To Get To 'SNL,' Comic Sasheer Zamata 'Followed The Fun'

Apr 13, 2017

Sasheer Zamata clearly remembers the feeling she got when she did stand-up for the first time: "I went to an open mic by myself, didn't tell anybody," Zamata says. "I came offstage and ... was like, 'This is my life forever! I can do this forever now!' "

Zamata is now an SNL cast member, and before that, did improv with the Upright Citizen's Brigade. She has her own stand-up special, Pizza Mind, which is available on NBC's comedy streaming site Seeso. She also appears in the film Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, which just premiered on Netflix, and the film Sleight, which will be released later in April.

Looking back, Zamata says her path from beginner to working comic happened in the best possible way: "I just followed the fun. I just followed the things I was really interested in, and it turned out to be what I needed to do."


Interview Highlights

On pursing comedy as a career

The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater has a touring company and they go to colleges and a group came to my college at UVA [University of Virginia] and there was a talk back ... and someone asked how you get a career in comedy, and Bobby Moynihan, who happened to be in the group said, "Move to New York, go to UCB, and work really hard." So I did that.

When I moved to New York I didn't know how much improv and comedy would play into my life. I thought I was going to do theater and Broadway and stuff. But I kept going to see UCB shows and was such a fan I was like, "I should really just try this."

[I] dove in hard, starting taking classes back-to-back, started taking sketch classes, and started doing stand-up all at the same time, and then eventually I was like, "Oh this is all I want to do." ... Eventually my mangers and agents saw me perform and signed me and then I started getting money for it and ... it turned into my career.

On getting hired after a public controversy about how few black women have been on SNL

It was mostly odd because it was so public. ... I had been auditioning for the show for a couple years before this point and then they asked for a rushed showcase of black women in LA and in New York, and I was in the New York one, and then they chose people from those pools and then I found out after the holiday break. This was all in December and yeah, it was very stressful. I didn't love that it was so public.

On a coworker at SNL mixing her up with former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams

As soon as that person realizes that they have made a mistake that may be construed as ignorant or even racist, the conversation gets so awkward, and they may be a nice person, they may even be my friend, so there's like a little part of me that's like, "No, no, no, no, it's OK, I don't want you to feel bad." ... Like trying to coddle a scared kitten ...

But then it's like, no, I don't have to do that. You should learn. You should just learn from your mistakes. You should feel that emotion. And it feels awkward, and then don't do it again and actually be conscious of what you're saying next time. I really am over trying to make sure other people are comfortable in this conversation when they're making me uncomfortable. It's not my fault.

Radio producers Lauren Krenzel and Heidi Saman and web producers Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest, Sasheer Zamata, has been a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" since 2014. Now viewers have a chance to see her own comedy act on a new stand-up special called "Pizza Mind," which is on NBC's comedy streaming site, Seeso. She also appears in the film "Deidra And Laney Rob a Train," which just premiered on Netflix, and the film "Sleight," which will be released later this month.

Zamata has a background in improv and performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, where many comics have gotten their start. Listeners of "This American Life" might also know Zamata from her appearances on that show.

FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado spoke with Sasheer Zamata. They started with an excerpt from her stand-up special in which she's telling the story behind her first name.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "PIZZA MIND")

SASHEER ZAMATA: My name's not actually from any island or African culture. It's from "Star Trek."

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: My parents are Trekkies.

(CHEERING)

ZAMATA: Technically Trekkers. That's what the fans were called when the show first came out. And they were watching an episode together, season 2, episode 50. And...

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: ...Captain Kirk was flirting with this alien princess, as he does. And he gave her a rose. And she goes, oh, we have something like this on my planet except it's made out of crystal and it's called Sasheer. And my parents were like yes...

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: ...That'll be our daughter. And they gave each other a Vulcan high-five and called it a night.

(LAUGHTER)

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's from the stand-up special "Pizza Mind." Sasheer Zamata, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ZAMATA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

BALDONADO: You started in comedy doing improv, you even did it in college. But when you moved to New York, you did improv, you did sketch and you started doing stand-up. What made you want to start doing stand-up comedy?

