Q&A: Sasheer Zamata talks Lucille Ball, competitiveness on 'SNL,' and more

"Saturday Night Live" featured player Sasheer Zamata is a founding member of the University of Virginia's improv troupe, with post-grad work performing in the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. She has also starred in the web series "Pursuit of Sexiness" and appeared in sketches on television's critically acclaimed "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell" and "Inside Amy Schumer." We spoke with Zamata over the phone in advance of her stand-up comedy appearance here in Baltimore, on Thursday at the Ottobar.

Sasheer Zamata: Hi Joe.

City Paper: Hi Sasheer. Zamata. How are you?

SZ: I'm good, how are you?

CP: (For some reason turning into a radio announcer) I am awesome, and you are gonna be at the Ottobar here in Baltimore Thursday July 30, at 8 p.m., with Kenny DeForest, Natalie McGill, and Violet Grey. Do you know any of those people?

SZ: I know Kenny DeForest.

CP: Violet Grey I know is local in Baltimore.

SZ: Yeah, I saw a video, they sent over a few videos of people who are local and Violet Grey really impressed me, so I requested her as well.

CP: Are the other two local, Kenny and Natalie?

SZ: Kenny lives in New York. He's the one I'm bringing with me.

CP: And then Natalie, do you know anything about Natalie?

SZ: I don't.

CP: Well we are all gonna learn about Natalie together then, that's gonna be awesome.

SZ: Yeah!

CP: Also you are on sasheer.com, and you tweet at @thesheertruth.

SZ: You got it.

CP Horrible things are happening in this country and I sometimes wonder about being funny when horrible things are happening, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.

SZ: Well, what specifically?

CP: I'm talking about stuff that happened here in Baltimore with Freddie Gray and this lady Sandra Bland who just died, and this is just all awful.

SZ: Yeah. I think humor can kind of help us address some of the stuff that is horrible. I think it's a comedian's job to kind of analyze what's happening in society and put a different lens on it. And it may not be so direct as talking about all the horrible things and trying to make a joke about it, but trying to address it in a way that at least gives a different perspective on it and hopefully alleviate some of the pain.

CP: I dunno how much I can ask you about how things work at "SNL," everybody hears all kindsa stuff about how competitive it is, and they tend to go with people who are hot. They just seem to be like, nothing succeeds like success, and so you see a lot of the same people who are prominent in sketches, and a lotta other people end up doing setups and straight lines and stuff like that, and you've done a bunch of celebrities, Michelle Obama, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Eartha Kitt. Do you feel like you're in a competitive environment there, are you like, I dunno about how you feel about how that is going for you? Is there stuff you're trying to do there?

SZ: The whole show is a team effort. There's lots of moving parts to the show and lots of different factors to what goes on air each week, and it's really not planned, as in [when] we're writing it and trying to make it happen, there's no master board of like, "Alright, we'll put this person in this amount of sketches this week," there's no way to plan that. It depends on what we're talking about that week, which also depends on what's happening that week. It's a topical show and we're kind of like just waiting for news to happen and then address it. So yeah, everyone's trying to put our best foot forward and put the sketches that we think will be the best for people to see that week.

CP: What I would like to see on "Saturday Night Live" is you and Nicole Byer.

SZ: Oh, that's nice.

CP: Watching the web series "Pursuit of Sexiness," that seems like a target-rich environment that could be easily translated to sketches.

SZ: Above Average, which is under the Broadway Video umbrella, is letting us release more "Pursuit of Sexiness" videos, and it's our voice. We're actually able to do more of what we'd want to do in that vein, where if we tried to put it on "SNL," it'd probably look a lot different. We're still working together and we're still putting out material together and I like to be able to do it in a way that's a little unfiltered and definitely showcases our voice the way we want it.

CP: You have a lot of control over that?

SZ: Yeah, we do, which is nice.

CP: The show in Baltimore, is it gonna be improv or stand-up?

SZ: Stand-up.

CP: Do you have a typical crowd, do you have a following?

SZ: I do have some fans, I'm not sure if it's like enough to call it a following, but yeah, I think I do have some people who are excited to see my material because they've seen videos of me online or seen me live somewhere else.

CP: There was this thing that I saw of you when were a kid being Lucille Ball.

SZ: Mm-hm.

CP: Can you tell me about that?

SZ: In middle school, I worked at the news crew at my school, as one of the anchors, and we had side projects that we would do, about video and editing and stuff, and one of them was to pick a hero of yours and portray that person, and so I chose Lucille Ball, because she's a big role model of mine, and yeah, it was a staged interview with Lucille Ball, and I found one of my mom's old dresses that looked the most Lucy-like and went for it.

CP: Lucille Ball wasn't so much a stand-up comedian as she was a comedic actress. She knew what was funny, she knew exactly where she was going with stuff, so is she one of your main influences, are you looking at a Lucille Ball-type career, are you gonna have a production company, do shows?

SZ: I would want to have a production company, yeah, I look up to her in the way she is a pioneer in females being the lead of something, and also being the boss. She had her own production company, had multiple TV shows, and that's very admirable to run your own show like that, especially at the time she did it, so yeah, she's an influence of mine, Carol Burnett is an influence of mine, Sarah Silverman, Whoopi Goldberg, yeah, those kinds of people.

CP: Is stand-up a way for you to work out ideas, is that something that you're doing right now, is stand-up something you're always gonna do? A lot of people who have are successful have started out in stand-up or maybe in improv, and maybe they go back to improv, more, to keep their hand in, but some people move away from stand-up as their career progresses.

SZ: My intro into comedy was improv, in college, and I started doing stand-up when I moved to New York, and I love live performance, I love being on stage, and as of now, I feel like that'll always be a part of my life. It's hard to predict something like that, who knows what will happen years from now when I'm, like, super busy. But I do love it, and I don't wanna stop (laughs), writing for myself or creating things I can put in front of people. So yeah, I like to do improv and stand-up whenever I'm on a break from work. I do that, it feels good. It feels weird if I go longer than a few weeks without being on stage.

CP: Is there something you want to do that hasn't been done on "Saturday Night Live"?

SZ: Yeah, but I'm not gonna, I don't wanna jinx it.

CP: Let's put it this way, is there something that you've tried and it hasn't gotten over, or is it something you haven't put out yet?

SZ: Umm, lemme think. (Thinks) I mean, yeah, there's things I've tried, but things don't get on the show for many, many reasons, it may not be the right week to do it, it may be conflicting with another idea that's happening, there's so many factors that go into getting a sketch from inception, from the pitch, to air, because we have so many writers, that write like 60 sketches in a week, and we have to read through 40 of them, and then they get pared down to like 15. So when you have that kind of percentage, it's a little, you know the odds are probably not in your favor just to get something on. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't.

CP: Do you have a writing partner there?

SZ: Kind of, people that I write with that I enjoy. Natasha Rockwell is a writer who got hired last year that I wrote a ton of stuff with last year. We wrote the emoji "[Weekend] Update" together, and a few other ideas that didn't get on.

CP: OK, yeah, the emoji thing, the desk piece, I remember that, that was good.

SZ: Thank you.

CP: And you changed the internet. I know you're not taking credit for that. but you changed the internet.

SZ: Yeah, It's nice, that it happened, that it changed. I think it spurred a conversation, which is really great. I think that "SNL" is good for that, everyone's watching, the whole point of the show is stuff that's happening in the world, in this country. If things can happen through that, it's awesome.

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