“[There] was a clear moment where I realized I didn’t have to wait for someone to say, ‘Yes’. I’m just going to make my own thing and see what happens. That turned out to be way more fruitful than waiting”. – Sasheer Zamata
Who is Sasheer Zamata?
Sasheer Zamata is a comedian, actress, and writer. She has not only broken into the entertainment industry—but into the notoriously cut throat world of comedy. You may have seen her flash her comedic style as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. She also made many comedy best-of lists, including Cosmopolitan, 13 Funny Women to Watch, and Timeout New York’s top 10 funniest women in NYC.
Sasheer is booked and busy: She’s appeared on The Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Netflix’s The Last O.G., Hulu’s Woke, as well as in films like The Weekend and I Feel Pretty with Amy Schumer. She’s also performed at places like Bonnaroo, South by Southwest, New York Comedy Festival, and so many others. Her stand-up special, Pizza Mind, is available on Amazon Prime, and she is one half of the podcast Best Friends, with Nicole Byer, her BFF, and host of Nailed It!.
In today’s episode with Sophia, Sasheer talks about why she decided to break into comedy after college, why she doesn’t believe in getting a big break, and why there’s no better time than now to be a content creator.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On her start
Tell me about the days before you got into comedy. Did you always know you were funny?
I was making jokes to my friends, but I was a relatively shy kid. When I became a comedian, my family members were like, ‘Wait, how did you know?’ But my friends weren’t surprised because I would whisper jokes to them in class. I was like a huge comedy nerd; I would watch Comedy Central, Mad TV, and SNL all the time.
My volleyball coach in middle school took the volleyball team to an improv show. I remember watching and thinking it was like magic—they’re just making it up on the spot. I found that my high school had an improv team, so I auditioned for that, made it, and then I quit because it interfered with my show choir rehearsals (which was my life at the time). I then picked it back up in college and was performing a ton. When I moved to New York, I thought I would do theater, but I kept getting drawn back to improv. So eventually, I decided to dedicate my time to it and see how it goes. It worked out pretty well.
On family influences
So your dad was a Lieutenant Colonel? Was he a pretty serious guy?
No, actually, he’s a goofball. I think that’s how I was introduced to performing because he would do speeches all the time. He was like a teacher in the Air Force. I remember watching him and being like, ‘Oh, yes, a logical thing to do is to speak in front of people.’ So I was kind of bred to do it. It wasn’t a fear for me.
Do you think that being raised by someone with that amount of discipline has affected your work ethic?
Because my dad is in the Air Force, we moved around a ton. I was born in Japan, and we moved to Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, and California. Every couple of years, I was the new kid. That made me have to meet new people, and tell them who I am very quickly. I never wanted to be the new kid—I want to be their friend right away. I think that instilled some sort of ballsiness in me that would have taken longer to develop if I had just lived in one place.
On using humor in everyday life
How do you think humor affects or aids us in our daily lives?
I like comedy because you can find like-minded people just by the way they joke about something. If you understand the same kind of joke, then you’ve found your people. If you throw a joke out there and test the waters for friendships in work environments, hopefully, someone will bite it.
Do you strategically throw jokes out there?
I used to, and now it’s second nature. I don’t know when I’m doing it. There may be a time where I was like, ‘Let’s see if this joke is okay.’ If it is, maybe I can talk to this person about other stuff. And then also if someone shuts it down, they are not my person.
On starting comedy in college
When did you start taking comedy seriously?
When I moved to New York in 2009, I thought I was going to study theater. I thought I would audition for Broadway plays, which I auditioned for but didn’t get anything. It’s a different grind that I was not built for. I respect it and love it, but I need money right now.
I would keep going to Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) theater to watch shows and take classes. Within a few months of me moving to New York, I knew this was my everything. I just fell in love so hard and so fast. Honestly, I was only doing it because it was fun. Eventually, I started seeing monetary rewards from it. Also, it’s a cool community of people. I’m meeting really awesome people that I want to collaborate with. Eventually, other people started noticing my talents and paying me for them.
