Sasheer Zamata deserves a summer off — after just under four seasons as a Saturday Night Live cast member (check out some of her best SNL appearances here), this past May she parted ways with the sketch show, which has a notoriously demanding shooting schedule. But just because Zamata has the chance to take a break, doesn’t mean she’s laying low; the actress, writer, improviser, stand-up, and producer (among other things, like occasional director and frequent prop wrangler) is forever discovering new ways to find joy in her work, whether its curating and hosting her own monthly show, Sasheer Zamata Party Time!, or diving into the editing bay to call the shots on her debut stand-up special, Pizza Mind.
In between preparing for her week of hour-long stand-up shows at the Just For Laughs festival later this month, and producing a web version of her live show for Above Average, we sat down with Zamata to talk about what it was like to share the stage with her mom, why she’s obsessed with Fran Lebowitz, and how she’s using her growing profile to help change the world as an ACLU Celebrity Ambassador.
You’ve got a week-long run of shows coming up later this month at Just For Laughs in Montreal – what else are you up to this summer?
What else am I up to this summer? Just stand-up, and doing a Midwest run of shows; I’m also going to Just For Laughs in Toronto. I have a monthly show that I do in Brooklyn, at The Bell House, and that will be a consistent thing that’s happening — it’s a variety show, and we usually have two comics, music, and party games.
What can fans expect from your upcoming Just For Laughs hours?
It will be an hour of stand-up. It will be a mix of stuff from the special and also some new stuff. Also, who knows, maybe I’ll just start feeling it out talking to the audience, which is something I do in my Party Time! show I do every month. It will be a blast no matter what.
The lineups for your show, Sasheer Zamata Party Time!, are always great — recently you’ve had everyone from Bob the Drag Queen to your own mom on. Do you book it yourself?
Marianne Ways helps me produce the show — we talk about who should be on, but before Marianne got involved I was booking it myself. Which I like a lot, I really like curating and thinking about what combination of comics will make a good theme, or a good flow for the show. People have seemed to like it, so I get people coming up to me after shows and they’re like, “Wow this actually felt like a full show.” That makes me feel really good.
What was it like hosting your mom on the show?
Oh man, she was so awesome. She’s taking a speech class, and she told me about this speech that she wrote – it’s just about her traveling, and growing up. I thought it was really cool, so I was like, “Do you want to come and do it on my show?” I expected it to be seven to ten minutes long or something, and she was up there for 20 minutes just riffing and telling other stories. It was great — but I had to get on the mic and say, “Okay, we need to wrap this up now. You’ve been onstage forever.” She had the audience in the palm of her hand the whole time, they truly loved it. We did a part where you could borrow my mom if you needed to ask for any advice or anything — you could just ask my mom, and she’s very honest and blunt., so people got real-deal answers, and they really enjoyed it.
Do you think you’ll have her back?
Oh, I will definitely have her back. She was such a hit. People were taking pictures with just her after the show.
Your first special, Pizza Mind, is out everywhere now; what made you decide to focus on putting together your own hour?
I can’t remember when I officially decided, but I know I filmed a version of my special at The Bell House in early 2016. I was actively trying to run it and pitch it to different networks. By the time we agreed on Seeso, it was August, and then after all the pre-production stuff, we filmed [a new version] in December of 2016. I had wanted a special because I think most comics work up to this point where you want to put your material somewhere; I had at least an hour of material, and I also had sketch ideas, bits, and song ideas that I wanted to put in one place. I feel like a special is the best way to do that, because you can do whatever you want.
Pizza Mind is definitely not structured like a traditional stand-up special — it has a lot of elements, like sketches and animation, which straightforward hours don’t. What was the scripting and editing process like?
I was involved with the whole process, which I am really thankful for — Seeso was very hands-off and just allowed me to be as creative as I wanted to be, as much as the budget allowed, and I don’t know if that would have been possible other places, because this is my first special. In the beginning I put together a storyboard of how I wanted things to look and how I wanted things to play out — that changed, too, over the course of things, as I was swapping jokes in and out, trying to decide what I wanted. Those little things started to change by the time we finished. I was able to choose when I wanted things to happen, and the order of operations, and then after the special was already shot I did fly to L.A., to go to the editing bay and give notes on how I wanted things to be cut, what shots I wanted them to use. This was great and was a huge learning experience for me, because I haven’t been at the helm of a big project like this before. It was really fun and I definitely want to do more of that.
It sounds like you’re really into the behind-the-scenes part of performing, the curation and production side of things. Do you think that coming from an improv and sketch background gives you that urge to be fully involved in whatever you’re working on?
Yeah, I think so. I also did drama in college, and in my program we had to do everything. We had to be stage manager for a show, we had to write, and take a playwriting class. You had to direct, you had to act. I think maybe it has changed now, you can do concentrations, but when I was in school there was no acting concentration. You acted, but you also have to scene-paint, you have to know every aspect of the theater. Which I am so grateful for, because it showed me how important every little thing is, and I do think that has carried on into other forms of performance, too. When you are doing sketch in the basement of a bar, buying your own props, and making your own set pieces, you do have to truly create the scene, because you don’t have the luxury of having someone bringing that stuff in for you.
Even on SNL, when you put together a sketch they kind of let you direct the whole thing. You have to go around and talk to the props department, tell them what props you want, you have to go to the costume department, tell them what costumes you want. The hair department, tell them what wigs you want and what kind of makeup you want. You don’t just write the sketch and then it happens, you have to be responsible for the whole thing. It is so helpful to me, because I have a vision for how I would like things to look. I would rather see it to completion than pass it on to somebody else and maybe be disappointed with the product because of what I had intended from the beginning.
You’re an ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) celebrity ambassador — what does that mean exactly?
Yes! I am the ambassador for women’s rights at the ACLU. That means I’m kind of like a microphone or amplifier for the projects that they’re working on, and I just try to use my platform and the fans that I have to tell them what we are working on. As much as I can, I try to highlight different issues that the ACLU wants to focus on – to get other eyeballs on it and hopefully get some action behind it. When I first started working with them, I did a sketch to talk about privilege, because that word is so loaded and not a lot of people understand it. They get scared when they hear it. I was kind of breaking it down in, I like to think, a digestible, humorous way. So, in the future, we want to do more of that, where we try to get people more aware of things that need to be discussed in a way that isn’t so dry.
If you could speak directly to people in their 20s who want to get more involved in the world around them but have no idea what where to start, what advice would you give them?
I would say to look on the website for ACLU, because they are doing stuff at a local level everywhere. It does help if you are like, “Wow, this huge issue needs to be solved. How can I help?” If you do things on a local level in your community, that’s a huge help as well. What does a school need in your district? What do the gardens need in your district? Just look around and talk to people and see what is lacking, and how you can help on a local level. Maybe that can grow even bigger, and help more communities outside of yours. It doesn’t need to be like, “Wow we need to fix racism, sexism, and police brutality.” It’s the smaller things, chipping away at those, that grows and grows to help the bigger issues, too.
What else are you into right now – movies, books, whatever?
I am in the middle of watching Fran Lebowitz’s Public Speaking and reading the book based off that documentary. I feel like I am late to the party, but Fran Lebowitz is so funny — she’s really great at talking, and at giving educated opinions while also being hilarious. So, I feel like I’m in the rabbit hole of trying to find everything she has ever made.