ZAMATA: People in my improv classes were talking about trying stand-up. And the way they described it, they were all scared. They thought it was a big endeavor. And I like doing scary things, so I was like, well, I'll give it a try. And I did, I went to a open mic by myself, didn't tell anybody, wrote some jokes. And I didn't do awful, so I remember, like, going on stage during my five minutes.

And then I came off stage and, like, sat next to another woman. And she's like great job. And I was like thanks, that was my first time. She was like, well, I couldn't even tell. And I was like, this is my life forever (laughter). I can do this forever now. I just wanted to keep going and get better and learn how to tackle this thing that was new to me.

BALDONADO: Your stand-up special, "Pizza Mind," deals a lot with issues like racism and sexism. And I want to play another scene from "Pizza Mind" about an interaction you had with someone else who works on "SNL" who mistakes you for another African-American female comedian. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "PIZZA MIND")

ZAMATA: People also have a hard time telling black actresses apart. I was talking to somebody who works at "SNL" who's seen my face for years. And he asked me, didn't you work at "The Daily Show" before you worked here? He was talking about Jessica Williams. Exactly, yeah. OK, she's not here.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: No, she's great. Yeah, she was a "Daily Show" correspondent. She is my friend and not me. She's not me.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: But I wanted to help this guy out. I was like, oh, well, I was in a Apple commercial, maybe an Apple commercial aired during an episode of "The Daily Show" and you got confused? Which would have made him an idiot if that's what he thought but I was still reaching. And he just looks at me and goes no, I don't think that's it, and walks away not knowing his mistake. And I got so mad at myself.

I was like why am I doing this? Why am I hemming and hawing trying to make the situation less awkward for the person who made it awkward? It's not my fault that he can't tell the difference between black women, that's on him. So I'm dead. I'm not doing that anymore.

(APPLAUSE)

BALDONADO: That's from the stand-up special "Pizza Mind." I'm not sure if this exact thing happened but I'm sure variations of this happen all the time. Did that really happen with a "SNL" co-worker?

ZAMATA: Oh, that's a real conversation, yeah. I don't want to call out the person who said that but yeah, it was surprising 'cause it was like, really? You see my face all the time here (laughter) and you thought that I worked at "The Daily Show"? I mean, yeah. And I really did try to dig him out of that hole for him. I was like yeah, maybe an Apple commercial is where you saw me and you got confused. All of that was true. And I don't think he ever really realized what his mistake was.

BALDONADO: What do you think that instinct is to try to make it easier for the person who's saying this to you? I mean, it's totally on the other person who made the mistake but there is this instinct to try to make it nicer, easier for the other person.

ZAMATA: I think because you - as soon as that person realizes that they have made a mistake that may be construed as ignorant or even racist, the conversation gets so awkward. And they may be a nice person. They may even be my friend. So there's like a little part of me that's like, oh, no, no, no, no, it's OK. I don't want you to feel bad. And it's kind of like, you know...

BALDONADO: You're not racist.

ZAMATA: ...Yeah, yeah, trying to like coddle a scared kitten or something and be like no, it's fine. We're all friends here. We're all OK. But then it's like no, I don't have to do that. You should learn. You should just learn from your mistakes. You should feel that emotion. And if it feels awkward, and then don't do it again and actually be conscious of what you're saying next time.

But yeah, I'm really am over trying to make sure other people are comfortable in this conversation when they're making me uncomfortable. It's not my fault. That's something they need to work on.

BALDONADO: Now, you were cast on "SNL" in 2014. And it may be one of the most visible "SNL" castings ever because it was at this time when "SNL" was criticized for a lack of diversity and particularly for not having any women of color on the cast for a couple years. What was the casting process like for you from your perspective?

ZAMATA: It was mostly odd because it was so public. Like, I had been auditioning for this show for a couple years before this point. And then they asked for a rushed showcase of black women in LA and in New York. And I was in the New York one. And then they chose people from those pools. And then I found out, like, after the holiday break. This was all in December. And yeah, it was very stressful. I mean, I didn't love it. I didn't love that it was so public.

