Sasheer Zamata mixes warmth and bite

The New York comedian brings charm and ire to the JFL NorthWest fest

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Unique, incisive, and funny as hell are just a handful of the words that have been used to describe Sasheer Zamata’s distinct brand of comedy. An attentive fan, however, once had a slightly more, um, colourful take on the New York–based comic’s humour. “Someone in the audience, from some show I did, said listening to me was like getting a kiss on the cheek and then a left hook,” Zamata tells the Straight by phone from Los Angeles. “So I guess I sweetly introduce these ideas and then drive them home at the end. And I like that.”

      Evidence of this surprisingly biting nature is rife in Zamata’s debut one-hour special, Pizza Mind, in which the standup comedian, actor, and former Saturday Night Live cast member delivers searing jokes that touch on race and gender with a charming, nonchalant demeanour that masks the simmering ire underneath. In one memorable bit, Zamata uses a seemingly innocuous critique of a cancelled reality-TV series titled Bye Felicia!, where two black female life coaches “make over a white woman’s life”, to seamlessly call out the privilege of heterosexual white men.

      Another part sees the Indianapolis native recount a meeting with a man who commented that she has a “resting bitch face”, leading her to rattle off the sexist reasons why her exhausted visage is, indeed, resting. “It’s so tired from smiling all the time or being told to smile all the time,” she laments to a crowd that erupts in laughter—much of it coming from a place of painful familiarity, we reckon.

      Although Zamata admits that, with age and maturity, she’s become more socially and politically conscious, a “political comedian”—as some have labelled her—she is not. “I find people think that I’m trying to talk about politics, but I’m talking about myself and my experiences,” states the 31-year-old artist, who practised improv and sketch at New York City’s respected Upright Citizens Brigade Theater before striking out on her own. “And that’s what standup is: you’re talking about your experiences. And I’m black and a woman and I live in America. And, sometimes, just that existence is political.”

      In addition to exploring these niceties, Zamata’s work has taken on a more personal edge. Since leaving SNL last May to pursue personal projects after three years on the late-night sketch program, the funnywoman has performed at countless festivals and appeared in a number of films, including the soon-to-be-released Amy Schumer–led comedy I Feel Pretty. She also hosts a monthly variety show in Brooklyn, though it’s in her standup you’ll find tidbits about her evolving relationship with her mother and a stint as Pluto the Pup at Disney World, among other subjects.

      “I’ve had moments where I’ve revealed personal things on-stage and then connected with somebody afterwards who watched the set and they were saying, ‘Oh, I felt the same thing,’ or ‘I went through the same thing,’ or ‘I’m so glad you said that on-stage,’ which is really nice,” says Zamata. “And I want people to feel like they can connect to what I’m saying on that mental and emotional level too.”

      The affable comic, who shares a name with a fictional crystal rose mentioned in an episode of Star Trek—her parents are huge Trekkies—also touches on mental health when she details a dramatic breakup with her therapist in Pizza Mind. Almost a year later, Zamata says she’s yet to find another shrink. “I have a friend who’s been gently reminding me that I keep saying how other people need to go to therapy as opposed to looking for a therapist myself,” she reveals. “So I know I need to do it. I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

      “In a way, isn’t standup a form of therapy in itself?” we inquire. Zamata ponders. “It is cathartic for me to say these things aloud,” she eventually agrees. “But I also don’t want to treat the audience like they’re my toilet—my emotional toilet. I don’t just wanna dump everything on them.”

      Zamata is still undecided about what material she’ll tackle during her upcoming standup set at JFL NorthWest (“I’ll figure it out when I get there day-of, probably,” she says), but she promises plenty of metaphorical kisses and left hooks. And no personal attacks. “I don’t like mean-spirited stuff,” she adds. “I don’t like mean-spirited jokes where a group of people or a person is being made fun of and we’re all laughing at their expense. I think it’s a nicer laugh when we’re all together laughing at something. I want everyone to feel like they can enjoy this experience, instead of having some people feeling like they’re left out.”

      Sasheer Zamata plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (March 2) as part of the JFL NorthWest comedy festival.