A Conversation with Sasheer Zamata
In this episode, actress and comedian Sasheer Zamata discusses the nuts and bolts of her comedy sketch writing and acting on Saturday Night Live and how to bring your own voice as a performer.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
[Narrator] On Story offers a look inside
the creative process from today's leading
writers, creators, and filmmakers.
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
comedian and actress, Sasheer Zamata.
- Cause I don't know, that's like the thing about comedy
where it's like, "Yeah, that sounds like a bad thing."
Actually be a part of that.
Yeah, but you can find humor in it
and find ways to expound upon
the weird or unique parts
of the story cause anything can be funny, I think.
You just gotta have a perspective on it.
[Narrator] In this episode,
comedian and actress, Sasheer Zamata,
discusses the nuts and bolts of comedy acting,
joining Saturday Night Live
and developing her voice as a performer.
- I guess the first thing I'd love to talk to you about
is the process of working with UCB,
with Upright Citizens Brigade and how that all came about,
how you found yourself in the sketch world?
- Well I first saw UCB
because the touring company came to my college
when I was a senior and they were doing improv
and I was in a college improv group
and I was like, "Whoa.
Wherever they came from I got to go there," and so I did.
I moved to New York after college,
started taking classes at UCB and just hit it hard
and I didn't even have a goal.
I was just like, "This is fun.
I like doing improv" and then eventually it was like,
"Oh I think sketch writing would be cool."
Then I just started taking classes
and then I also started doing stand up at the same time.
So I was doing all this new stuff in the first year
of my time in New York and as I was doing different things,
I was realizing every form of comedy
was helping the other thing.
Like my sketch writing was helping my standup because
I learned how to edit better and like cut out the fat.
And my improv was also helping my stand up
and my stand up was helping my improv-
it was just like all of it blending together.
It was super helpful.
But yeah, I was just doing everything at UCB
and I was hosting a variety show every week.
I was on the improv team, I was on a sketch team writing
and acting and there was a great training ground
and you get to meet other people and meet people to
collaborate with and it's kind of like a incubated system
where you get to try and fail and fail and fail and fail
until you start succeeding at something.
I met some of my best friends there,
some of my best collaborators from UCB.
Most of my friends are still people I met that first year
that I got to New York and for me it was a really
fruitful place to start doing comedy and start creating.
- It seems that a lot of your comedy is taken from your
everyday life that you've found this different perspective.
- Yeah, all of my comedy is based in truth
and I feel like that's a theme in all my work.
I try to base it in some sort of truth or personal aspect,
but I have, I use Evernote,
I've been- I preach it to the world.
They should pay me to talk about it,
but it's like an app that just has a bunch of folders.
It's very simple, but sometimes I'll look at a phrase, it's not
even funny yet.
It just says like "Women walking" or something, right?
I mean more detailed like "Women walking down the street
with their heels" or something and then I'll maybe years later
have an idea that's like, "Oh, and that reminds me of
this thing that I never did anything with"
and I try to connect all the things and create a story
or a joke or a sketch or a movie or whatever,
but I never really know what the thing is
until I flesh it out more.
But sometimes I'll just have an idea.
I'm like, "That should be something."
- Do you look in those notes sometimes and have forgotten
about a note and then you see it again and then it feels
almost fully fleshed out even though it was not that at all
when you started?
There's definitely ideas that I had where I was like,
"I think this is a thing, but I don't know."
And then because I've lived life,
I now have a better idea of this.
It's like, "Oh, because I've had like a actual
adult relationship, I know what this means,"
or like "Because I have grown up as a woman and have more
experiences in the world and relate it more.
I can talk about this with more knowledge" and yeah,
it's another reason to keep your notes because like I will grow
as a person and will understand what I'm trying to say
in a better way because time has passed.
- So how do you flesh that out?
I mean, I have a piece in...
that I saw on your current-
I know we don't call them records anymore,
but whatever it is that is the current wave-
- The album, thank you, of viewing your material
and there is the piece about your boyfriend
and just getting him your-
I guess this is a sketch of yours that had getting him
ready for the next girlfriend.
- Oh yeah.
- And so how did you determine this is that joke
I'm gonna develop fully into his piece?
- Yeah, I think, well it started because my boyfriend
was wearing his shoes in my home
and it induced rage.
most of the things I talk about started with some
sort of emotional response and I remember writing about it-
and just also noticing his behavior and being like,
"Man, was he raised by wolves?
Who raised him?"
And also he's not the only man I've been with like that
where I'm like, "Why don't you know how to live?"
So I just wrote stuff down and then I was like
"Yeah, I feel like I'm teaching him how to live,"
where I'd be like "Sweetie, take your shoes off please."
I just had the thought of like,
"Well, if I'm the one who's training him,
"then he goes off into the world knowing all this information
"that I gave him.
