Sasheer Zamata knows most people will recognize her from Saturday Night Live. The long-running show hired her in 2014, then promoted her to repertory player in 2015. But there’s more to Zamata than SNL, as her new Seeso stand-up special Pizza Mind proves repeatedly: She’s a fiercely funny and intelligent comedian everyone should be watching.
What makes Zamata all the more funnier is her honesty, a trait she likely gets from her mother, whom she describes as “unabashedly blunt.” Whether she’s acknowledging the recognition SNL grants (and the intense rigor such a job requires), or some audiences members’ inability to differentiate her from one-time SNL host Kerry Washington, Zamata never cushions her jokes. Even when, as happens in Pizza Mind on occasion, she decides to amplify her stand-up with animations, sketch reenactment, or musical numbers.
Your mother’s steering wheel story reminded me of the time I played Cards Against Humanity with my parents. There were tears.
That’s really funny. Yes, when that happens — when you get to an age when you’re like, “Oh wait a minute, now my parents are just freely telling me information that I just did not want to know.” It’s the best and the worst.
Pizza Mind animates or sketches certain parts of your routine, a la Shorties Watchin’ Shorties or Comedy Central Re-Animated. So when you started telling the steering wheel story, my first thought was: “She’s about to do that here.”
I feel like my mom would be so pissed if we did, but maybe she wouldn’t. She surprises me sometimes. She asked me what jokes I was going to do, and I’ve been including my mom in a lot of my onstage stories. Ever since I started doing stand-up, I think. She’s just so entertaining, and I can’t help but talk about her. She was like, “Which jokes are you going to tell about me?” So I told her the dragon one and the bit about her acting. After a while I felt confident enough to tell her about the steering wheel story. She immediately said, “Oh good! I like that one.” I was like, “What?”
She just likes it.
I’m always curious about what the family thinks about a comedian’s routines about them. I guess you’ve already answered that question.
She’s just unabashedly blunt. I mean, I admire how much she gives zero fucks. She’s always been like that. I can hear her now in my head: “Yeah, I said it. Tell everyone I said it. I don’t care.”
Most people know you from SNL, but you’ve been a working stand-up for almost a decade. This is your first special, correct?
It is. This is my first one.
What came first, your ideas for the special or Seeso’s interest in doing one?
I’ve been working on it since long before Seeso got involved. Last year I filmed the hour at the Bell House, which is this venue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. No one was asking me to do it. That’s kind of how most things go in my career. I just do something and I’m like, “Well someone’s going to want it, hopefully.” So I just filmed it myself and decided to shop it around. There was even a storyboard for the entire thing since I knew I wanted animation. I knew I wanted sketches and music and other things to be in there. So I put it all down into a format people could see, so they could understand what I was talking about.
We shopped it around to different networks, and Seeso was very excited about it. They’re an exciting new platform. Many people I admire, and a lot of my friends who are also comedians, are doing cool stuff with them. It was a nice choice to make, since it meant I could work together with them if I wanted to. Seeso has been very hands-off and supportive throughout the entire process, and they let me do what I wanted to. I don’t know if that would have been the case for other places, especially since this is my first special. It’s nice that I get to have so much control. Many younger comics don’t have that luxury.
Fahim Anwar had a similar approach. He and his friends recorded the hour beforehand as a concept, and when Seeso came on board, they made There’s No Business Like Show Business. The company was very supportive, but hands-off throughout the process.
It’s so, so nice. I mean, TV is hard. You usually run into issues where people just want to put notes on top of notes on top notes. Then they change their minds and go back to what they wanted before — just because they need to do a job or something. But Seeso’s really good about trusting the talent they work with, and trusting the process. It’s been a very pleasant experience.
Plus, with streaming, you don’t have to worry about cutting for commercial breaks.
Thank goodness! I’ve heard from other comics who have bad stories about their jokes being clipped off, or re-edited entirely and moved around the hour. It’s weird to me. I mean, I understand you have to account for commercials, but it kind of feels like a museum editing a picture before they hang it on the wall. You don’t touch the piece. That’s not what the artist wanted. So it’s nice to have my special be out the way I want it. My eyes were the last ones to see and approve it. That’s a really nice feeling.
I wanted to return to Pizza Mind‘s use of sketches and animations for a moment. Traditional stand-up hours usually stick with to the comic. What made you want to branch out in this way?
