Inside Sasheer Zamata’s ‘Pizza Mind’

Comedy fans the world over might know Sasheer Zamata for her improvisational prowess and sketch comedy work, but with the premiere of her very first standup special, Pizza Mind (streaming on Seeso now), they’re about to get familiar with her as an intimate yet searing standup. The 30-year-old UCB alumni and current SNL utility player trades in the collaborative crutches inherent in sketch and improv for the autonomy of standup in Pizza Mind, where Zamata unpacks everything from work-related racism to trying to make out with a crush while on psychedelics.

Ever the consummate performer, Zamata doesn’t just rest on the laurels of tried-and-true standup special mechanics. She infuses Pizza Mind with genre-bending elements such as Monty Python-esque animated reenactments of particular bits and a gorgeously choreographed musical number. In this Golden Age of comedy, Zamata’s special feels like both a perfect fit and a pushing of the envelope.

Sasheer Zamata took some time to talk about Pizza Mind, standup vs. improv, and SNL’s renaissance during the Trump era.

Congratulations on Pizza Mind. Not only is it sharp and hilarious, but it’s refreshingly unconventional. How does it feel to have your very first standup special in the can?

Thank you so much. I’m so excited for people to see it. I have been working on the material for a while now but we shot it in December in New Orleans. We’ve been editing it and tweaking it and now we’re promoting it. I’m just so ready for people to actually see it and get their eyeballs on it because I’m really proud of the special.

Pizza Mind blends traditional standup with sketch, animation, and even a rapturous musical number at the very end. Why was this the approach you decided to take for your first special?

Well I just like all those things, all those different elements. I like performing music and I can actually do it. [laughs] I also love animation. I just wanted to showcase different talents I have and also utilize different types of art forms within comedy. I wanted to do whatever I wanted and thankfully no one said I couldn’t.

Were there any standup specials that you watched that served as inspiration?

I really love Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic. She definitely took advantage of using different types of humor and comedic styles that weren’t just her on stage doing standup for an hour. She incorporated sketches and songs and different things. I thought that was such a cool way to do something within such an old form. Standup can be just as simple as standing on stage and speaking, and it’s always engaging when someone does that. But it’s also cool when people try to bend the art form and bend the delivery of it.

Before we dive into the special, can we hop back in time a bit?

Of course.

What’s your comedian origin story? Like, were you the class clown as a kid and always performing? Would you describe your family as funny?

My family’s funny but not on purpose. They’re just funny to watch naturally. But I wasn’t a class clown or anything like that. My family was actually pretty surprised when I told them I wanted to perform and do comedy. They were kind of like, “Why? You weren’t funny before. You never even really spoke. And it’s true — I was a shy kid. I did joke around with my friends, but not in a way that anyone could recognize. It was never like, “Oh, this girl’s gonna be pursuing comedy at some point in her life.”

I was just such a fan of comedy and eventually started doing improv. I tried out for my improv team in high school and made it, but then I quit because I was doing show choir and that was my life at the time. So I didn’t revisit that idea until I got to college. The comedy thing was definitely in me but nothing I expressed or tried to do until I was older. The rest is history.

So let’s get into Pizza Mind. The opening sequence is a sketch that finds you talking to multiple reflections of yourself in the dressing room mirror. Are you the cliché “tortured comedian”?

I don’t think I’m tortured. I think it’s pretty normal to have voices of self-doubt and to question your talent, questioning doing a big thing. I wanted to express that in a way where it’s like a pep talk. Where you give yourself a, “You got it girl, go ahead and kill it.” Sometimes I’ll try to do that but what actually comes out is: “Who do you think you are?” [laughs] It was fun to shoot. It turned out to be a monster of an ordeal trying to shoot all that mirror stuff from a technical standpoint, but I’m so happy with how that turned out.

The pre-show sketch shows that entire cycle: from self-doubt that gives way to self-love, the mirror literally goes down on you, then self-destruction as the mirror attacks you. Is that the ebb and flow of your psyche when you’re writing and performing?

Oh definitely. I go through that whole process anytime I’m tackling another big project that I may not be used to or may be scared of. Honestly that’s exactly what went into creating this special too because I’ve never done this before. I’d like to pretend like I was confident the whole time, like I knew that I would nail everything. But there were definitely times when I was like, Ugh I don’t know about this” and just hoped that it would go well.

Whereas improv is a group effort and an exorcism of one’s id, standup is defined by isolation and introspection. Do you have a preference between the two?

Ooh I like how you described that!  I like your description of improv being an exorcism of id. Because that’s exactly why I love it. It’s this organic thing that kind of gets created. It seems like magic, where whatever’s going on in my brain — all the collections of experiences I had in my life — kind of lead to me making the decisions that I’m making on stage. That same thing is happening for a completely different person. Different experiences and different things in the world and what they learned in their life. Even though we have those things going on in our brains separately we are able to create a story and create a theme and a move together onstage. I love improv for that reason.

I love standup because it really showcases me. [laughs] It shows what I believe in. I love how autonomous it is. I could just go travel anywhere and all I need is a mic, and sometimes not even that. I don’t need props or anything. I don’t need teammates to help me out. It’s definitely amazing when other people in the community do help you out and help you punch-up jokes or give you advice on your stuff, but it’s nice to be able to just move throughout the world and do standup without having to go to a school to learn how to do it or go to a venue and ask for permission.

