UVA alum Sasheer Zamata gets serious on ‘Saturday Night Live’

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Sasheer Zamata returns to Charlottesville on August 22 to perform stand-up comedy at the Jefferson Theater. Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC Sasheer Zamata returns to Charlottesville on August 22 to perform stand-up comedy at the Jefferson Theater. Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Comedian Sasheer Zamata was a teenager when she realized that she wanted to make people laugh. All it took was a joke about a janky elevator.

“When I was in high school [in Indiana], I did a government camp where students ran the government; we had to elect our officials and run for office,” says Zamata. “We stayed in a dorm with an elevator that would kind of shake when you were in it.” Zamata ran for lieutenant governor of her party and won, and when it came time for her to make a speech before the big election, she told her fellow campers—all 800 of them—“You better vote for me before you die in this elevator!”

“People just lost their minds,” says Zamata, laughing as she remembers the satisfying moment. “It was the easiest joke ever, and people were just loving it!”

“People told me afterwards, ‘You should do something where you speak in front of people and make them laugh,’” she says. “But no one knew to say ‘stand-up comedian,’ because we didn’t think of that as a plausible job.”

While a student at UVA, Zamata majored in drama, founded the long-form improv student comedy troupe Amuse Bouche—and ate a Bodo’s bagel for breakfast most mornings—before graduating in 2008. But it wasn’t until she moved to New York City, began creating her own online comedy videos and performing sketch comedy with Upright Citizens Brigade that she realized comedy was, in fact, a plausible job.

And that she was pretty darn good at it.

She filmed zany impersonations of celebrities and posted the videos to her online comedy channel. She donned wigs and costumes to impersonate Michelle Obama reading a version of Go the Fuck to Sleep, Beyoncé singing “Love on Top” as a lullaby to a Blue Ivy baby doll while a framed mugshot of Jay Z hangs over the sofa, and Nicki Minaj reading Green Eggs and Ham.

Zamata’s Bodo’s order: Bacon, egg and cheese on a cinnamon raisin bagel. “That was my favorite go-to breakfast bagel,” she says. “It’s a really good combination of savory and sweet.”

She’s continued to impersonate these celebrities—and many others, including Eartha Kitt and Lenny Kravitz—as a cast member on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Zamata (now 30) joined the “SNL” cast midway through the show’s 39th season; her hiring ended a months-long talent search focused on minority women prompted by criticism of the show’s lack of on-camera diversity. Zamata was the first black woman to join the show’s company since Maya Rudolph departed in 2007, and just the fifth black female cast member in the show’s history (Leslie Jones, hired in 2014, is the sixth). “As a result, she faced unusual levels of scrutiny” during her first “SNL” appearance on January 18, 2014, the New Yorker’s Culture Desk column noted, “but her debut went without a hitch.”

She sees the show as yet another platform where she can “talk about things in culture or society that may be glossed over,” says Zamata, explaining that her job as a comedian is to analyze and critique under the guise of humor and make the sometimes painful truth “easier to swallow.”

During an “SNL” Weekend Update segment in December 2014, Zamata explained to co-host Colin Jost how she’d learned to convey black experiences via text through a whitewashed set of emojis. She pointed out to Jost, who is white, that of the 800 emojis available on Apple’s iOS at the time (they became more diverse in April 2015), “not one of them is of a black person.” If she wanted to refer to herself with an emoji, she used the dark moon emoji—but “it looks like…a baby Charles Barkley,” she quipped while looking directly at the camera, her expression telling the viewer, “It’s cool to laugh, but look at your phone; you know I’m right about all of this.”

She continued, “Unico, the company that creates emojis, thought that instead of one black person, we needed two different kinds of dragons, nine different cat faces, three generations of a white family and all the hands are white, too. Even the black power fist is white,” she said, making a point. “But on the plus side, they do have a KKK member that got punched in the face,” she said as the ghost emoji popped up on the screen.

In the recurring Vlog sketch, Zamata plays Janelle, a 15-year-old girl who films YouTube dance tutorials in her bedroom. Janelle doesn’t realize that her body has developed into that of a woman, and as she dances—naively, suggestively—YouTube creeps leave inappropriate comments that send Janelle’s dad (played by Chris Rock) into a hilarious panic.

“It’s about that moment where you are a girl turning into a woman, and you’re not really interested in boys, but your body is saying something different,” says Zamata. “And then there’s the way society views” a woman’s body as a sexual object. “It’s such an interesting moment that I want to talk about,” she says.

Joking about uncomfortable topics like racism, adolescent sexuality and Internet trolls is “a way to make us all laugh at the same thing and feel like we’re all together in this,” she says.

Zamata learned early on from that rickety elevator at government camp that nothing is funnier than the truth. It’s why she draws from her own experiences as a young black woman living in America to form her comedy. “I talk about things that I see and things that anger me or confuse me, and I sort of hash it out on stage until I have a fully formed thought on how I feel about it,” says Zamata. She’s joked about double standards, failed attempts to ditch a guy mid-date and her black hair.

By making serious points with a punch line, she says, perhaps people are more willing to listen.

Comedy can open your mind to new perspectives, but Zamata is quick to point out that it’s also an escape. A good comedy show can change you in so many ways, but in the moment that you’re watching, she says, “Just laugh out loud. Laughing feels so good.”

Sasheer Zamata

August 22

The Jefferson Theater

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