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How Can The Colorado River Continue To Support 36 Million People In 7 States?

New Yorker staff writer David Owen says that convoluted legal agreements and a patchwork of infrastructure determine how water from the Colorado is allocated. His new book is Where The Water Goes.


Other segments from the episode on April 13, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 13, 2017: Interview with David Owen; Interview with Sasheer Zamata.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Loud concerts, power tools, construction work - they're affecting people's hearing. Hearing loss isn't just a problem for older people. In a few minutes, we're going to talk about some of the new high-tech ways of dealing with it. That's the subject of the latest New Yorker article by my guest, David Owen, who is a staff writer for the magazine. He's also a contributing editor at Golf Digest, which is how he got to play golf with Donald Trump. We'll talk about that, too.

But we're going to start with the subject of Owen's new book, "Where The Water Goes," about the Colorado River. The river and its tributaries supply water to over 36 million people in seven states - Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California - and irrigates close to 6 million acres of farmland. Owen writes about the engineering feats that make all that possible and the legal and environmental battles surrounding the river. The Colorado River is so overtaxed that by the time it reaches the U.S.-Mexico border it's dry.

David Owen, welcome to FRESH AIR. So can you give us a kind of overview sense of the manmade things that have been done to control and disseminate water from the Colorado through the West?

DAVID OWEN: When you look at the Colorado River, it's not a big river. It's done these amazing things. It carved the Grand Canyon. But it's not - it's not broad. It's not like the Mississippi. The Mississippi is 1,000 miles longer, and the entire annual flow of the Colorado River flows down the Mississippi every couple of weeks. And yet in the western United States, it's incredibly important, in seven states. It supplies water to something like 26 million people. It irrigates 6 million acres of agriculture. And most of those 6 million acres are land that the river itself deposited, silt from, you know, what's missing from the Grand Canyon. It spread out across Arizona and California.

So there's this enormous network of canals and irrigation ditches and tunnels that draw water from that river and take it in some cases hundreds of miles away, you know, 300 miles to the west to Los Angeles, you know, 300 miles to the east to Phoenix and Tucson, hundreds of miles across deserts into reservoirs and canal systems. And it's governed by its own - its own laws that determine who gets to pull that water and use it and what they get to use it for.

GROSS: The plan for dividing the water among the seven river states - Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California - that was written up in 1922. You seem to think it's a pretty bad agreement. What makes it so bad?

OWEN: Everybody thinks it's both a bad agreement and a good agreement. It's bad because it divided up the river at a time when people thought the river contained a lot more water than it actually does. It's one of these great sort of ironies of history that in the 19 - the 1920s were some of the wettest years in that part of the country since the 1400s. So the river at that time was carrying more water than ever. And so when the states divided up the river, they were dividing up - actually water that didn't exist. On the other side, the good side is that, well, it's almost a century later and that compact, the agreement among those states, still exists.

GROSS: So how has the world and how has the population in the West changed since 1922 in ways that might make that agreement kind of out-of-date?

OWEN: Well, in lots of ways. There are many more people than anybody imagined in 1922. Some of the biggest, fastest-growing cities in the country are cities that depend on water from that river. Some of the most productive agricultural land draws water from that river. You know, for a long time the fact that they had divided up water that wasn't there didn't make any difference because nobody figured out how to use up all the water anyway. But now we've gotten much better at it and we use it up. So we stretch it farther than people did in those days.

But it's still - there's less water in the river than we - I guess you could say than we pretend there is. Water lawyers in the west talk about wet water and they talk about paper water. And there's a lot more paper water in the Colorado River than there is wet water. There are more people with legal claims on that water than there is actual water there for them to take.

GROSS: So you point out some pretty interesting paradoxes about water conservation, things that are pretty counterintuitive. And you write, like, waste is actually a kind of reservoir. Please explain what you mean.

OWEN: If you overwater your lawn, if you use too much water inside your house, you have a buffer if - when things go wrong, if everything dries up. You can stop watering your lawn in a drought. You can cut back. Once you get really efficient at using water then you don't have that same kind of slack. And it's - within the - within the water system, especially in the Colorado system, there are places that have come to depend on what might be thought of as just slop in the system.

