Sasheer Zamata @thesheertruth:
Zamata is one of those comedians who can do just about everything. Whether it’s improv, stand-up, videos, screen-writing, acting, she excels…we’d go on, but we don’t have to because her work speaks for itself. (Really! Check out more on her website.) And, while she’s probably not the only comedian in Brooklyn to unwind post-show with a drink (“or seven”), she might just be the only one to incorporate an Elizabethan sonnet into her pre-show routine.
So, two origin questions: What made you come to Brooklyn? and What made you become a comedian?
I moved to Brooklyn in 2009 after graduating from UVa. My close friends from college moved to Brooklyn before I got here, so that seemed like the place to be. I came to NY because I wanted to perform and I thought I was going to do theater (because that’s what I studied in school), but I found the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) and I got wrapped up in that community and loved it. Still do. At first, I was taking classes just for fun, but it wasn’t long until I realized that I only wanted to do comedy. So I was doing improv and started doing stand up shortly after, and then sketch a little after that.
What does it mean to be a comedian in New York today? Do you mostly write for performing live? Or for videos? Are you working on a screenplay?
Being a comedian in New York means you’re doing a lot of different things. Most comedians I know are multi-taskers. A lot of stand ups are also writing sketch, blogging, acting, writing pilots or screenplays, ect. You have to. There are a lot of us here, and most people can do the same thing you can do, so you have to be good at a lot of different things so you can set yourself apart from others.
I don’t know if I write more for stage or for videos. I write a lot of stand up, characters and sketch to do on stage, but some of that eventually gets made into a video. And there are some things I write strictly for video, so I guess it’s a mix.
I am working on a screenplay, and by “working on a screenplay” I mean I have started writing the outline, and by “started writing the outline” I mean I wrote the idea down on a napkin somewhere. I feel a little ADD in that respect. I have a lot of ideas rumbling around in my head, and a lot of scripts I’ve started but haven’t finished. But I will. I’m used to writing more short form things, so pilots and screenplays are work for me. The way I usually write anything is to write the idea somewhere, go away from it for it for a while and one day a wave of inspiration comes over me, I’ll figure out the execution I want, and then sit and write it until it’s finished. That’s probably not the best way to do anything, but that’s how I’ve been doing things. I’ll get better at it the more I write, but you know, writing is hard.
What’s your favorite medium to work in?
I really love stand up because it’s the easiest way for me to showcase my humor. Everything you’re seeing and hearing is something I created. If you like the performance, that’s all me. If you like the writing, that’s all me. I can also go anywhere and do stand up. I don’t need to bring anything or any other people to do it. Just a mic, and sometimes not even that. It’s the simplest form of comedy, and the most digestible, so I like it for those reasons.
I also love creating videos. I like the accessibility of putting a video online. Not everyone can see me do stand up in NY, but I can send someone a video of a sketch I wrote and reach more people that way.
Do you have a favorite Brooklyn comedy venue (for performing or for seeing other comedians, if the answer is different)?
I really love performing and watching shows at The Knitting Factory and Littlefield. They’re both big spaces, but they don’t feel too big. There are only so many seats, so most people have to stand in the back. It feels like we’re all piled on top of each other, eager for what’s happening on stage. The stage is huge at Knitting Factory and I felt like I could have done anything up there. And the Littlefield stage is very “show-y.” Like it looks like a grand show should happen there, with the curtains and lights and everything, it’s very profesh. And you can see the audience from both of those stages. You can’t see everyone perfectly, just a little bit of light from the stage reflects onto the audience. I like looking at people in the audience when I perform, but it can’t be too bright because then people will get self-conscious about laughing and get quiet (or at least that’s what I found to be true at shows I’ve done). But that’s never happened at these venues. Everyone always seems like they’re there to have a good time.
Do you have any set pre- or post- show routines, to brace yourself or unwind, as the case may be?
Before every show I recite a sonnet to myself. I only know one, I learned it in a voice class in college. It’s from Love’s Labour’s Lost. I don’t actually know that play and I don’t know who or what the character is referring to in the sonnet, but I’ve kind of made up my own meaning for it and it calms me whenever I say it. It helps me work on my diction and gets me focused. It’s also nice for when I do shows out of town, because it’s a bit of familiarity I can give myself in this new place.
And for post show, I’ll usually have a drink or seven.
Do you remember the first show you performed?