"What if we break up and he starts dating somebody else?
"He's going to take his shoes off at the door
and she's going to be like, wow, he's so clean."
And it's like, "No, that was me,
"write my name.
"Give me credit.
I did that."
Because if we break up and he starts dating somebody else,
he's gonna take his shoes off at the door
and she's going to be like, "He's so clean.
He's so conscientious."
That was me.
I did that.
If you feel like you're currently dating Mr. Perfect
and he does everything right, you should thank all the exes
who came before you [cheers and applause]
for all the hard work they put in.
Anything that you see a man do that's considerate,
he's doing it because at one point in time he made a mistake
and then some woman yelled at him.
I just thought like,
"I'm sure there is so many women with this story."
There's so many men with this story where you've been
with your partner and you've really molded this person
to a human being that's fit to send out into the world
and then someone else gets to benefit off of it
and that's not fair.
But yeah, I guess it just started from really me noticing
one thing and then realizing that like,
"Oh this is a bigger thing because I keep
"teaching him how to be an adult and I'm sure I'm not
the only one and people can relate to this."
- Is that something that came out of the training that
you were doing in improv even in college and then with UCB
or is it something that you just kind of grew up thinking about?
- I think it's from a lot of things.
I do think it's from what UCB a little bit because I know
in improv and sketch, when you start with an idea,
you're trying to find the unusual thing.
So it's like sure you have two people talking,
but then like what's strange about it?
And then you try to follow that logic
and you try to create a game and it's like,
"Well if this logic exists, then this other thing
should happen because this logic was already established."
So that's for sure helpful because I just learned
comedy rules to use in all the stuff that I write.
And then also just talking to people, like I would do
open mics and, and I have very close friends who are stand ups
and people would be like, "Oh, I love that idea you said,
I would love to hear more information about it."
Because when you're doing stand up
and you're writing alone,
you think everyone's going to understand what you're saying.
Because you're like, "Well, I understand it",
but sometimes you need an outside eye who's like,
"Oh, I don't know what you're talking about"
or "I've never heard of that thing before,
"you have to give some backstory so people
understand what the thing is,"
or, "We got it, you need to pair down."
I think from the outside it seems like stand up's
such a solitary form because it really is one person
writing and performing.
But you do kind of have a community of people you get to
talk to and if they feel comfortable enough,
they'll pitch you ideas, they'll pitch you tags,
they'll pitch you new routes for a joke.
And I feel very lucky.
Some people don't like that, which I totally get.
But I love it.
I love it.
When I did my first hour, I had just my friends come
and watch me perform and I was like,
"Please give me any notes you want."
And sometimes I don't want them,
sometimes I don't like the note or I'm like,
"Oh, that's a good idea.
I just don't want to go in that direction."
But sometimes it's very helpful.
I can be like, "Oh, this totally took me in a new route that I
wasn't even trying to go before,
but this is way better than what I was thinking before."
So just from being around other comics was a
huge help for my writing.
- You spend a lot of time doing these sketches that
you're co-writing and performing and then you get on
Saturday Night Live and you've got this writing team now,
it's a different experience
than the way you were performing before.
How did that process work?
- The process varies in that office.
There's a bunch of writers who are hired
and then the performers are hired,
but the performers also write
and sometimes you write with other writers,
sometimes you write on your own,
sometimes you write with other actors
and you might get a writer to come look and edit it
after the fact.
If it's your idea, your name is first on the sketch,
so you'll have your name, the person who helped you write it,
another person helped you edit it maybe.
And if it's your idea and your name is first,
then you kind of do direct it
and figure out what the thing is.
So one sketch that I like, was definitely like,
"This is my sketch" was the Stranger Things sketch.
I did it- I remember watching Stranger Things .
I'm a huge fan of that show and thinking,
where's that black kid's parents?
There is one black boy running around with all these
And I was like, "He's allowed to do that?"
He's just running around in the forest,
no one's checking in on him.
My mom would've been pissed.
She would've found me in the forest and been like
"What's wrong with you?
"Do you not know how to come home?
Are you crazy?"
So I wanted to write that.
And the way the writing process goes throughout the week,
there's a pitch meeting where we meet the host
and we just pitch out an idea.
It's like a one-line idea and it could be something
that you're actually trying to write or just something that
you think is funny and maybe want the room to laugh about.
So I pitched that idea.
People really liked it and were like,
"Actually, maybe we should explore this."
Then I wrote it with one of my friends, Kristen Bartlett,
who was a writer at the time.
We just went for it and they're like,
"We think it would be this."
And that was one of the few sketches that I wrote
where it remained pretty much the same to air.
A lot of the times you write a sketch and then, you know,
other people are putting in input or like,
"We need to cut it down for whatever reason or expand it,"
and so it will change and morph throughout the week.
