Comedy Review: Sasheer Zamata, Pizza Mind

ABC’s “Would You Fall for That?”
WOULD YOU FALL FOR THAT – ABC News’ “Would You Fall For That” airs this summer on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Heidi Gutman)

It’s a rainy Brooklyn evening and I’m the first to shuffle into the Peter Jay Sharp Building at BAM. I ask the young pretty cashier about that night’s main event, Sasheer Zamata’s debut comedy special: Pizza Mind. She hands me my ticket and I no longer wishing to embarrass myself, quickly wrap up my version of flirting and jet upstairs to catch the show.

Sasheer is a performer on Saturday Night Live. She was hired under very particular circumstances. The show received public pressure for not having any black female performers at the time (Now they have two). As you know SNL is a breeding ground for the future stars of comedy, and those who graduate at the top of the class receive their own mini empire a la Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and in the special she uses stories about people knowing her from SNL or co workers from the show.

Sasheer Zamata, right, in the Q&A session at BAM after the screening of her stand up special PIzza Mind. Photo by Kadia Goba

Pizza Mind begins with a sketch about the battle that all performers deal with: self-doubt and in it Zamata battles her undermining sub conscious. She argues back and forth with a mirror and in which the ultra confident Zamata wins and takes the stage. Pizza Mind was filmed in New Orleans and Zamata jokes how she and her boyfriend deal with the haunted real estate.

After exchanging pleasantries with the local crowd this is where it actually takes quite a bit of time for any real laughter to happen in the special. In fact, it seems once the opening sketch is done the viewer is waiting for that same spirit to break through but it never happens. Most of the time Zamata seems pleased with just getting the job done. She rarely uses her talents to drive the crowd into a frenzy. The reason that this is aggravating is because it’s not as if she keeps this deliberate pace to build to anything. At times Zamata seems uncomfortable on stage. She moves sporadically which is surprising for someone who is a gifted performer and comes from an improv background.

For example, in the rare few times she paces she keeps one arm behind her back as if she was Elon Musk delivering a Ted Talk about the future of energy sources. She never opens herself up to the audience as a performer. This is a shame because stand up is the one time she gets to be considered on her own merits and it’s not an ensemble piece like SNL, but when we ask the question who is Sasheer Zamata we don’t get an answer. She stands on stage and tells us about times that so and so white co-worker said a racist thing to her or how she’s actually an angry woman who is tired of playing cute. But instead of getting angry she plays cute. She withdraws into a smile and lacks actual depth with most of the topics she talks about.

Sasheer will make a proclamation about how black women are not paid equally in Hollywood or she is mistaken for another celebrity, but it never develops into anything other than a “all black women aren’t the same” shtick. It’s been done before. Pizza Mind is full of her treading the same tired material cosmetially.

It is a disappointment because she shows so much promise and Zamata is an amazing talent. Most of her subject matter is race and show business, but the problem with that is she doesn’t have an interesting take on either of the topics. She mentions problems with white co-workers, but doesn’t mine her own experiences of being in an interracial relationship, a fact that we don’t find out until about 40 minutes into her special. Where was the insight or the introspectiveness we saw in the sketch before the special?

It’s almost as if she’s giving us what she thinks we want but glossing over the interesting things about herself. One example is the fact she didn’t start dating until she was 23 or her relationship with her father, who is only mentioned as a passing thought in a break up with her therapist. I’m not asking for every comic to be as personal as Richard Pryor, but if you are going to deflect your true feelings with humor then deflect big like Dave Chappelle. Zamata wants to tell us what happened exactly and that is the death of anything interesting. It’s an old adage “show, don’t tell”.  

On one of the few occasions Zamata does something exceptional is when she takes us into her world. She animates a fictional story about her mother’s discrimination. Think Monty Python meets Adventure Time. Hands down it’s the best part of the special and it’s clear that in the world of sketch or animation that’s where she shines.

The second time Pizza Mind comes alive is yet another sketch in which Zamata is bothered by some SNL fan girls and she imagines mimicking them to the point where they run away into never seeing her again and it’s absolutely flawless.

But these are pieces that can supplement a work not carry it. What did the live audience see? I believe her style is more suited for a one woman type show like Tracey Ullman where Zamata can break into song and dance and flow from one topic to the next bouncing any new thought into her comedic yarns. Die-hard fans of SNL and their merry bunch will probably be more forgiving of Pizza Minds weaknesses and just relish in the sheer comedic spirit.