BALDONADO: Well, had "SNL" been a goal of yours? Like, as a kid, did you watch the show and think that's what I want to do, I want to do that?

ZAMATA: Yeah. I watched "SNL" and "MADtv" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and didn't know how to get there at all, didn't even know how the people who were there got there. And then when I got to college, I started doing improv. And then the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has a touring company. And they go to colleges. And a group came to my college at UVA. And there was like a talk back between the college groups and UCB team. And someone asked how do you get a career in comedy? And Bobby Moynihan, who happened to be in the group, said move to New York, go to UCB and work really hard.

And so I did that. And then (laughter) - and when I moved to New York, I didn't know how much improv and comedy would play into my life. I thought I was going to do theater and Broadway and stuff. But I kept going to see UCB shows. And I was just such a fan that I was like, I should just really try this and dove in hard, started taking classes back to back, start taking sketch classes and started doing stand-up all at the same time.

And then eventually I was like, oh, this is all I want to do. This is all I want to dedicate my time to. And then eventually my managers and agents saw me perform and signed me. And then I started getting money for it. And I was like, oh, this is even better (laughter) now that I'm getting paid for it. And yeah, and then it turned into my career.

BALDONADO: Do you have a favorite "SNL" sketch that you've worked on or that you loved performing in or writing?

ZAMATA: This season, we did a sketch that was a "Stranger Things" parody. And I watched "Stranger Things" when it came out and loved it. And by the end of it, the biggest question I had was where were Lucas's parents? The little black boy, he - his parents were nowhere (laughter), at least not anywhere searching for him. And I was like if I was running around the woods looking for monsters late at night, my parents would be freaking out and they would try to find me.

I think - I remember my mom, like, ripped me out of a Steak 'n Shake 'cause I was out too late. So if I was like in danger, the consequences would be much greater. So I just wanted to put that in sketch form. And we have the performers for it. And Kenan and Leslie, like, made wonderful harsh parents. And yeah, I was so happy with the way that it came out.

BALDONADO: Well, let's take a listen to that sketch, it's really funny, a sketch from earlier this season which was a parody of the Netflix show "Stranger Things." And you're playing the little African-American boy.

ZAMATA: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

LESLIE JONES: (As character) Lucas?

ZAMATA: (As Lucas) Oh, no. Oh, God. It's my parents.

JONES: (As character) Lucas, where the hell have you been? We haven't seen you in days.

KENAN THOMPSON: (As character) What makes you think you can be out this late? Kids in this town are getting snatched up by kidnappers.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Dustin) But it's not kidnappers, Mr. Sinclair.

KYLE MOONEY: (As Mike) Yeah, it's the Demogorgon.

THOMPSON: (As character) A Demo-what?

MOONEY: (As Mike) It's a monster, and we're looking for it.

JONES: (As character) Lucas, I told you not to hang out with these little white kids.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: (As Lucas) But we have to find the Upside Down.

THOMPSON: (As character) The what?

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: (As Lucas) It's like the normal world but it's scarier and there's danger at every turn.

JONES: (As character) Baby, people who look like us already live in the Upside Down.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As character) Let me put it to you this way, Lucas. You don't have to go looking for scary stuff. It's going to find you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" featuring Sasheer Zamata. We'll hear more of her interview with our producer Ann Marie Baldonado after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer, Ann Marie Baldonado, recorded with Sasheer Zamata, who has been a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" since 2014.

BALDONADO: Now, radio and podcast fans may also know you from your appearances on "This American Life." You've been on a bunch of times.

ZAMATA: Yeah.

BALDONADO: And - yeah. Some of them funnier, some of them poignant, but all great pieces that you worked on. And one great piece you did was for an episode where the theme was It'll Make Sense When You're Older. And in it, you talk to your mom about race. It's about your relationship. It's about how she was one of the first black students to integrate a white junior high school in a small town in Arkansas during the civil rights era. I want to play a bit of the piece.

