Comedian and actress Sasheer Zamata has juggled both mainstream television gigs (“Saturday Night Live”) and low-budget comedies (“The Weekend,” her first lead role, was a sleeper hit on the festival circuit last year). Zamata, who hosted IndieWire’s first-ever Consider This FYC Brunch for 2019-2020 film awards season on Tuesday, has embraced opportunities to keep her audiences on edge.
The comedian’s standup material has grown edgier over the course of her decade-long career, and she said she found a purpose in speaking candidly about her realities as a black woman in the world.
“If they watch me perform, and, afterward, feel like they were uncomfortable, but also thought I was funny and coherent, and even educated them, then I think I did my job,” she said. “However, it’s for them to figure out why they are uncomfortable.”
Zamata has made a name for herself, but in other ways, she’s just getting started. Making her way in a subsection of the entertainment industry that’s even more merciless for women — especially women of color – Zamata once joked that her “cute exterior” hides an interior that’s “full of rage,” given her life and career experiences as a woman of color. “I guess it was a joke, but also true,” she said. “However, I would say that I’m probably less angry now.”
She shuns the idea of being a “political comedian,” as the New York Times labeled her not long ago, but it didn’t materialize out of thin air. In 2015, she was named a celebrity ambassador to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and began work with the Women’s Rights Project, which seeks to break down gender biases and “ensure equal economic opportunities, educational equity, and an end to gender-based violence.” Additionally, she has been outspoken on the issue of equal rights among women of color, as well as on her struggles with discrimination and colorism.
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And of course her comedy reflects her thoughts on these still relevant issues. “I guess I can see why people would label my comedy political, because I talk about myself as a human being who is living in the world as a black woman,” she said. “I guess for people who haven’t watched a black woman do stand-up and speak honestly about her life, maybe it’s radical.”
But she has seen some changes in that regard. In a rapidly evolving environment hungry for diverse content, as the landscape for women comedians continues to embrace diverse voices, finding humor in her struggles as a black woman might not seem so novel. “I would say a lot has evolved for black women in the comedy world, but I would also say that there is room for growth,” she said. “There are now so many platforms that your content can exist on. You could put yourself on Instagram, build out an audience, and get discovered by a bigger platform. But I’m so thankful that I’m doing comedy at a time when there are more opportunities for people like me, and I can’t wait for even more doors to open.”
However, Zamata certainly isn’t waiting around for the business to change. She’s currently busy with a comedy tour, while also hosting the popular podcast “Best Friends” with her pal and fellow comedian Nicole Byer. Zamata’s first standup special, “Pizza Mind,” premiered on Seeso in 2017, and she’s currently workshopping a followup.
And then there are her acting gigs. “The Weekend,” which was released in September to mostly positive reviews. Zamata became consumed by her stage work after joining the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City in 2009, but said she would love to play a superhero in a Marvel movie. “I really love those movies, regardless of what Scorsese says about them,” she said in jest. “I think there’s room for people like me to be in them, so I continue to put that out into the universe and maybe one day it’ll happen.”
The Marvel character that most intrigues her is Misty Knight, who Simone Missick portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe television series “Luke Cage,” “The Defenders,” and “Iron Fist.” However, there has yet to be a big screen depiction of the character. “She’s a badass character,” Zamata said. She cited a spin-off from the “Heroes for Hire” comic books series called “Daughters of the Dragon” as one storyline that appealed to her above all. It has “Misty Knight and another character named Colleen Wing who she kicked ass with as this kind of double femme fatale team,” she said. “So that would be something I would love to do, but who knows.”
Zamata cited Sarah Silverman’s career as one she’d like to emulate. “I just want to do more stuff that puts my voice out into the world,” she said. “I’m excited for people to see me do different things than just releasing a stand-up special every now and then.”
At the same time, she said she has developed better standards for assessing projects sent her way — and when to pass on them. “When you’re starting, you feel so lucky to have any opportunity, which is how I operated,” she said. “But eventually I started to realize that a lot of the things I was saying ‘yes’ to weren’t serving me. So you could be just be grateful for getting a job, or you realize that it’s just not enough, and you start to expect more for yourself. That’s one thing that has stuck with me, and hopefully will continue to stick with me for the rest of my career.”