We write it Tuesday, we read out loud on Wednesday,
all the producers, head writers and the host pick which sketches
we will rehearse.
We rehearse on Thursday, we rehearse on Friday,
we rehearse Saturday day, we do a dress rehearsal Saturday night
and then we do the actual show late Saturday night.
Yeah, between that time, so much can happen to a sketch.
But that particular sketch, not much happened,
which I loved.
It was fun to write this idea that I thought was like,
"This might be a weird thing, but I think it's funny,"
and other people thought it was funny.
Then when we did it.
- Are you sure about this?
- I don't know.
We've got to find Will.
- Yeah, Dustin, you're such a baby.
- I'm not a baby, I'm just scared the monster's
gonna eat us.
- Whatever, I'm not scared of anything.
[Lucas' Mom] Lucas!
- Oh no, oh God.
It's my parents.
- Lucas, where the hell have you been?
We haven't seen you in days.
- What makes you think you can be out this late?
Kids in this town are getting snatched up by kidnappers.
- But it's not kidnappers, Mr. Sinclair.
- Yeah, it's the Demogorgon.
- A demo-what?
- It's a monster and we're looking for it.
- Lucas, I told you not to hang out with these
little white kids.
[TV audience laughs] - But we have to find the upside down.
- The what?!
- It's like the normal world, but it's scarier
and there's danger at every turn.
- Baby, people who look like us already live in the upside down.
- How often did you have an opportunity to actually
Because how much does the writers, the writer room,
the writers' room say about what is going to be content
on upcoming shows and how much do performers actually
get to contribute?
- Well, the-- On Wednesday, the producers and the head writers
pick which sketches we're going to rehearse for the show
and that can be based on so many things.
Like, what are the most relevant things in the news this week?
What are the things that make the host look the best?
What are the things that made us laugh the most in the room?
There's so many factors and you can never predict
what will happen, they'll just like pick it
and then once your sketch is chosen,
you can put input in.
I've definitely been in sketches that I had no hand in writing
and went to the writer and been like,
"Well what if I said this?"
Or like, "What if we went in this direction?"
So they're open to whatever
and then it's up to the writers if they want
to take the suggestions or not.
I found it a very conducive environment where I could
say like, "Hey, I had this idea, do we like it?"
And they'd either be like,
"Yeah, thank you for adding this,"
or "Nah, nope, not this one."
And that's kind of how it went.
- So how much would, for instance, with a sketch,
like Dance Vlog that had Chris Rock in it?
How much would something like that change once he actually
was there to perform it?
Especially if you have somebody who's got a strong personality
as the host of the show.
- Oh yeah, so there was a sketch where I played this
teen vlogger and I was doing these dance tutorials online,
but I didn't realize that most of my crowd were old men
who just liked seeing a young woman dance.
And it was fun, to be this like naive little girl who's just
like "My fans" and everyone's like "Fap fap fap".
And Chris Rock played my dad which was a dream.
- You're 15 now.
You cannot have the door closed if there's a boy in your room.
- Dad, oh my God.
He's not a boy, it's just Teddy.
[TV audience laughs]
- Can you please leave?
It's live streaming.
- Oh, I'm not going anywhere.
Your brother told me you're up here dancing on the Internet.
- I did.
I told on you.
Ooh, you in trouble.
Go sweep the driveway.
- Dad, that's a not even a real chore.
[TV audience laughs]
- What's all this?
- Those are my fans, Dad.
They're just commenting on the video.
- Okay, uh...
and why does he say hashtag would bang?
- He was so great and it's so interesting when comedians
come to host this show because it is a different vibe
than when an actor comes to host the show or a musician
or someone else.
But because they already have been writing for themselves
for years or decades, they know their voice and they know
what they want and they know how to pitch ideas.
So yeah, he was very down to be like, "Oh I like this stuff.
What if I did this?"
And you know, we'll listen because we're like,
"Yeah, you're Chris Rock, whatever you want."
But I really love that he liked the sketch a lot
and I remember he like mentioned the sketch
in an interview after where he said he was happy that
we were able to do a sketch that wasn't like just
about being black.
Like, we could be a black family that just happened
to be a family and we were just doing that.
And I was like, "Yeah, I love that."
Which is cool.
And he used to be a part of the show too, so it's cool
that he got to see progress and got to be a part of that.
- Can you talk about the sketch "Black Jeopardy"
on Saturday Night Live with Tom Hanks?
- Yeah, that was a really fun series of sketches
to be a part of, "Black Jeopardy".
Michael Che and Bryan Tucker wrote those sketches
and honestly, I didn't have anything to do with
the writing for that one.
