Sasheer Zamata: The First Woman

Gorilla Specials: An Inside Look at Sasheer Zamata's "The First Woman"

While Sasheer Zamata’s sophomore stand-up special The First Woman (see her excellent debut, Pizza Mind, if you haven’t) may be brand-new, the SNL alum commands the stage with such ease that it begs praise for her deftness alone. Often in earlier specials, comics can have a tendency to rush material, blow past jokes, or otherwise miss opportunities to connect with the audience in a way that helps them. This is not the case for Zamata, whose many superpowers as a comedian include an uncanny comfort with herself, which allows her to move deliberately even in uncomfortable moments where she’s faced with quiet from the audience. Zamata treats these moments as tensions to dismantle, letting the awkwardness build to such a height that the release of it with a quick line or few gestures is something both hilarious and impressively managed.

Sasheer Zamata: The First Woman.
Sasheer Zamata: The First Woman. Courtesy of 800 Pound Gorilla.

Sasheer Zamata’s comfort with the uncomfortable makes her a steady, hilarious talent you can’t overlook.

One example of this can be seen about halfway through the special, when Zamata moves from a discussion about her early experiences with masturbation to asking the audience if they used anything unusual to get the task done. At first, she quips as the audience warms up to her. After one woman responds with a spirograph pen, Zamata says “Good, good, good, so not one of those normal ass pens. We’re not fucking around with bic. No, no, no, no, no. This has to work.” After a few more responses, she asks if anyone else wants to share, mugging a bit to keep the audience laughing before letting silence pass for a few beats. Zamata then says “Thank you so much to everyone who shared. And for those who didn’t…I know.”

The intellect on display in her work is something to envy, and drives her comedy beyond the obvious.

There’s a true intellect on display in Zamata’s comedy, both in terms of her subject matter and her engagement. Running the gamut from cars with eyelashes, to racial profiling for public masturbators, to witches and Amelia Earhart, Zamata discusses each with a gimlet-eyed dubiousness, an interrogative spirit that looks to refract the essence of an issue and then dare anyone to correct her. When it comes to public masturbators, the joke moves almost like a piece of journalism with clever bon mots, starting with Zamata encountering a public masturbator, then going through a series of phone calls to decide if she should call the police, deciding on the number for the housing authority, and turning into a consideration of the approach governing bodies take when it comes to privilege and discrimination. Zamata opts to ultimately not report the man out of a desire to combat systemic bias, and turns him into a quasi-folk hero who is “saying fuck the establishment by fucking himself,” “carrying a heavy load,” and “taking matters into his own hands.“

In lesser hands, word play could fail to garner laughs. Sasheer Zamata uses it carefully and deliberately, making it a tool in her box of comedy brilliance.

Zamata revels in word play, making use of puns to tag her larger jokes with. This both helps the jokes to sing a bit brighter, and move precisely from one setup to the next. A joke about cars with eyelashes (are we supposed to think the car is sexy?) leads to a discourse about truck nuts being less rugged a symbol of masculine virtue as a vagina, with Zamata saying with a knockout grin, “Don’t get truck nuts, get a snatch back.” The line, which would threaten to be more cute than funny in lesser hands, blows the room out with laughter, with the small pause Zamata takes between the words “nuts” and “get” making all the difference. Moreover, the line perfectly situates her to move into more personal, but no less silly considerations of diva cups and discomfort with periods in this country. Zamata makes use of this approach again and again, always effortlessly setting up the audience to follow her from complex subject to complex subject.

While educational, the themes Zamata explores are so clearly important to her, and help make the political personal.

The work in the hour is often educational in the best way possible, which allows Zamata to show off what makes her both a great comedian and an indie legend in the making. The hour closes with a lengthy exploration of women in context to history, with special focus on Amelia Earhart (the first woman to be flown around the world successfully) and Jerrie Mock (the first woman to fly solo around the world successfully). There are hundreds of permutations of this that could result in applause for the sake of being righteous, or worse yet, clapter (laughing while righteously applauding). However, Zamata’s approach allows her to build a sense of absurdity with historical detail, and stick the landing with a callback to a joke about even earlier women (witches), that echoes the current social landscape without being heavy-handed or unfunny. 


This is largely due to perhaps the most important aspect of Zamata’s work, which is that it seems personal to her. As mentioned, Zamata is a true intellect who doesn’t shy away from the nerve endings of something uncomfortable or infuriating in the culture. Whether she’s discussing men insisting women need a chaperone, or the way women are treated by doctors, there is a sense that it comes from the same sincere anger about anti-feminist cultural norms. The heart of the special, which consists of a series of anecdotes about Zamata’s health and treatment by medical professionals, works not because it is personal, but because it refracts and underlines how personal everything in the special is to her. Yes, there are tags a-plenty (in a story about being hit by a car, she quips that she’s such an overachiever she was hit by a car and then proceeded to hit another vehicle altogether), but in a world of sentimental or reactionary comedy specials, Zamata stands out for her consummate ability to make it funny to care.

Sasheer Zamata's new special The First Woman will be available to watch for free on YouTube tonight at 7 PM CT!

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