UCB is a comedy theater. They have improv sketches, stand-up, and alternative comedy. It was created by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Amy Poehler, who started doing comedy in Chicago, came to New York and created a theater there.
They started teaching classes and gave a space for people to perform. It’s been growing and growing and growing. Now there’s a location in LA, and that’s where I started. I knew about it because one of their touring companies came to my college during my senior year. Someone did a Q&A with the college improv groups, and someone asked, ‘How do you get a career in comedy?’ Bobby Moynihan, who was on the team, was like, ‘Oh, you just move to New York, work really, really hard, and go to UCB.’ I remembered that.
And then when I moved to New York, I went to UCB, and saw Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz. All the people I was looking up to when I was watching TV came from here.
On starting a career in comedy
Did you start getting paid for your comedy right away?
It wasn’t right away, but it was pretty fast for someone who just started comedy. I had an improv group with two other Black women, which was very rare at the time. I think people were really excited about this and came to our shows. My manager came to a show, saw me, and then signed me. I started going out for commercial auditions and booking some of them. So that’s how some income came. Same with my commercial agent who saw me perform. So people just see you do something good, and they’re like, ‘I want to make money off of that.’
That’s how SNL found out about me. The artistic director of UCB told them to come to the show. They came, asked us to send tapes and audition in person. Eventually, it paid off.
Do you think it is important to have an agent?
I think it’s important to have an agent starting out because they’re selling you. They’re the people who are getting you into doors.
For those who want to get into entertainment or comedy, how would you recommend finding an agent?
If you are creating your own material, that is a great way to get noticed because people will send your videos to other people. Take classes to meet people, but those are sometimes scams. Honestly, just create your own stuff—that’s what’s worked for me. I got to the next level of my career just because someone likes a thing that I created. I would recommend it to anybody who’s trying to do that.
What would you say your proudest moment is?
At UCB, you can audition for a house team. I auditioned three times and didn’t get on a team.
The group that I created with two of my friends also auditioned a bunch and didn’t make it. But then, we ended up getting our own run at the theater, which was a big deal. It’s also not a thing that would happen to indie teams. That was a clear moment where I realized I didn’t have to wait for someone to say ‘Yes.’ I’m just going to make my own thing, and see what happens. That turned out to be way more fruitful than waiting.
When you started getting early work, did you also have a side hustle?
Yeah. When I first got to New York, I worked at AmeriCorps, which was like the Peace Corps but in America. I found out about this program because Michelle Obama did an interview for Newsweek and mentioned it. It was all nonprofit work, but they had artistic ventures within it. I worked at a community development organization in Bed Stuy that had a youth arts academy where they taught African drumming and dance to kids in the community. I helped with their social media and organization stuff in the background.
On becoming the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Celebrity Ambassador for women’s rights
They approached me a few years ago, which is really great. It makes me feel very proud that they saw my work and thought it aligned with what they were doing. They asked me to be their mouthpiece. Basically, what I do is promote an issue or cause. I will talk to them about how we can best get this out to people. I’ve written sketches and essays for them. I’ll go to events and talks, or do stand-up or whatever they want. I think it’s a good way for me to fulfill that social justice side of my work and perform simultaneously.
How can people best support the ACLU?
You can look at their website. ACLU most likely has an organization in your community that is smaller than theirs that they work with or support.
You can help by donating your time. You can show up to places or pack bags for people who may need them on the streets. You can spread the word because knowledge is important. Follow their Twitter and see what they’re talking about every day. If you think there’s something you can do in your community, do it. Or just retweet, and maybe one of your followers will know what to do. I think it gets daunting because these issues are so big, and it feels like you’re just one person. But you can do a lot locally in your community. If you see a need in the school district or your environment, you can fill it. You know more than anyone else who lives there, so you can at least try.
On career breaks
Was there a moment where you knew it was your big break? Or were there a series of breaks?