Here your mother is describing to you what it felt like to be one of those kids. And she talks about how she felt like she didn't ask for it, she didn't ask to be a trailblazer. And she felt really alone, like, she didn't have anyone to talk to about the experience. And here you ask her to describe what her first day was like. And then that sort of cuts to - at the end of what she's saying - it cuts to a bit of your stand-up act. So let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THIS AMERICAN LIFE")

IVORY STEWARD: There was a lot of cussing at us while we were sitting on the bus. And momma had told us sit in the front of the bus so in case something happens, the bus driver is a witness. Well, he was just a witness to us getting cussed out every day. He did nothing. When we got off the bus, we stood outside the window of the office. So if there - anything happened, then they could witness something happening to us.

The person we were - I remember standing in the window was coach Collier (ph), who later became principal. So he witnessed the kids throwing rocks at us. I remember I had on a white blouse, a houndstooth vest and a black skirt and had on my cute little white bobby socks. And I remember looking down at my legs and how the rocks had pelted them. And one had broke blood. And some kid, I guess he pulled out a banana. He threw a banana. And it landed on my houndstooth vest. And I never got that stain out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZAMATA: Being in junior high, no matter who you are is hard. Like, it just sucks. People are mean. And so I started asking her questions about this like what was it like? And my mom said think of it like "Mean Girls," but they're racist. And I was like no.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: Like, that's the analogy where I fully understood. I was like, oh, my God. That's too mean.

BALDONADO: That's an excerpt from a piece from "This American Life" by my guest Sasheer Zamata. Was it hard to hear that from your mom, not only because she seemed still really hurt about the experience, but how - because she was so conflicted about her role in the civil rights movement?

ZAMATA: Yeah. It was interesting. She was totally on the side of I didn't ask for this, I didn't want to be a part of it. If I had a choice, I would have stayed in the schools that had all black kids. There was a lot of responsibility on her shoulders just to exist. Just her existing and being in an environment that did not want her was now a responsibility.

And, yeah, it was hard to hear because I can't even imagine doing that. She did that for years. She had a like a full ulcer by the time she left high school. She was under so much stress, and I really can't even compare anything in my life to that. I wouldn't - I also wouldn't want that, so I'm proud of her. I'm glad she did it. I'm glad she talked about it.

BALDONADO: Now, in your stand-up special "Pizza Mind" you say that your mom has started acting, too. Let me play a clip from the special.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "PIZZA MIND")

ZAMATA: My mom just recently told me that she's getting into acting which is so cool because I'm an actress, and we get a new thing to talk about. And it's fun to see her try a new thing and be really excited about it. It makes me very happy, but I felt bad because when she first told me about it, a little part of my brain was like that, bitch, better not take my parts.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: And I don't want to feel that way. But there's only so many roles for black women these days. And I'm sure some of you are like you guys are in different age groups, you're not going to compete for the same roles, but casting directors can't tell how old black women are.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: They can't. And there's evidence of this because Gabrielle Union has played a teenager for three decades.

BALDONADO: That's from this stand-up special "Pizza Mind." I don't know if she's still interested in acting, but was that something that your mother had always been interested in or did you inspire her?

ZAMATA: She definitely wanted to be onstage. She was in a bunch of pageants when she was younger, and, like, after the "This American Life" story, I think she was inspired to do more of that and start taking acting classes. And now she's straight up signed with a agency in Indianapolis. And I'm so excited for her.

I would love for her to be like a late in life successful actress. I would love for that to be the main way she makes money, like just books commercials and does a little bit parts or maybe does leading roles. I don't know. Whenever I get control of something and I start making movies, I'm going to put her in as much as I can.

BALDONADO: Sasheer Zamata, thank you so much for joining us.

ZAMATA: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Sasheer Zamata spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Zamata is a cast member of "Saturday Night Live." Her new comedy "Pizza Mind" is on the NBC streaming site Seeso. She's also in two new movies - "Deidra And Laney Rob a Train" which just premiered on Netflix and "Sleight" which will be released later this month.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like this week's interview with Elisabeth Rosenthal about how health care became big business or our interview with Jeffrey Toobin about the conservative legal group The Federalist Society and its executive vice president who was instrumental in the nominations of Justices Gorsuch, Alito and Roberts, check out our podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.