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Sasheer Zamata on 'Saturday Night Live' and surprising audiences with her stand-up

Sasheer Zamata joined "Saturday Night Live" in January 2014.
Sasheer Zamata joined "Saturday Night Live" in January 2014. (Luke Fontana / Handout)

When Sasheer Zamata joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" early last year, controversy and criticism surrounded the sketch-comedy institution.

A national conversation about the show's lack of diversity had grown increasingly louder, and Zamata — only the fifth black female cast member in "SNL's" 40-year history — became the embodiment of a pop-culture debate, whether she liked it or not. So Zamata handled the scrutiny the way many others would: She logged off.

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"I quit Facebook. I stopped following people online," Zamata said recently on the phone from New York. "I just had to tune out everyone else who was like, 'Who's this girl? Where'd she come from? Is she going to be the funniest black girl in America?'

"I just try to keep my head down and do my job, and it's been working so far."

Now, as Zamata heads into her third season of "SNL," the 29-year-old from Indianapolis is one of the cast's most promising new actors, thanks to polished performances, a caustic wit and a variety of impersonations. But Zamata has her sights set on more, including movies and stand-up comedy, the latter of which includes a headlining stop at the Ottobar on Thursday night.

Zamata laid the groundwork for her career as a student at the University of Virginia. A drama major interested in comedy, she auditioned for a campus improv group at the encouragement of a musical director. The experience seemed like a failure at first, but it ultimately put her on a better path.

"I didn't make it, and that's when I started my own team, which is kind of a theme of my life," Zamata said. "I've gotten rejected a bunch, and then I start my own thing and then that one works out way better."

A post-graduation move to New York in 2009 led her to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the storied improv-and-sketch-comedy group and theater training ground that counts Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari as alumni. There, Zamata developed her comedy in an environment that promoted experimentation.

"What I love most about UCB is being able to try stuff out and try and fail, and try and fail," she said. "I could hone my voice and my skills, and do it in a place that's not exactly nurturing but definitely open. That was really helpful."

Like many up-and-coming talents in search of an outlet, Zamata soon turned to the Internet. Outside of "SNL," she's most known for "Pursuit of Sexiness," a Web series Zamata created with UCB player Nicole Byer. Like the friendship-first dynamics of "Broad City," the series follows two single best friends (played by Zamata and Byer) as they try to date and not go broke in the city. In 2013, Variety named "Pursuit" one of the top 10 Web series of the year.

But Zamata's introduction to the wider public came in January of last year, when she made a midseason debut in an "SNL" episode hosted by the rapper Drake. There was little easing in, as Zamata appeared in five skits that included impersonating Rihanna and singing about New Year's resolutions. Looking back on her first year at "SNL," Zamata said being the only new hire at the time made the transition easier.

"It definitely was a whirlwind, but I think because I came in midseason, everything was happening so fast that I didn't really have time to think," she said. "In a way, I'm kind of thankful. Maybe they would have been that good about catching me up if I had started [at the beginning of the season] but I feel like I got a lot of nice attention when I came in just by myself."

Fans of "SNL" and Zamata's online sketches should expect a different brand of humor at her stand-up shows. Alone on stage, she addresses serious societal topics, albeit with humorous spins, important to her.

"I have gotten into some interesting conversations after shows where people are like, 'Oh, I thought you were going to do impressions' or 'I thought you were going to do cute jokes,' and then I'm doing hard-hitting stuff about race and gender equality," Zamata said. "But I like it. I kind of like educating the audience."

After her stand-up run ends, Zamata will return to "SNL" in mid-September. The show is almost always on her mind, she said, whether it's characters she's developing or sketches she wants to pitch to writers.

But Zamata also mentioned goals beyond "SNL," such as her own TV show and roles in "action-packed" movies. In the meantime, she is set to appear in Kevin Smith's next movie, "Yoga Hosers" and hopes to film another season of "Pursuit."

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What sticks out most about Zamata, both on-screen and in conversation, is her confidence. Her "SNL" hiring was not about filling a demographic, she said, or a quick-fix solution to a controversy. Instead, Zamata is exactly where she is supposed to be.

"It's not like I was some random black girl who was walking outside the building at the time. They had been watching me for years," she said. "I know why they hired me. They hired me because I deserve to be on the show."

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