Just For Laughs

INTERVIEW: Getting political with former SNL star Sasheer Zamata

On comedy in the age of Trump, solving police violence and building a movement from the ground up
Photo: Lisa Gansky

Sasheer Zamata has been a cast member with Saturday Night Live for the past four seasons, tackling characters from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé on the late night institution. She recently announced her departure from SNL to return to stand up comedy, where she enjoys the more immediate connection with her audience along with greater creative control over her work.

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Her first stand up special, Pizza Mind, showcases a quiet, cerebral and political style of comedy that manages to make people think, while also making them laugh. Through personal, and often self-deprecating, anecdotes, Zamata’s stand up dives deeply into themes of race and gender by inviting the audience into her life and thoughts as a Black woman in the United States.

Her deadpan delivery manages to make these uncomfortable conversations funny and challenges audiences to question the status quo. You might say she calls things as she sees them, and that’s a refreshing change from many entertainers who assiduously avoid anything controversial.

Now more than ever is a time for action.

Zamata is coming to Montreal later this month to do a solo show at Just For Laughs, and Ricochet caught up with her by phone to quiz her on everything from doing comedy under a Trump presidency to solving the problem of police violence.

You told Vanity Fair that you’ve gotten more political recently, as a result of getting older, but also some of the things that have been happening in the news like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. You’ve also been a writer and star on Saturday Night Live this past season, when the show really became a vehicle for many people’s angst about the Trump presidency. What’s it like to be working in comedy in the Trump era?

It’s definitely interesting. I think people are on high alert. There's a lot of stuff happening very quickly, to a lot of people, so comedians are trying to talk about this stuff and it really depends on how we deliver it.

Sasheer Zamata
Handout

We really have to think about how we talk about this stuff now, because we can't just make fun of the president, we have to do it in a way that makes people not get just sad, or just angry. It's a really interesting time right now, but I do feel like seeing people talk about what's happening can be a cathartic feeling for people in the audience. Or it can be a release, because they think "Oh thank god, someone else is talking about it because I was confused, or frustrated or, you know, just didn't know that much about the situation.”

I feel like I've been talking about social justice issues for a while, before the presidency, and now it's in trend, it's the thing to do, to talk about what's happening. But I love that!

You’ve been working as a comic for around a decade, but your first stand up special, Pizza Mind, was released on Seeso earlier this year. There’s a lot of frank talk about race and gender in it, and it’s a really funny special. Is it freeing to get to show that side of your work to a wider audience, after being known primarily for Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy?

It's really wonderful. I feel so good to be able to show everyone this piece of work that is undeniably me. I wrote all of it, I thought of what pieces I want to have in the whole show, I was a part of it until the very end when it came to editing too, I thought about what shots to use, how to order things.

This is one of the few things I can point at and say, "This is 100% me." I'm really proud of that, and it is nice to kind of have a culmination of my work over the years in one space and have people be able to consume it.

A lot of your comedy focuses on race, and you manage to be extremely honest and blunt but also make the problems in our society funny. Under Trump, many people feel the U.S. is going backwards, so I wanted to ask: Do you feel hopeful about the future? Do you think that Black Lives Matter and similar movements can still make progress when the Attorney General of the United States is [long-time opponent of civil rights] Jeff Sessions?

I am hopeful for the future, because I do think there is a movement building. I do feel like there is a unity and a drive to fight that has been rumbling underneath the surface for a while, and now it's coming out, because we are faced with a lot of challenges directly from the government. Now more than ever is a time for action.

These issues that we've had in the country have always been there, and now people feel free to say these things out loud because we have a president that says the same things.

I could see why people would see that we're going backwards in the country, but the feelings that are coming to light right now, in terms of racism and sexism and all this stuff, they're coming out because they were always there. These issues that we've had in the country have always been there, and now people feel free to say these things out loud because we have a president that says the same things. I'm glad that it's more in the light, that it's more in our face, because we can actually tackle it and identify where the problem areas are, more than we would have if people were still keeping it a secret, keeping their racism and their sexism a secret. People are being more honest across the board, so it's easier to pinpoint what needs to be addressed.

In the U.S. and internationally, there's such a problem with police brutality and racial profiling. Recently we saw the cop who shot Philando Castile get off, as have so many other cops who shot people, so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of justice forthcoming from the justice system. What do you think can be done about that? What do you see as a solution to that problem?