I guess I had a series of breaks. Honestly, I think most careers are a series of ‘yeses’ and ‘no’s.’ I’ll keep getting successes that are great. Once I get that, there’s always another thing I’m trying to get. It’s never like, ‘This was the biggest.’ It’s like, ‘This is going to lead me to another big thing.’ I will consistently get a ‘No’ because that’s what entertainment is. Even when I get ‘No’s,’ it’s okay because it motivates me to try something else in a different direction.
What do you think would be the pinnacle of your career?
I want to direct. I don’t know if that’s next, next, next, or next, next, or next? I just like the form of film, and I think I’d be good at it., I haven’t done it yet, so I have to learn about it. I also just want to keep creating my own stuff, and I think I’m on the right path.
On career tips in comedy
What would your advice be for someone who wants to get into comedy?
There are so many ways to get into it now, which is wonderful. Also, you can truly self produce the stuff that you’re making. You don’t have to go through anybody. You don’t have to go to a theater if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to school if you don’t want to. You don’t have to look for anyone to like it—put your content out there. Put it out for people to see, receive the feedback, and keep going.
I missed the whole social media comedy boom, so that’s honestly not where I would personally want to put my efforts. I had a manager who represented a bunch of YouTube people and suggested I start a YouTube channel and do daily videos. I can see how that’s benefitting performers. I can see how you can grow your audience from that, and make money from that. However, that’s not what I want to do. I’m not even trying to shit on it, and I can see how much work goes into it. It’s a lot of work that I don’t want to do. If you want to do that, do it. But if you don’t want to, don’t do it because you think it’s going to get you numbers really quick.
If you care about your artistry, the work you’re putting out there, and your voice, then I would say write, write a lot. Write for yourself, write for other people, meet other people, collaborate with people. Take classes if you can. If not, there’s a ton of information for free online.
Have there been times where you’ve turned down opportunities?
Recently, I rejected some stand-up gigs because they didn’t want to pay me as much as I’m worth it. That sucks because I can do that, and I love doing stand-up. It’ll be some money and some audience. But if word gets out that I’m going places for this much money, then that’s how much money I’m going to get. So ‘No’, I’ll come to your town when you pay me as much as I’m owed.
Is there a comedian you admire? How do you have a sustainable career in comedy?
I admire Sarah Silverman’s career and her as a person. I think she does an excellent job of coming out with new specials every two or three years, as opposed to every year. It’s nice when a comedian takes their time to create new content that actually puts the writing at the forefront.
On telling a good joke
What’s the anatomy of a good joke?
A good joke can be so many things. I’ve heard good jokes that are one-liners where it’s a very mathematical setup punch. I’ve also heard great jokes that are 11-minute stories where you don’t laugh until the end. Personally, I like it when people are personal—when people are revealing something about their life, and I can connect to it in a way or not, and appreciate their journey.
Some people don’t like that, and want them to get straight to the jokes—but that’s okay too; some comedians do that. I like hearing people learn something or grow from something, or talk about how they were that asshole. I feel like an audience can relate to that because we’re all humans. Comedy and especially stand-up is a very old school oratory medium where you can just stand in front of a group of people and talk to them, and they can connect with you. When you offer yourself up and are vulnerable, I think that’s when the best magic happens.
On performing in front of a crowd
Do you get nervous before a performance?
Yeah, a little bit. The amount of nerves and the amount of time I’m nervous before I get on stage has definitely decreased over the years. There are times where I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve never said this joke out loud.’ Or ‘I don’t know this space that well’. But I like that because I feel like if I were not nervous at all, I wouldn’t care. I’ve not been nervous on stage before, and the show is fine. I’m just too loose or thinking about something else in my head like a robot, which doesn’t make a good performance. I do like the nerves because it propels me to be more engaged.
Have you ever had a tough crowd that you had to win over?
Yeah, I’ve had tough crowds to win over. I’ve had tough crowds that I’ve never won over. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I can feel their energy, and they can feel my energy. If something’s off, I could either address it, and sometimes alleviate the tension in the room. But sometimes that doesn’t even work, and there’s nothing you can do. It could be that the energy of the room was weird before you even walked in, or someone got in a fight in the back, and I can’t hear it.
