Published Jul 20, 2017If you only know Sasheer Zamata from her under-utilized (and now former) role as a Saturday Night Live cast member, you'll be blown away by her new special, Pizza Mind.
Zamata, who's bringing her live show to Just For Laughs in Montreal and JFL42 in Toronto this year, has a fresh, sharp, politically engaged comedic perspective, which shines through on her well-rounded new hour.
"I'm glad to hear that; it's well-rounded like a pizza," she tells Exclaim!, chuckling, from her home in Brooklyn. "I think some people are surprised that I had so many forms of performance in the special, like songs, animation and sketches. The people who know my material aren't surprised, but yeah, people who just know me from SNL are surprised that I'm not really holding much back."
If anyone besides Zamata shines through as a star here, it's her mother. Zamata tells stories about her mom, who seems to be enjoying a cultural renaissance of sorts; she's suddenly engaged in acting and joke-telling that, in many ways, have surprised her daughter.
"She came out to New York for Mother's Day and I have a monthly [live] show called Sasheer Zamata Party Time, where I put up people that I really enjoy watching and want the audience to see," Zamata explains. "My mom's taking a speech class right now, so I asked her to tell her speech and she went up and just destroyed. She was up there for 20 minutes — I thought she was only gonna be up for ten — just riffing and telling stories. The audience was eating out of her hands. She's so talented.
"She also booked a commercial already," she says with bemused pride. "Her acting career is taking off faster than mine did."
Apparently Zamata's mom had no issue with how her daughter depicted her in Pizza Mind, which, in some ways, is rather shocking.
"She liked watching it. It's so funny because I think the worst joke about her is the one I tell about her saying that she likes gripping a thick steering wheel because it reminds her of holding a big dick. She likes that joke! She's like, 'I'm glad you're telling that one; it's really funny.'"
Before recording Pizza Mind, Zamata interviewed her mother for a radio segment on This American Life. They discussed her mother's life growing up in Arkansas, and being one of the first people to integrate her junior high school. Based on bits like "Why My Mom Doesn't Like White People," Zamata knew her mom had a certain attitude towards white people but only recently found out why.
"I started asking her about those experiences and I was sad and horrified about the stories she had. Around that same time, Ira Glass asked me if I had any stories I wanted to tell for This American Life and so, we set up an interview and she was very open. It was a rough and emotional ride for both of us — to get this off her chest after keeping it deep down inside of her for so long.
"She never talked about it, because it would bring up bad memories and then, for me to hear this, it was rough and saddened me to think this happened in our country, not so long ago. My mom's not old; this has happened in our lifetime. Things have changed immensely since then, but also, there are definitely still remnants of that racism and mistreatment in this country."
At one point in her special, Zamata suggests that Trump's victory and the racist rhetoric he has emboldened is actually healthy for a country and a planet that might have become strangely complacent, while fringe views and figures have quietly been gathering momentum for their own right-wing, inequality enriched ideals.
"You need to dig into the ugly parts of issues to fix them. If I got a bullet wound in my leg, you can't just put a band-aid on it to heal it. You have to dig inside and get it out and it's going to be very bloody and painful for me but otherwise, I'm not going to heal. So, that's kind of what we're doing now.
"The stuff that has been bubbling under the surface for such a long time — racism, sexism — has always been there, but now it's truly in our face because we have political leaders who are saying and doing things that are directly attacking people in this country. Now it's our time as citizens to combat that and take charge of how we want to live in this country. Otherwise, nothing's gonna get solved. It's healthy to get more people active and motivated to make change instead of putting a band-aid over it and allowing these unhealthy feelings to fester longer."
For some comedy fans, short of some pointed, funny "Weekend Update" monologues, this is not the outspoken Sasheer Zamata we came to know on SNL. She entered that show awkwardly, following a season where the program was rightly called out for its lack of diversity. And so, there seemed to be a cloud of tokenism obscuring her obvious talent and unique energy. Then when the current season ended, she was unceremoniously let go.
Free of the show, she's determined to make her mark and on her own terms.
"I do want to have an empire where I get to create as much as I want," she says, only half-joking about the "empire" part. "I want to have more standup specials, create TV shows, movies, and I want to write, produce and act — I want to do it all. I'm just excited to have an opportunity to show more of my voice in my own way."
See Sasheer Zamata live at Just For Laughs in Montreal on July 24, 25, and 27. She's also performing at JFL42 in Toronto in September.