I wanted to include elements within the stand-up to showcase other art forms, other mediums — the other things I can do. Me talking for an hour is plenty exciting, I’m sure, but if I can also do these other things, then why not go ahead and do it? I’ve seen other examples of people bending the rules of stand-up specials, and that always excites me. Chelsea Peretti did some weird stuff in her special. Sarah Silverman includes songs and sketches in hers. Whoopi Goldberg has had different monologues and acts within her Broadway shows.
It’s been done before where. You can break the mold and not just be a person with a mic onstage talking for an hour. Those specials are still great and exciting, and I like it when the words speak for themselves, but I also enjoy playing with the format and style. There are no rules. You can make it however you want, so I just wanted to do it because I like animation. I like sketches. I like being able to do lots of different things. I’m glad we were able to include all that.
It helps distinguish the stand-up hour that you taped and put together from the live stand-up shows that led to it. Your audience experienced it one way, while those watching it on Seeso will see Pizza Mind another.
Also the people who were actually in the audience get to see both versions — the live show they came to see, and the finished Seeso hour.
You’re very honest about what it’s like to be on SNL. I mean, I was kind of surprised at how honest you were. I commend you for it, but I can’t help imagining how some of your peers will take it.
That’s how I feel. Everything I write and create comes from a place of truth. If I feel like I’m limiting or hindering myself in any way, the performance won’t come out 100 percent the way it’s supposed to. So I said as much as I’m comfortable saying onstage. Plus I’ve been doing stand-up since long before I was ever on SNL — and ever since. It’s a nice way to be able to speak freely and do my own material.
At SNL I get to try and do my own material, just like everybody else, but it’s very different from going onstage and doing whatever I want. It’s nice to have stand-up’s release, so I can still have an unchecked way of speaking to an audience — as opposed to undergoing many checks before it ever gets to an audience and their eyeballs.
Stand-up lets comics have an idea for a joke during the day, then test it out that night. Bigger monsters like SNL involve a larger vetting process. Then again, even the comedy club audience vets your material — they’ll let you know almost immediately what is and isn’t working.
I love that. That’s also why I filmed Pizza Mind in New Orleans, because those crowds will definitely let you know whether or not they like your stuff. They’re very vocal, and I love that. I love the immediacy of being able to think of something, say it onstage, and getting the feedback from the audience. It’s nice to work with the crowd and create a thing together. I don’t know if they realize that’s what they’re doing, but they’re definitely helping me figure out which direction I should go with my topics.
I just love that process so much, though I also love the sketch. When you’re collaborating with different writers and performers, and coming up with different things throughout the week. It’s very fast, and everything changes so much, so by the time it gets to air you finally know what the best ways to execute these jokes are.
I’m a huge fan of Wyatt Cenac’s Night Train, which you co-hosted when he recorded the first season for Seeso.
Wyatt’s a really good buddy and has been very supportive of me throughout my career. I’m always glad to do something with him. Especially when we co-hosted, because it’s just so much fun. We’re very good at bouncing back and forth with each other.
You were also on his show People of Earth. Your back-and-forth with Da’Vine Joy Randolph is one of the series’ bests.
Wyatt suggested I be in the episode. I met Da’Vine that day, and she was such a joy. We automatically got each other, so it was nice to have a rapport before we were anywhere near the camera. From there it was pretty easy, once we started filming, to pretend like we were family. I was only there for like two days, I think, but the actors definitely drove the story. They’re all great improvisers, so it was fun to watch them play and joke around and see what was being caught on camera. Those are the working environments I love the most — where you get to play, and the director just trusts you to keep going.
Excellent. Well before I go, I just wanted to say that — as a fellow child of nerdy parents — I adore your Star Trek story. Not just because your parents named for an episode character, but because you knew the difference between “Trekkers” and “Trekkies.”
I know, I’m a nerd. I can’t escape it. Though I hope people can at least understand the rhythm of that joke. Yes, I’m describing my parents as nerds, yet I’m giving all these details because I know them and I’m also a nerd. Even if you don’t know Star Trek very well, you can at least understand embarrassing parents.
I don’t think anyone will have any difficulty understanding the joke and its sentiment.
There’s only been one person who actually gets it on the spot. I said my name and this guy I was meeting was like, “Oh, I told my dad your name and he said, ‘Like from Star Trek?'” No one else does. People just assume it’s ethnic or something — a cultural name of sorts. And the episode title was “By Any Other Name,” which is so cool.
Sasheer Zamata: Pizza Mind streams Thursday, March 30th exclusively on Seeso.