I think a lot of things need to happen. I don't know what the first step should be, but there's obviously a gap between the community and the police that serve the community, so something needs to happen where police are more willing to view the community that they serve as equals, as people, instead of as though they are running the community.

I think some police officers are legit scared of Black people. And they shouldn't be working. They shouldn't have a gun and they shouldn't be in the police department.

That's not every police officer, and that's definitely not every police department, but we're definitely seeing more issues with that. Now there might be evidence that there was a whole cover-up for the police department in Chicago, for killing a teenager who they shot sixteen times. There may be multiple people involved with this cover-up, as opposed to just the person who shot him. It's a department issue.

There was a piece on Larry Wilmore's show about how there are some departments that when they do target practice, the pictures that they're shooting are Black men. It's like, of course, if you consistently see a Black man as a target, when you go out to the real world you're going to think the same thing. There just needs to be some sort of internal change that needs to happen where the people that are being trained and actually put out into the field have more of a sense of the community that they're serving, and understand the makeup of it, and if you are serving a community that's mostly Black, then you just have to be okay with that, and deal with that.

I think some police officers are legit scared of Black people. And they shouldn't be working. They shouldn't have a gun and they shouldn't be in the police department. [These departments] need to be gutted from the inside out. We can’t just put a band-aid over it and say, “If we just make this police department and the Black people of this community hang out more it’ll be better.” No. We need to go into these departments, figure out what the root of this prejudice is, and get it out of there.

You’re also an ACLU ambassador on women’s rights, an organization that’s suddenly so much more in the spotlight, challenging Trump’s travel ban and generally a lot of Republican assaults on civil liberties. There are a lot of good causes to work with; what made you choose the ACLU, and what work have you been doing with them?

Well they actually chose me, which I take as a huge compliment. A couple years ago they asked me to come into the office and talk, and said that they feel like my work has been kind of mirroring what they want to tackle, and asked me to be a celebrity ambassador.

What I've done so far is write essays and make videos for them, where I talk about issues that they want to highlight but in a way that I'd like to think is humorous and more digestible than a straight-up legal document. I really like what they're doing. I like how they tackle things all the way from the top level of the government to very local things. They're truly here to help the people, and that's what I want to happen more.

You’re doing a solo show at Just For Laughs this year. Is that largely the material from Pizza Mind, or a new show? What’s the focus? What should people expect?

It'll be some of Pizza Mind, and it'll be a mix of new stuff, but you know, it'll be, again, undeniably me. I might talk to the audience a little bit too, but it'll be a fun ride, for sure.

What does the future hold? You've left Saturday Night Live and you're doing a lot more stand-up now. Will you be focusing on stand-up? Doing more specials? Where can people expect to see your work?

I definitely want to do more stand-up, and pump out more specials. I also want to sell TV shows, and make movies. I just kind of want to have an empire, where I do it all. Of course I won't be doing all of it at the same time, but I don't want to limit myself in terms of creation.

I do have some movie ideas and TV ideas I want to get out to the people. And more stand-up, because that's so immediate, and freeing, when I can just write something, go on stage and say it and get an immediate reaction from an audience. So, yeah, you'll just be seeing more of me, where I get to express more of my voice.

There's been a lot of debate in the Democratic Party over whether the way for Democrats to win is to be more left-wing, to endorse things like universal healthcare and redistribution of wealth. Where do you see yourself in that debate? Are you more on the universal healthcare, free college, addressing income inequality side of politics?

Definitely. I think it makes so much sense and it's so beneficial to everybody if we do have universal healthcare and free education. A lot of other countries do it, and have been succeeding and we seem pretty slow in those areas for the developed country that we claim to be. I think our parties should look at people more, instead of trying to create these huge issues, and just look at what the people need.

A lot of our problems can be solved if people were just more educated, and had more access to that. A lot of our health issues can be fixed if we have access to actual health care, and we're not trying to faction it off to whoever has more money. Yeah, I'm definitely on the side of, I guess, a more liberal viewpoint on distributing the resources that we have in our country. And you know, it's going to take some reworking of the Democratic Party to figure out where our goals are, but I think we can do it. It's just going to take a lot of movement from the ground up.

Sasheer Zamata’s solo show runs from July 24 to 27 at Katacombes as part of Montreal's Just For Laughs festival, where she will also be appearing in the Howie Mandel Gala on July 29. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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