. Even though it’s my story, other people are involved, so I should take them into consideration. Now I’m at point where I’m more personal in my material than I used to be: talking less about other people and external things and more looking more inward.
Is it scarier to talk more about yourself?
Absolutely. But once I started going personal, I got such a strong reaction from the crowd. People connected in different ways, like, “oh, I’ve been through that experience,” or “so glad you said that—I‘ve never heard anyone else talk about this issue,” or heard a women talk about this issue. And that’s satisfying and so nice to be able to connect to an audience and relate to people and walk away feeling they know me more, and feel like they have someone who shares an experience with them. And you can probably get that from other shows that aren’t going for personal but getting the feedback I’ve gotten makes me want to keep doing that, since it does seem to affect people more then just giving them a laugh for an hour. They’re actually coming away with something real.