Careers

How skills learned in ‘survival jobs’ helped this SNL star make it big

As a cast member on "Saturday Night Live," Sasheer Zamata has performed impressions of Michelle Obama, Rihanna, and Solange Knowles. She's in her fourth season with the legendary TV show, but it wasn't long ago that she was a secretary having to hustle on the side to advance her comedy career.

Zamata graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008, moved to New York City, and worked a number of office jobs while she started taking classes at the iconic comedy school and club Upright Citizens Brigade. In 2014, at 27 years old, she was selected to be part of arguably the best comedy troupe in the country.

She attributes her rapid ascent at least partially to the skills she picked up while working her white-collar "survival jobs."

Sasheer Zamata as First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday Night Live
Photo by NBC
Sasheer Zamata as First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday Night Live

As she recalled, speaking at the Vanity Fair Founders Fair in Brooklyn, she always knew she wanted to leave her day jobs, but still, they helped her learn what is expected in the professional world. "Because of that, I was able to learn etiquette when emailing and how to network and keep connections — which is a thing they don't really teach you in the arts," she said.

"I was doing things I don't think a lot of people were doing," she said. For example, she sent postcards to casting directors, and newsletters to people in her network, to keep them updated on her progress.

"I did a lot of work, just to remind people that I was alive and doing stuff," she said. "Just trying to reach out to different people in different ways is so helpful. And I don't know if a lot of people that I came up with knew to do that."

A comedian or artist trying to get off the ground is like an entrepreneur launching a start-up: That means doing every job at once, including serving as your own business manager. Given that, she advised other young people who are hoping to turn a creative passion into a moneymaking career to treat their art as if it were an assignment from a boss that has to be handled carefully and strategically.

"Something I would tell other people is to be professional," said Zamata. That will help you advance, no matter what your vocation.