Sasheer Zamata wants to give you a piece of her mind. Or maybe peace of mind? Whichever the case, we’re into it. For her first stand-up special, Pizza Mind, the comedian delves into social issues and daily dramas with her signature deadpan wit.
Zamata, who is originally from Indianapolis, became a household name in 2014 when Saturday Night Live announced that she was joining the team as the first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph’s departure in 2007. Zamata’s journey to comedic gold began with the Upright Citizens Brigade, NYC’s iconic improvisational theatre group, and continued as she made a name for herself on SNL for her impersonations of Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Tyra Banks and Beyoncé.
Earlier this year, we were devastated when Zamata announced that she was leaving SNL, but fortunately she’s now striking out on her own with her first solo stand-up show, hitting Just For Laughs in Montreal on July 24, 25 and 27 (the festival kicks off on July 12). FLARE chatted with Zamata about growing up shy, her role as celebrity ambassador for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and what jokes she considers completely off-limits.
How did you break into comedy?
I saw improv for the first time in middle school because my volleyball coach loved a short-form improv team in Indianapolis. I asked my parents to take me to improv [shows] all the time. When I was in college, I was doing musicals and one of the directors told me that I should audition for an improv team—and I did, but I didn’t make it. [When I moved to] New York, I still didn’t know I wanted to do comedy. I was focused on theatre, but I kept seeing shows, signed up for improv classes and then I started doing stand-up. By the end of the year, I was dedicated to comedy.
IRL, are you the “funny one” in your group of friends?
Some comedians maybe are the funny friends in their group, but most of the ones I know aren’t like that. Most of us are pretty chill offstage and when we’re on stage, we’re performing. When I told [my family] I was pursuing comedy, they were like, ‘Whoa.’ I wasn’t a class clown or anything. I just ran with my friends and would whisper jokes to them in class, but I wouldn’t make a scene or act out. For people who knew me when I was younger, they were like, ‘Who knew you had that in you?’ because I was so shy and quiet as a kid. That’s common for a lot of comedians. We’re more observational.
Do you have any comedy idols you look up to?
Carol Burnett, for sure. I was in college when I first saw a TV commercial advertising a DVD set of her shows. I bought a cheaper version because I couldn’t afford whatever was advertised on TV. It was truly a bootleg version (laughs) but I loved it and I watched it over and over again. I was just so amazed that this woman could be so beautiful and classy, but also dirty, disgusting and funny. She was really good with the audience and had fun the whole time. That’s what I loved the most—you could tell she was having so much fun on that show. Whoopi Goldberg, as well. When I saw recordings of her stage shows, I was in awe because it was so cool to see someone use non-traditional comedy. She wasn’t only doing stand-up, storytelling, sketches or plays, she was doing all of it in one. It was also good to see a black woman do that in such a white, male industry.
How did you come up with the name Pizza Mind for your one-hour special (available on Seeso)?
I was walking down the street with one of my best friends, who directed the special, and I was saying I wanted to name my special Pizza Mind, because I love puns. It encompasses a lot of stuff, like I’m giving you a ‘piece of my mind’ or I’m trying to achieve ‘peace of mind’. And I also love pizza. Then my friend said, ‘You can’t name your special that until you have a joke about pizza.’ So, I wrote a joke about pizza and then we were off to the races.
You get into some social issues in Pizza Mind. Will your performance in Montreal be similar?
I don’t think I touched too much on government or politics [in Pizza Mind] because I feel like everyone’s tired of that. But I can’t help but talk about social issues because these are things that affect my life and other peoples’ lives. I try to start from a personal place and go outward. I am a black woman and living in America, so I’m going to talk about that. I’m just talking about what I know.
Do you think comedy plays a role in starting dialogue about the issues of the day?
Comedy can be a relief for people to either forget about what’s happening in the news or to talk about it more, but in a way that’s cathartic and more of a release, or in a way that makes you angry and motivated to do something. Some people choose not to talk about what’s going on in the news at all. I would never want to say that all comedians are responsible for starting conversations that are hard. If they want to do that, then that’s great. When I write my material, I’m not thinking, I’m going to get the audience to start thinking about race. It truly is like, ‘What do I want to talk about? What am I confused about? What am I angry about?’ If people leave the show feeling like they learned something, that’s wonderful.
Are there any controversial jokes you just won’t tell?
There’s been discussion about female comics always [talking] about their vaginas and if that is a thing that’s bothersome or not. [Editor’s note: like when comedian Illiza Schlesinger complained that “every woman makes the same point about her vagina, over and over.”] I don’t have too many jokes about my vagina but I was talking about the infection I had recently because I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s start to talk about it. Let’s go there.’ If that’s what female comics are doing, I will do it. I think you can talk about anything. There are ways to make anything funny, but it’s the way you phrase it that’s important.
Could you talk bit about your involvement with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project?
I’m the celebrity ambassador of the Women’s Rights Project and my job is to amplify all of the issues that they’re trying to tackle at the time. I might write an essay or try to promote certain campaigns that they’re doing to bring more attention because I have a bit of a following. I’m trying to get people who see my stuff to see that this is what’s important to me and this is what I would like them to be invested in. We’re trying to do more projects where we make these topics digestible in a comedic way, to make it look fun and interesting for others to get involved.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I have a monthly show in Brooklyn called “Sasheer Zamata Party Time” and I try to make it a party every time. I’m trying to build that and make it grow. We’ve been releasing videos from the shows online, too. And more stand-up.