By Jordan Yeager
The universe has a way of working itself out; Sasheer Zamata’s professional trajectory is proof. Growing up, she was a shy child who sang in choir, eventually transitioning to musicals and plays while studying at the University of Virginia. No one who knew her in childhood would have predicted Zamata would be headlining shows as a comedian, touring with Just for Laughs, and graduating from an almost four-year run with Saturday Night Live. But quiet kids make the best comedians – while you think they’re reading in the corner, they’re actually quietly observing your every move, gathering material.
“Because I started doing choir so young, I was able to feel comfortable onstage, so it was easier to do everything else,” says Zamata. “I moved to New York thinking I was going to do theatre and audition for plays, but at the same time, I was always watching improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre. Eventually I took some classes, started doing stand-up, and then I was on improv teams and sketch teams and booking shows. It was like, oh, I think you can actually make a career out of this.”
“It really was just for fun,” she continues. “I didn’t know how improv was going to play into my life. When I was younger, I wanted to be on SNL or MADtv – I thought it would be so cool to do that, but I had no idea how anybody went about it. When I was performing, I started to see that I was actually on the path that was getting me to that goal anyway.”
In 2014, Zamata’s vision of being cast on SNL was realized when she became the first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph’s departure seven years earlier. The show’s lack of diversity gave Zamata ample opportunity to fine-tune her impressions; over the course of her run, she portrayed the likes of Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, and Rihanna. But she was never given enough screen time to truly show off the skillset she’d been honing for years with UCB. At the end of season 42, she departed SNL with neither announcement nor ceremony.
“It was time to start focusing on my own creative pursuits,” says Zamata. “I like being the boss of whatever I’m doing. It’s nice to be able to express myself and show different sides of me that audiences maybe wouldn’t have been able to see before.”
“I was [with SNL] for three and a half years, and part of me feels like I was there for so long, but part of me also feels like I was there for 30 seconds,” she laughs. “It was a great training ground for all things entertainment. You had to write and rewrite so quickly, you couldn’t be attached to your work – you had to be able to kill your darlings. I’m so grateful for the experience. Everything I do after SNL is a piece of cake in comparison, because that place is really like a boot camp. It’s an education you can’t pay for.”
Breaking away from sketch comedy means Zamata is no longer delegated to portrayals of other icons and can focus instead on introspection, self-discovery, and being vulnerable with her audience.
“Most of the stuff I’m talking about comes from a very personal place,” says Zamata. “I want to be able to connect to people in the audience through what I’m going through, and hope that they’re able to absorb this and take these thoughts into their lives, too.”
Her set at JFL NorthWest is sure to be a glimpse into the psyche. But leave your manners at the door – in her experience, Canadian audiences are “too nice.”
“It really is a symbiotic relationship – I feed off the energy the crowd is giving me,” she says. “If the audience is just nice, I’m going to give a nice performance. If you’re having fun and enjoying it, I’m going to do that too. I don’t want to generalize every Canadian audience I’ve seen, but I have been like, ‘Oh, I think maybe people are just really nice and sweet here.’ I mean, it could be worse – I’d rather that than people yelling and throwing things.”
Sasheer Zamata performs at the Biltmore Cabaret March 2nd, Part of the JFL NorthWest Comedy FestivalBiltmore Cabaret, JFL Northwest, JFL Northwest Comedy Festival