A good week for Sasheer Zamata at Saturday Night Live can mean something as simple as nailing a line in one sketch. “They gave me this one little line, but I nailed it and that felt really good,” she says. A bad week can mean having a sketch that she wrote get cut or “getting a sketch on, but it’s not the way you wanted it, because it’s been edited down in so many different ways.”
“There are so many ways to feel lackluster,” Zamata told The Daily Beast as she prepared to perform a stand-up set at Esther’s Follies in Austin as part of the Above Average SXSW showcase. “But there are also so many ways to feel great.” For instance, on the last show before the 2016 election, Zamata says, “I didn’t have a lot on the show, but I met Solange, and I was like, that’s all I need.”
Her dream host is Serena Williams, she says, before teasing some off-the-record news about an upcoming host who will become the latest member of the “Five-Timers Club,” which Scarlett Johansson joined this past week.
Because of these challenges at SNL, Zamata has been performing more and more stand-up comedy on her own, culminating in a new special for NBC’s streaming platform Seeso called “Pizza Mind” that will premiere March 30th. “If I have a bad week at SNL, I can just go on stage and work out some material and get in front of eyeballs faster than I would if I tried to do that on SNL,” she says.
“It’s unfiltered. I don’t have to check in with a bunch of people,” Zamata adds of the freedom stand-up provides. “I get to say what I want and then get instant feedback from the audience. It’s great.”
Zamata says she was a huge fan of SNL as a kid, along with MADtv, but “didn’t know how one gets to be on TV.” The 30-year-old comic started doing improv comedy in college at the University of Virginia as a founding member of the campus group Amuse Bouche before moving to New York City, where she performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade. “I was just doing a lot of this stuff for fun, but then I realized this is how you do it. This is the trajectory you take to get to SNL.”
But if Zamata’s path to Saturday Night Live seems easy, it didn’t feel that way when she was hired three years ago amidst intense controversy over the lack of women of color on the show. It didn’t help when cast member Kenan Thompson blurted this out about black female comedians in an interview: “It’s just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
SNL first addressed the issue by having host Kerry Washington play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyoncé in quick succession. Two months later, Zamata officially joined the cast and Leslie Jones became part of the writing staff, before jumping onscreen and arguably overshadowing Zamata in some respects.
Despite her auspicious start, Zamata has not been given all that many chances to shine on the show, getting less screen time in her first season than almost any other cast member. Things haven’t gotten all that much better since.
She got to play the “intimidating” new White House staffer Omarosa in last fall’s brilliant “Melanianade” music video sketch, but we haven’t seen that impression since. There is, however, another member of Team Trump that Zamata has her eye on.
After Melissa McCarthy made her inspired debut as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, it was reported that Trump didn’t like the idea of women playing men in his Cabinet, out of a fear that they would “look weak.” Since then, Kate McKinnon has taken on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Leslie Jones even took a shot at playing Trump. Rumors that Trump nemesis Rosie O’Donnell would pop up as Steve Bannon or possibly the president ended up being unfounded.
When I ask Zamata if she’s thought about joining this trend, she interrupts me to say, “as Ben Carson or something?” She laughs as she says, “Nobody told me to work on it, but maybe I should start.” SNL hasn’t had a Ben Carson impression in its repertoire since Jay Pharoah left the cast last season. Is Zamata next in line? “Ooh, I hope!” she replies, only somewhat sarcastically. “I’ll try to work it.”
As for Trump, she says, “It’s interesting that people think we’re putting women in those roles to piss him off. That’s not actually what happening.”
“When Melissa [McCarthy] came on, she was cast because she’s an awesome performer. It was like, ‘Oh, wow, their faces kind of look alike and she will kill it,’” she continues. “And Kate [McKinnon] can play anybody, and she’s played men before, but I don’t think it’s ever been a thing to insult the person.”
“I don’t like the idea that people think we’re using women to insult men,” Zamata says, defiantly. “Because you’re being played by a woman, that’s in some way emasculating you? These are just all talented performers, it shouldn’t matter.”
Still, wouldn’t it be great if she played Ben Carson?