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Sasheer Zamata's new special is an unapologetic ode to women... and witches

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Sasheer Zamata spent years on "Saturday Night Live," making people laugh with hot takes on culture and news. Her new comedy special delves into some of the subjects she's most drawn to, like mental health and relationships and being a Black woman in America - oh, and did I forget to mention witches?

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "THE FIRST WOMAN")

SASHEER ZAMATA: A lot of cultures back in the day thought sleep paralysis was brought on by a witch sitting on your chest and giving you nightmares.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: The witch floated into my open bedroom window.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: Her long, black cloak opened just enough to...

SUMMERS: And that's one of the things I had to ask Zamata about when I spoke with her recently.

ZAMATA: Essentially, in its core, a witch is a person usually categorized as a woman who is independent and doesn't follow the rules and kind of, you know, moves at the beat of their own drum.

SUMMERS: Independent, moving to the beat of their own drum - that's also how Zamata might describe herself and her new special.

ZAMATA: Oh, I'm writing this because I want to write it, not because I am worried about - is the audience going to like this?

SUMMERS: She calls her new special, "The First Woman," leaving no question about where she's going with all of this.

ZAMATA: I really wanted people to know this is for the women.

SUMMERS: She was working on her new special during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I wondered how that time period affected the way she thinks about comedy.

ZAMATA: Well, my comedy's always been very personal. Like, I start my material by writing something that happened to me or something that confuses me or angers me. But I think that time also really made me feel like I don't have to, like, be so concerned about what other people think. And I feel like that's, like, a kind of a general feeling that went throughout most people, where it's like, look, life is short. Like, we don't have a lot of time. And, like, we don't have time to suffer fools. And so far, when I'm just being honest and authentic, people can relate to it. So I - there's nothing for me to worry about.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that you talked about really openly in the special was what it was like figuring out that you had anxiety after you were feeling some heart palpitations.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "THE FIRST WOMAN")

ZAMATA: But I was confused because I'd been having palpitations since college, so I was like, this means I've been anxious most of the time and for all of my adult life. And my doctor was like, uh-huh.

(LAUGHTER)

ZAMATA: Welcome to being alive.

SUMMERS: First of all, deeply relatable - second, though, what was it like for you learning that about yourself and then transitioning and talking about it so openly in the special?

ZAMATA: It kind of felt a little freeing, and it was definitely, like - gave me some security because I have this lingering question of, like, what's happening to my body? What is this? And I've had these palpitations for years but just didn't know what they were. And people kind of brushed it off and were like, oh, it's probably nothing or, like, you know, it's fine to have an irregular heartbeat. And then it wasn't until recently when people were like, oh, there actually might be an explanation for this. And just having some kind of answer helps and makes me feel, like, a little more aware of what's going on inside of me. And even having the knowledge of that, oh, my anxiety can turn into a physical reaction, helps me when it happens. Like, if I do have palpitations, I'm like, oh, OK, I might be anxious about something. Let's think about that. What could that - be happening right now? And yeah, it's been immensely helpful just to have a name to the reaction as opposed to a mystery where I'm like, am I dying? What's happening?

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: I mean, you also get into things like the ways in which the medical system tends to fail women, but particularly Black women, by disbelieving them or downplaying their pain when they bring it up. And this is something that you get into when you talk about surviving this very serious and scary car crash. Can you just say a little more about that?

ZAMATA: Yeah, I was in a car accident in college. I straight up got hit by a car. And I knew my hospital experience wasn't the best, but it wasn't until later in my life when I talked to people in my family, friends, other Black women, where I was like, oh, this is actually pretty common for us to go to the hospital and kind of leave feeling, like, not seen or not heard or misdiagnosed or ignored completely. And I wanted to tell my story because I think people can understand a topic better when they can put a face to it. Like, it's easy to be like, oh, the numbers - the statistics look really bad. But when it's like, yeah, this person that you just got to know for, like, 45 minutes is telling you, by the way, I'm one of those numbers. I'm one of those statistics that was affected by the lack of concern or the lack of knowledge that the medical community has when it comes to treating Black women.

And my hope is that people will talk about it more, and hopefully that gets us closer to finding a way to reeducate people in this field and also just have better practices, where they listen to Black women when we talk about pain or our illness 'cause, you know, we need care too.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I know that you filmed the special in Washington, D.C. What was that like?

ZAMATA: Oh, it was wonderful. D.C. is such a great comedy crowd. I have had the best shows in D.C., and I wanted to film my special in a place where I felt the love. And I was like, well, I've always sold out in D.C. I've always had fun there. And there was some sort of, like, ironic justice happening because I filmed the special when we were amidst having our reproductive rights being stripped away from us. And it felt kind of nice to be, like, shouting about my [expletive] in D.C., like, with all these other women in the crowd who are also talking about their bodies and their anatomy. And, yeah, it felt really good.

SUMMERS: This was happening during the time surrounding the Dobbs decision that changed abortion access for many women and pregnant people in this country. So I want to ask you about the ways in which the comedy that you write and perform intersects with the politics that we're seeing in the world all around us.

ZAMATA: You know, I've actually been labeled a political comedian for most of my career, which is funny 'cause I don't think I talk about politics in the way of, like, the government or specific politicians or anything.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

ZAMATA: But I do talk about my life being a Black woman in America, and that kind of offhand is political just because of legislation or history or things that this country doesn't address - or addresses, but not appropriately. So it's kind of my default. Like, I can't not talk about it.

SUMMERS: I mean, like you were saying, it's personal. So, like, how do you not talk about the thing that you're living and breathing every day?

ZAMATA: Yeah, that's kind of what the stand-up's job is - to, like, analyze what's happening in society, but also to, like, talk about themselves. And what I am sometimes is at the center of politics.

SUMMERS: We've been talking with Sasheer Zamata. Her new comedy special, "The First Woman," is out now. Sasheer, thank you so much.

ZAMATA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESTINY'S CHILD SONG, "GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Sarah Handel
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.