Some of the funniest bits in Pizza Mind serve as indictments of white privilege and Hollywood’s shameful lack of representation. Have you noticed any fundamental shifts now that more artists are speaking up and creating dialogue around the issue?

I do think there’s been a shift. I think we’re talking about it so much and I’m hoping it’s not a thing that’s just trendy. Like, I’m hoping we’re talking about it because we need to be talking about this and not just because everyone else is, and then when we feel like changing the subject, we’ll stop talking about it. I hope that doesn’t happen. I don’t think it will because people are interested in making changes in the images that we receive and actively making sure that it happens.

So many people saw Hidden Figures and Moonlight and we really do make an impact with our money. It’s unfortunate that, well, studios are money hungry and they just follow trends, but they do. If we want to affect change, we can do that with our money. If you don’t want to keep seeing TV shows or movies with just white people or just men or whatever the thing is, don’t go give your money to that. But if you want to have more things that are diverse, prove to the people who are making it that that’s what you wanna see. Go put your money there. Promote it and talk about it. Word of mouth is so valuable! I’ve already seen scripts floating around and auditions for things that seem to be more diverse and heading in a better direction. There’s always room to grow, but I do think there’s an effort being put forward to make that happen. And I’m excited about it.

Absolutely. And the throughout the special you remind the crowd how important is to engage in these “uncomfortable conversations.” There are definitely a few moments in Pizza Mind where some audience members squirm in their seats. I think that means you’re doing the right thing.    

I think so too. I don’t mind the squirming. I hope that people think about these things at some point in time even if it’s after they leave my show and talk to their friends about it or right there in their seats. I’d rather you squirm and think about something you’ve never thought about before than be perfectly comfortable and just be like, “Wow, what an easy show!”

You mention in the special about working at Disney World. Do you have any horror stories from your time there?

Once I was in costume as Mrs. Incredible. The way we put the head on in these things was like a helmet. The hair was a helmet and then the face attached to the front of your face with magnets. Usually it would be fine, but for some reason I was just standing there and my face just fell off in front of these kids. It just detached from the hair. Mr. Incredible was next to me and luckily his shoulders were so wide that he just stepped in front of me and gave me a moment to literally fix my face so the kids wouldn’t see and be horrified. No one said anything, but I’m sure if anyone saw it they were like, “Why was there a sweaty black girl inside Mrs. Incredible’s head?”

I was hoping you could talk a bit about SNL in the Trump era. It’s no secret that the show is at its peak popularity and socio-political impact.

Well I think it’s been people want to see more of this stuff. Everyone’s been affected in some fashion by what’s been going on since the election. I think it’s cathartic in a way. I had strangers coming up to me and tell me that they’re excited to see our take on something that happened in the news, that they can’t wait to see our perspective on it come Saturday. So that’s cool that people are excited to see us respond in real-time to something that’s happening in the world. It might be easier to watch our parody of something than to watch the news that’ll maybe get them angry or sad. What we’re doing makes all this bad news an easier pill to swallow.

I also don’t know if I’ve ever seen SNL analyze so many parts of an administration. We’re not just talking about Trump. We’re also talking about the person in charge of HUD and [other cabinet members]. I’ve never seen the show tackle so many parts of politics other than the president so I think that’s really cool too. The show is confronting more things that are responsible for our policies and for our laws and people are becoming more aware as well.

Knowing how volatile and unhinged Trump is, has there ever been a time where the cast or writers seemed concerned about a sketch making it to air?

If there has been any fear, I haven’t heard it. No one’s ever made an announcement like, “Hey guys, let’s not do this this week.” Also our boss, Lorne Michaels, is kind of fearless. He’s not afraid of anything, so I can’t imagine us for any reason thinking that maybe we should avoid a particular joke. I think our general feeling is just to lean in and get all the way into it and then see what happens. And I love that.

So what’s next for Sasheer Zamata?

Well, March has been a pretty big month for me. The special comes out today on Seeso and I’m in a movie Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, which is on Netflix, and it’s so cool. It’s full of brown girls and directed by a woman [Sydney Freeland] and written by a woman [Shelby Farrell]. It’s a great story and I think people will enjoy it. I’m also in another movie coming out called Sleight [starring Jacob Latimore]. It’s about this young man who’s into street magic but also gets involved in the drug world so he’s trying to escape that.

I also have a monthly show in Brooklyn called Sasheer Zamata Party Time! We’re working on some videos now so hopefully I’ll be releasing footage of the performances so everyone can see even if they’re not in Brooklyn.

To wrap things up, as the special ends you sing, “I’ll never have to do this again!” in a very tongue-in-cheek manner.  Will we be seeing you on the road again anytime soon?

Oh you’re definitely gonna see me again on stage soon. That was kind of a joke when we wrote it that I’ll never have to do this behemoth [musical number] again and then the actual director is like, “Nope you need to do it again!”  But the plan is to definitely do more. I’m definitely going to do more specials. That’s the idea. More TV shows. More movies. More everything.

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Inside Sasheer Zamata’s ‘Pizza Mind’