But that was, I remember that one being a special one
because that was like the first time we had a contestant who was
agreeing with the rest of the contestants and that was a
really cool moment because it was pretty close to after the
2016 election and a lot of emotions were happening
and we're trying to figure out ways to talk about it
and make people laugh.
that was a really nice, refreshing way to do that
in a way that was like, "Oh yeah he can have this MAGA hat on,
"but still we think the same things are bad and we think
that the same things are good",
but also not a way that humanizes him
and is like "We should all be friends now and hold hands."
- Let's go to "They out here saying" for eight.
The answer there "They out here saying that every vote counts."
Oh, Doug again.
- What is "Come on, they already decided who wins
even before it happens."
The Illuminati figured that out months ago.
That's another one for Doug.
- Okay, we're doing it.
Let's try "They out here saying" for six.
"They out here saying this movie doesn't deserve an Oscar."
What is "Tyler Perry's Boo! A Madea Halloween?"
- Yeah absolutely, absolutely.
You know when that man puts on a Moomoo,
I'm just transported.
- You know, I've got to tell you, I love those movies.
I bought me a box set at Walmart and if I can laugh and pray
in 90 minutes, that is money well spent.
- Oh, you know what, sir?
I really appreciate you saying that.
I like that.
- So how does that creative process compare to-
because it's such a large team of people
and then of course you have the network
that's in that mix as well.
Whereas when you were doing stuff with UCB,
there would probably be a lot more freedom to what you do
and what you could perform and what you could work
through with your performance.
- Yeah, it was interesting going from UCB where it
really was like, "I can do whatever I want,
"just throw it out there.
Who knows what could happen?"
To this other environment where it was like a lot of checkpoints
where it's like, "Okay, well if it goes here then
"and people like it, then it goes to here and then we gotta
see if we like it there and then we got to see if we got-."
It's just like a lot of different people
who had to say, "Yes, yes this will go on TV."
I guess I just learned a lot because it's just a
different way to do stuff.
It's a different way to work.
These were people who were chosen to work together as
opposed to me finding people I already know and like
and know how they work,
so it's just going to be a different process.
And I learned how- I mean I learned a lot.
I learned how to voice my opinion
and defend my ideas
and also explain my ideas.
Cause sometimes I'd be like, "Well I'm just right,"
and you can't do that.
You have to be like, "Here's why I think this is a good idea."
And just also how to talk to people because sometimes
you might be talking to a person who's way older than you
and doesn't really get why this idea is a good idea
for an audience that is my age or their age.
So I had to figure out how to communicate what I'm saying
in a way that will make everybody understand
why we think this is funny.
But I think that makes me a better comedian now
because I'm like, "Oh okay, we're trying to get this
to be funny for such a large audience."
It's not just like, "Oh, this'll be funny to this
group of people."
Like, "I could say these things because women will get it
or these things because black people will get it."
I have to figure out how to say things now
so everybody can get it.
Sometimes I still say things that only women and black people
will get and I don't care.
But now I at least know that muscle to get everyone
on the same page ideally.
- So how did working with a writer's room-
did it affect the way you actually wrote yourself?
- I think so, yeah.
Because we also had to write quickly.
You're writing a new thing every single week.
So, I learned how to write very fast,
how to edit really fast
and how to cut the fat and also like kill your darlings.
There was no time to be like precious about anything
because someone could come in and be like,
"Oh, we just can't say that company."
Or like, "We don't like that character"
or, "We just don't have time for this."
And you're like, "All right, cut, cut, cut."
And you know, I think that there were times
where I'm like, "Oh, come on."
And I'd feel bad if something got cut.
But eventually it's like, "Honestly, it's not mine."
And you had to be okay with that.
I'm giving this to the show, I'm giving this to the audience.
It's out of my hands and it's into the universe
and the things will happen to it because it's happening to it
and there's nothing I can do about it.
So,I guess with my personal work,
there's a little bit of that.
I mean I'm definitely more precious about it
because it's mine.
But, I do...
I guess I still kind of have that vibe because
sometimes I will be like,
"You know what, this joke's just too long,"
and I will just cut it and even though I've been doing it
for years or I loved it or it was funny, I'm just like,
"Eh, whatever, too long, get it out."
And I think that's a really good skill
cause there no need to be like so precious
or wringing your hands over every single word
or every single sketch.
Because honestly, when you look back you'll be like,
"What was that thing?"
I mean, like you've mentioned things where I'm like,
"I don't even remember what that thing was."
So it's like, why would I care so much then
when it's like years from now,
I'm going to be doing so many other cool things.
Just move on, move on from the thing
and move on to the next thing
because you're ideally gonna be working for a very long time.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation
with Sasheer Zamata on On Story.
On Story is part of a growing number of programs
in Austin Film Festival's On Story project
including the On Story PBS series now streaming online,
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To find out more about On Story and Austin Film Festival,
visit OnStory.tv or AustinFilmFestival.com.
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