Genuinely Compelling: Off JFL Presents Sasheer Zamata

Sasheer Zamata is a former SNL star who’s gone solo. If her performance last night is any indication, this is a rising star worth watching.

Opening for Zamata was Australian comedian Matt Okine. His act had a lot of potential… Unfortunately he spent the first third of it making jokes about potatoes.

Yes, potatoes.

He talked about fries, and wedges, and steamed potatoes, and baked potatoes and potato salad. It was reminiscent of George Carlin’s early bits about everyday life but nowhere near as funny, partly because it was far too long. Overall the whole routine about potatoes fell as flat as the chips he was ranting about.

When Okine started addressing more edgy material like race and poverty, the audience seemed to wake up.

He spoke of how having a steady income now gave him choices and that he was no longer a slave to whatever’s on sale. He described Australia’s racism problem and addressed the fact that in many ways the media are like heroin dealers in that while not necessarily racist themselves are willing to push it to people addicted to its precepts. It had a bit of a ‘fake news’ rant vibe, but when you think of outlets like Fox and Breitbart that DO push racist agendas, his argument does have some merit, and he did make it funny.

Next up was Zamata herself, resplendent in a bright jumpsuit she said she got in Edmonton.

Sasheer Zamata’s act does not feel like standup comedy. If you’re looking for a showman who tells jokes and is loud, bombastic, and whose material is obsessed with the trivial, look elsewhere.

She’s not overly loud or aggressive and her comedy is conveyed in her words and her very expressive face. She comes off as warm, calm, and genuine, the kind of compelling person you’d want to spend time with and listen to.

When you’re in Zamata’s audience you don’t feel like someone who got tickets to attend. She has a way of communicating with people so you feel like a good friend she wants to confide in and tell you about what’s going on her life. This doesn’t mean that she shies away from edgy material, far from it. Nothing from date rape, to racism, to STDs, to gender stereotypes, to sexuality is safe in Zamata’s act.

Towards the beginning she talked about going camping with a largely white group and unashamedly mocked their need for excessive sun protection. She proudly proclaimed that their vulnerability was a form of karma, interspersing her commentary with amusing anecdotes about doing drugs on the trip.

Sex and relationship stories seem to be a staple in most standup comics’ routines, but Zamata’s are unique because they display the intersection of funny stories that define everyone’s sexual experiences and her perspective as a black woman who has dated white men.

She spoke hilariously at one point of a guy she’d been hooking up with asking to touch her hair and misconstruing what turned out to be a sexual question as a racist one. In her talk about sexuality she spoke highly of Planned Parenthood, a health organization now under attack in her native US, and their unorthodox reaction to her approaching them about a very delicate health issue she once had.

On the issue of race, Zamata stressed the importance of talking about it openly and asking questions. What resonated most with me was her rebuttal to people who claim they don’t see race:

“When someone says ‘I don’t see race’ what they’re saying is ‘I CHOOSE not to see injustice.”

I all but had to resist the urge to bow to her for that line as it was as beautiful as it was succinct.

Zamata then told a story of a protest in South Africa in which white students surrounded black students to keep them from being assaulted by police. She used it to demonstrate how one’s privilege can be used to help others.

She spoke of cultural appropriation and feminist advertising or “Femertising” in a way that had audiences at once laughing and thinking about these issues. Her observations were at once funny, biting, and accurate, but they were never conveyed in a way that would make any but the most snowflakey entitled white-privileged idiot defensive, something I attribute in part to the calmly compelling way in which Zamata speaks on stage. What’s also remarkable is that while clearly an intersectional feminist, unlike many on the left she is unafraid to criticize her own side.

Though her act tackled important issues, it always found room for the silly with short bits about Disney characters, and boyfriends, and bullfrogs. If last night’s show is any indication, Sasheer Zamata is on the rise, and her best is yet to come.

Sasheer Zamata performs at OFF-JFL through July 27. Tickets available at hahaha.com

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