Like, ever? Oh man, I don’t know. I’ve been performing for so long. I did choir and plays in church growing up, so I started pretty young. I went to a Christian school from pre-school to second grade, and the only show I remember doing was a Nativity play. I can’t remember who I played, maybe one of the wise men?
I remember the first time I knew I wanted to make people laugh. I did a government camp in high school called Hoosier Girls State (Hoosier because I’m from Indiana) and they collected a couple female honor students from each high school in the state, brought us to a college campus over the summer and let us run our own government. I ran for Lt. Governor in my party and won, then I had to do a speech in front of the whole camp for the big election. I had to write my own speech and say it in front of all 800 girls at the camp and the counselors. I never spoke in front of a group that large before that point. I wrote one joke at the top of the speech and it killed. And everyone kept laughing at other things I said in the speech, even though I didn’t write any other jokes. After that people congratulated me on the great speech and told me I was funny. I didn’t win the overall election, but that sparked something in me that made me want to be on stage making people laugh.
How do you resist the pull to just cave in and move to LA? Or do you not feel any pull at all to move to LA?
Funny you should ask that now. I’m answering these questions from LA, and it’s pretty great here. I’ve been in NY for almost five years and I absolutely love it. It feels more like my home than any other place I’ve lived. But a lot of my close friends have moved from NY to LA and keep trying to get me out there. I didn’t want to leave NY until everyone (as in the industry in NY) knew me so I wouldn’t go to LA as another unknown performer. Now I feel pretty confident that people know me and get my deal. I also want to be on TV, and more TV jobs happen in LA. More are going to happen in NY as well and that’s great, but I am feeling the pull to move. I am definitely going to be in LA for pilot season in the winter, so we’ll see if I like it enough to stay.
Best comedian we haven’t heard of?
Have you heard of Naomi Ekperigin? Maybe you have, she’s been around. I want to see her around more, so I guess that’s why I included her in this answer. She is viciously funny. She talks like a valley girl and has such a funny vocabulary, and she’s so great to watch on stage. I really want her to get her own half hour special, or an hour special, it doesn’t matter I would watch her for any amount of time.
What have you found the most challenging aspect of your chosen career path?
I feel like I have to be my own cheerleader. It’s hard to quiet that little voice in my head that says “Why should anyone care about what you have to say?” No one is asking me to do what I do, I just really can’t picture myself doing anything else. So I have to keep reminding myself my work does matter, because it matters to me. And I can’t wait for validation from others (even though I desperately want it), I have to be okay with patting myself on the back for a while so I can keep going.
I also have to motivate myself to keep creating. I have to do my reps. I’ve gone through phases where I don’t feel funny or creative and I don’t want to write because my ideas aren’t coming out the way I want. But I have to keep making stuff. It’s like sports or any other skill, it’ll only get better if I practice. It takes a lot of discipline.
Have you found Brooklyn (and New York at large) to be a supportive community for comedians?
Most definitely! I love the comedy community in NY. I’ve met some of my best friends and favorite people to work with from UCB. It’s a great network of people and everyone is excited to help each other out. And I remember when I first started doing open mics and I felt very lonely because I didn’t know anyone, but I kept going and then eventually other comics started talking to me, and then later they’d take me around to shows, introduce me to other comics and bookers, or give me notes on a joke. I really like that, I don’t know if every comic does. But I like when another comic has an idea for one of my jokes, because it means that they 1) were listening to my set, 2) they think the joke was funny, and 3) they think it has the potential to get better. Comics will help their friends, or people they believe in, or people they see are working hard and getting better and it’s a really inspiring environment to be in.
And, finally, what’s the biggest misconception that people have of you when they find out you’re a professionally funny person? Do you get a lot of people expecting you to be funny all the time? Does this mean I can’t ask you to tell me a joke right now?
Some people don’t know how to handle it when I say I’m a comedian and that’s how I make a living. I guess because I’m not throwing out jokes in every conversation, so it’s a little surprising if you meet me before seeing my work. I’m not actually that funny one on one. My crazy comes out on stage and then you get it. My family was very confused when I started performing. They didn’t think I was funny because I don’t talk much around them. But now that I’m making money from comedy, they expect me to make jokes and do my set at family gatherings. And strangers will ask me to tell them a joke when I meet them too. I really don’t like that. I just tell them to come see one of my shows, because the joke isn’t the same out of context. You need to see me perform the joke instead of just reciting it to you, and I’m not going to start performing in the middle of a street or at a party because you asked me to. So unless you’re going to give me a job or money, please don’t ask me to do a joke when I’m not on stage.