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Sasheer Zamata Uses Comedy To Address Intolerance

Jul 31, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 4:03 pm

Comedian Sasheer Zamata is at a crossroads.

She was a cast member on Saturday Night Live for four seasons; one of her characters was Beyonce ... at her gynecologist's office ... while pregnant with twins. Zamata has comedy cred: Before SNL, she did improv with the Amy Poehler-founded Upright Citizens Brigade, and she has performed on shows with Amy Schumer and W. Kamau Bell. This weekend, I caught up with her as she did stand-up at the annual Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, in a small club called the Katacombes.

She started her set with the local audience in mind — ribbing the audience for being "as intolerant and judgmental as Americans," at least when it comes to ragging on Edmonton.

Zamata's African-American, and a lot of her material addresses intolerance and judgment. She grew up in Indianapolis, Ind., and she was first introduced to comedy by her middle school volleyball coach, who took the team to a local improv show. Zamata was hooked. "Everyone looked like they were having so much fun," she says. "I thought it was so cool that these people could be funny without writing anything. They just thought of it off the top of their heads. It truly looked like magic."

You do need a bit of magic to make it in comedy, and you definitely can't take "no" for an answer. Put Zamata in that category — when she was rejected by her college improv troupe, she started one of her own, which still exists today at the University of Virginia. She also auditioned to appear at previous Just For Laughs festivals. "I've auditioned for a few years and never got it," she says.

I mentioned that to Just For Laughs producer Nick Brazao. "So, you're going to make mistakes," he says, laughing. In all fairness, this was years ago — and before Brazao was booking stand-ups. Plus, hundreds of comedians audition to perform at Just For Laughs. But with Zamata's success on Saturday Night Live and her new comedy special, Brazao was eager to book her this year.

"She has a very unique perspective and a very personal touch to the way she approaches stand-up comedy," he says, "and she's not afraid to talk about race and sex and taboo."

Sasheer Zamata was raised by a single mom. Ivory Steward was one of the first black students to integrate a junior high school, in a small town in Arkansas during the civil rights movement, but she never talked about it with her children. Last year, Zamata invited her mother to record a conversation with her for the show This American Life. Zamata recalled the time when, in her early 20s, she was called the "N" word. She called her mom, crying — and Steward said she'd been called that word every day of eighth grade.

She jokes about how, behind her "cute exterior," she's "full of rage." And behind her punchlines are some unpleasant realities — in her special Pizza Mind, she tells a story about getting her white boyfriend to hail cabs for her while she hides behind a bush.

Zamata has so many stories she wants to tell. One of her goals at Just For Laughs was for people in the comedy industry to see her as not just a performer, but a writer, too. After her last show at the Katacombes in Montreal, she says she thinks it worked.

"I feel good. It was really fun, and the crowd was so energetic," Zamata says. "That always helps, when the crowd's really into it — it makes me more excited to do it. So yeah, I had a blast."

And she made plenty of people think, too.

This story was edited by Nina Gregory and produced by Andrew Limbong. Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Comedian Sasheer Zamata is at a crossroads. She was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for four seasons. One of her characters was Beyonce at her gynecologist's office while she was pregnant with twins.

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

SASHEER ZAMATA: (As Beyonce) It's all right, doctor. I got this. (Singing) Got my babies so sleepy right now. My voice got my babies so sleepy right now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Damn, I'm getting sleepy right now.

MARTIN: Before "SNL," Zamata did improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade, founded by Amy Poehler. She's performed on shows with Amy Schumer and Kamau Bell. This weekend, she performed standup at the annual Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. That's where NPR's Elizabeth Blair caught up with her to find out what's next. A note of caution - there is a moment in this four-minute story in which a racial slur is used and then discussed.

(CHEERING)

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Sasheer Zamata performed at a small club in Montreal called the Katacombes. She started her set with the local audience in mind.

ZAMATA: And I was telling someone from Canada I had done a festival in Edmonton. And I was like yeah, I enjoyed it. There was good food shopping. And he goes, ugh, the sticks? That hick town? And it's just good that Canadians are as intolerant and judgmental...

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: ...As Americans.

BLAIR: Zamata's African-American, and a lot of her material addresses intolerance and judgments. She grew up in Indianapolis. She was first introduced to comedy by her middle school volleyball coach, who took the team to a local improv show. Zamata was hooked.

ZAMATA: Everyone looked like they were having so much fun. And I thought it was so cool that these people could be funny without writing anything. They just thought of it off the top of their head. It truly looked like magic.

BLAIR: You do need a bit of magic to make it in comedy, and you definitely can't take no for an answer. Put Zamata in that category. When she was rejected by her college improv troupe, she started one of her own, which still exists today at the University of Virginia. She also auditioned to appear at previous Just For Laughs festivals.

ZAMATA: I've auditioned for it a few years and never got it.

BLAIR: I mentioned that to Just for Laughs producer Nick Brazao.

NICK BRAZAO: So you're going to make mistakes...

BLAIR: In all fairness, this was years ago and before Brazao was booking standups. Plus, hundreds of comedians audition to perform at Just For Laughs. But with Zamata's success on "Saturday Night Live" and her new comedy special, Brazao was eager to book her this year.

BRAZAO: She has a very unique perspective and a very personal touch to the way that she approaches standup comedy. And she's not afraid to talk about race and sex and taboo.

ZAMATA: I am glad that there are more diverse characters in sci-fi now. It's so great because it's so important that we see ourselves in the future.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: We just got to know that we made it.

BLAIR: Sasheer Zamata was raised by a single mom, Ivory Steward, who was one of the first black students to integrate a junior high school in a small town in Arkansas during the civil rights movement. But she never talked about it with her children. Last year, Zamata invited her mother to record a conversation with her for the show "This American Life." Zamata recalled the time when, in her early 20s, she was called the n-word. She called her mom crying.

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

ZAMATA: And you were like please (laughter).

IVORY STEWARD: Every day of the eighth grade, I was a different flavor of nigga. Nigga all day long. Nigga on the bus. Nigga in the bathroom.

ZAMATA: From kids?

STEWARD: From the kids, yeah.

ZAMATA: I was, like, 20 or 21. That was the first time I ever heard that or, like, it's ever been used to me. It's at least nice that...

STEWARD: It took that long.

ZAMATA: ...It took that long.

STEWARD: But yeah. But it still doesn't feel good.

ZAMATA: No, it does not feel good.

BLAIR: Sasheer Zamata jokes about how, behind her cute exterior, she's full of rage. And behind her punch lines are some unpleasant realities.

ZAMATA: And that's what I want people to learn. You can use your privilege to help other people. I use my boyfriend's privilege all the time. He's white and very sorry about it.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: And if I ever want a cab late at night, I just send him out into the street. I'm like, babe, put your arm up. And then I go crouch behind a bush.

BLAIR: Zamata has so many stories she wants to tell. One of her goals at Just For Laughs was for people in the comedy industry to see her as not just a performer but a writer. After her show at the Katacombes in Montreal, she thinks it worked.

ZAMATA: I feel good. It was really fun. And, like, the crowd was so energetic. And, like, that always helps when the crowd's really into it. It makes me more excited to do it. So yeah, I had a blast.

BLAIR: And she made plenty of people think at the same time. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.