On using comedy as a form of activism
I think comedy is like a reflection of society. I feel like comedians have a third eye where we notice stuff that people don’t notice, or people notice it, but they don’t know how to communicate it. it’s kind of our role to do that for them and be like, ‘Here’s how you can think of this in a positive light or a negative light.’
People learn through comedy because their guard is down. They’re more open to laugh and be like, ‘Oh, wait, that is kind of fucked up.’ Many women were accusing Bill Cosby of rape. That was public information for years. It wasn’t until Hannibal Buress set it on stage where we were like, ‘Wait a minute, what?’ And then that really catapulted a whole movement in trying to get this person in prison. And it worked. It took a comedian casually saying it on stage for people to think it’s fucked up.
On her podcast
It’s fun. It’s just us talking, but we also answer advice. People can write in, call in, and ask for friendship advice. I didn’t realize the range of questions we get. We get questions about money, family stuff, or jealousy. It just runs the gamut, and it’s really nice because it makes us think about our friendship more.
It also makes us just think about friendships as a relationship in general because there’s so many things that talk about romantic relationships. Still, there’s not too much thinking about friendships and how important that is to life.
On strong female friendships
What is the power of a strong female friendship?
I think strong female friendship can truly change your life. I met Nicole when I started doing UCB 10 years ago. We’ve been working together, we’ve traveled together, and we are truly each other’s best friends. I think it’s really great to have someone grow with you, change, call you out when you need to be called out and support you when you need support. It’s nice to be with somebody who gets you.
Have you guys ever had friendship issues?
It happens consistently in relationships. There’s going to be times where your gears are grinding, and you can’t figure out why. We had some trouble when she moved to LA. We both met in New York and lived there. She moved to LA in 2012 or 2013, and I stayed in New York. It was a little tough because she thought I was moving past her. She was like, ‘You’re getting all these new friends, you got a new job, you got a man.’ And I’m like, ‘But you also have new friends, and you’re also doing these things.’ It just feels worse because we’re not in the same location.
There were growing pains. It sucked because we were far apart, and we couldn’t see each other every day like we used to. We worked it out by talking about it. We realized it doesn’t matter what the other person’s going through and what stage they’re at. We’re still going to love each other, so it’s okay.
On Sasheer’s recent projects
Tell me about the romantic comedy you’re in called The Weekend.
It’s a romantic comedy with me, Y’lan Noel, DeWanda Wise, and Tone Bell. Kym Whitley also plays my mom, which is amazing. Sela Maggie is the Writer and Director. I play a comedian who’s in love with my ex, but my ex has moved on with someone else. And so, not letting go, I invite my ex to my mom’s bed and breakfast. He brings his girlfriend. It’s an awkward love triangle. And then someone else who’s not even in our group checks into the bed and breakfast, and starts flirting with me. My ex gets jealous, and it’s like a love square.
Tell me about your new show coming up on Comedy Central.
It’s called Robbie. Rory Scovel creates it. In the show, we are co-parenting a child together, and I think it’s really fun. We deal with religion and race and other things. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed because it’s comedy. I think people will learn a lot of stuff, but in a way that’s disarming and fun.
On the meaning of success
My concept of success is doing something that moves me. I could do something that doesn’t pay me that much money, but if it feels fulfilling, it’s worth it to me. I want to be able to learn something or grow in some way. If I do a project that doesn’t have much screen time, I’ll do it if I get to play a fun character that I’ve never played before. Or I don’t get that much money, but I get to work with this director who I’ve been dying to work with. I just want to feel like I’m moving up a level in some aspect of my life.
What’s your most recent Girlboss moment?
I’m working on a stand-up special, and I’ve gotten a bunch of ‘No’s’, which is honestly great because now I just get to do it on my own. I maybe had two seconds where I was like, ‘That sucks’, but then I realized I didn’t have to wait for it. So I’m just doing it, and I’m learning how to produce it, which is also a skill that I want. I’m excited to learn about all the intricacies of what goes into creating something like this. I get to control it, which is something I didn’t get to do last time.
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