In one of Sasheer Zamata’s most memorable stand-up comedy routines, she describes being flashed “by a stranger… and his stranger.” The focus of the bit isn’t on the incident itself — the perpetrator repeatedly asked if she needed someone to walk her home before exposing himself — but instead on how easy it is for Zamata to normalize what happened.
“I’ve had dates that were worse than that,” she says, her expression shifting from bewildered to moonstruck. “This guy was at least polite. He called me ‘Miss.’ He asked if I needed a walk home… It was really respectful, if anything. Everyone was honest about what they wanted.”
She pauses, grinning. “It’s probably the best date I’ve ever had, actually.”
It’s a disarming turnaround, one that works not only because of its subtle criticism of dating culture, but because of the details of Zamata’s performance — she looks shyly at her feet, biting her lip and openly smiling — which make her change of heart hilariously, if disturbingly, convincing.
This ability to write conceptual material and then sell it with a sense of emotional reality has made Zamata one of the New York comedy scene’s most distinctive up-and-coming voices. After spending years as a member of the improv troupe the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the 29-year-old joined the cast of Saturday Night Live as a featured player in 2014. Now on summer break from SNL, Zamata has set out on a tour that will bring her stand-up routine to Birmingham’s Syndicate Lounge on Monday, July 27.
Stand-up wasn’t how Zamata cut her teeth in comedy, though. That distinction, she says, goes to improv, which she starting doing during her time as a student at the University of Virginia.
“I auditioned for one improv group that was on campus, and I didn’t make it,” she says. “I eventually started my own group [Amuse Bouche] with my friends, which was basically the rejects. It’s still going on! We just got our own fan base and became our own group.”
After college, Zamata was drawn to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade — a group which boasts such alumni as Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis and Tina Fey — members of which had visited UVA during Zamata’s senior year. She moved to New York and started taking classes with the UCB, which soon became her full-time focus. “Eventually I was performing all over the stage and doing improv and writing and performing in sketch and hosting shows… Basically living there,” she says.
The idea to venture into stand-up, she says, came from her classmates at UCB. “In my classes, people were talking about the idea of doing stand-up and how it was kind of scary to them,” Zamata says. “I like doing scary things, so I was like, ‘I’ll just try it.’ I tried an open mic. I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t invite anyone. I just wrote material and went there by myself.”
“I did it, and I didn’t die,” she says. “Well, it went okay. No one could tell it was my first time, anyway. And then I just caught the bug.”
Zamata’s improv background, she says, informed her stand-up comedy, making it easier for her to overcome what she sees as one of the medium’s biggest obstacles. “I feel like a lot of stand-ups are good writers, but they have to get over the idea of performing,” she says. “I’d been performing for most of my life, but now I had to learn how to write my thoughts in a way that other people could understand. And that was really exciting to me. I loved the challenge and I loved trying to do this new thing and tackle it.”
Zamata had only been with UCB for a few years before she began to attract the attention of Saturday Night Live. One of the show’s producers expressed interest in a group Zamata had started at UCB “because we were three black women, and that was a rare thing in the improv scene at the time.”
After several years of unsuccessful auditions, Zamata joined SNL as a featured player in 2014. Even with a background at UCB, she says that SNL’s rigorous schedule was difficult to assimilate to.
“I don’t think it’s an easy adjustment no matter where you come from,” she laughs. “It’s just a different beast, unlike any other show. There’s not a pre-SNL program that you can go through before you get there.”
“The schedule was the thing I had to adjust to the most, because you have to write everything in a night,” she adds. “And that’s not how I’ve ever written anything. Basically, it requires you to just hole yourself up in an office and crank out these sketches. And most of the action doesn’t happen until two in the morning, so our brains are harried and tired. That was definitely an interesting thing to get adjusted to. And I don’t drink coffee, either! So it was a struggle to stay awake with my own body strength.”
But her first week on the show, she says, made all the hard work worth it. “Nothing really compares to my first show,” she says. “I was on such a high that whole time. I did a ton of stuff in that show, and the whole week was just a joy.”
Zamata’s casting on Saturday Night Live was the start of an apparently concentrated effort on the part of the show to diversify its cast. Later in 2014, the show cast Leslie Jones, marking the first time SNL had featured two black women, as well as providing the season with the most African American cast members in the show’s 40-year history. Zamata, for one, sees that as a good sign.
“I feel like there’s always been black women around, but I think we’re getting highlighted more, which is nice,” Zamata says. “I feel like 2014 was the beginning of the Year of the Black Woman. I feel like it’s going to get better and better.”
Sasheer Zamata will perform at the Syndicate Lounge on Monday, July 27. Felicia Ellison, Eunice Elliott and Liza Treyger will open. Doors for the show open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit goulashcomedy.com.