There are ecosystems - for example, the canal that carries water across - sort of along the Mexican border from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley, this big agricultural area in Southern California, it used to be - it's just a ditch cut across the desert. And tens of thousands of acre-feet of water would just leak into the ground, would disappear into the ground. More recently, to prevent that waste, the states combined to pave - to line the canal with concrete. And so now that water doesn't leak into the ground.

So it looks like a saving, but that lost water, that wasted water was actually supporting an ecosystem just across the border in Mexico. And it was also supporting groundwater in Mexico and was depended on by farmers and by people who have wells. So what looked like a saving was actually just the shifting of a resource from Mexico to the United States which had previously been shifted from the United States to Mexico.

GROSS: To me, one of the most remarkable chapters of your book has to do with something called Project Rulison in 1969, just, like, three weeks after Woodstock, when a nuclear weapon with more than twice the power of the Hiroshima bomb was used in a test to see if nuclear devices could be used basically for fracking, to break up rock and - you know, and release natural gas. How did you find out about this?

OWEN: (Laughter) It was part of a program called Project Plowshare. The government, after the end of the Second World War, it was looking for peaceful ways to use nuclear energy. There were an extraordinary number of proposals. You know, we'll use it to build canals, a canal across Cape Cod, a second Cape Cod Canal. We'll just bomb it out with nuclear weapons. Lake Tahoe needed a place to put trash, and so the idea was that you would explode nuclear warheads underground and create a cavern in which you could dump sewage and trash.

And one of the ideas was to use nuclear weapons to simplify natural gas production in these enormous deposits in the West. It was fracking. It was you drill a hole, you know, a mile into the earth, you explode some nuclear weapons. It would create an enormous cavity and rock would fall in. You would release all this gas, which you could then just draw off just like sticking a straw into a juice box.

And there (laughter) - you would think that they could have anticipated the problems that they had, one of which was that you then end up with radioactive natural gas. And yet the government tried this not just once in Rulison but several times in the West with similar results until the program - the whole Plowshare program finally ended in the 1970s.

GROSS: Well, let's play a document about this. You mention in the book that there's a film that was made, like, a little documentary explaining the project, a little seven-minute film. And it's on YouTube. And sure enough I found it. So let's hear this section of this little explanatory film about Project Rulison.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: This is a cross-section of the Rulison field. Detonation point is about 8,500 feet beneath the surface ground zero. This is how the device is expected to stimulate gas production in the Rulison field. The energy released by the nuclear explosion will melt and vaporize nearby rock and will fracture the rock beyond to a diameter of about 740 feet. A spherical cavity of about 160 feet in diameter will be created in about one-tenth of a second, or in about the time the shockwave rebounds from the surface. As the cavity cools, the vaporized and melted rock will collect in a puddle at the bottom, and most of the radioactivity will be entrapped here as it solidifies.

Sometime after the explosion, the roof of the cavity will collapse progressively upward forming a chimney of broken rock to a height of about 370 feet above the point of detonation. Government experts say the factors beyond the cavity area are expected to provide flow channels for some of the gas trapped in the surrounding rock. The chimney will act as a chamber where the gas will collect to be drawn off through a well drilled back into the chimney. The Rulison test should prove the ploughshare contention that there are two good reasons to favor nuclear over conventional explosives - economy and efficiency.

GROSS: OK. So it's remarkable to me, David, that this was being kind of promoted, this use of an atomic weapon more than twice as powerful as the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima to free up natural gas, that this was promoted as something that would be efficient and economical (laughter).

OWEN: Yeah. It was a - if you ever think that that nothing changes over the years, just watch this film, and you think, you know, this wasn't all that long ago. And the idea of anybody proposing anything like this now seems crazy. And yet there were protests, but there weren't even all that many protests. And the government tried this more than once. And in the film, you see, you know, that warheads are detonated and you see buildings shake, you know, bricks fall off of buildings.

And the idea was that it would just be a kind of a rational thing to do. And in order to do it, in order to do what the original plan was, they would have had to explode thousands of warheads, thousands of devices deep underground to break up enough rock to release all the gas that they thought they could. And it turned out that it didn't work the way they thought it was.

GROSS: OK. So this nuclear test - how close was it to the Colorado River?

OWEN: It was pretty close. It was just within just a few miles, and the government continues to monitor the site. And they've never found radioactivity at the surface or in the streams around. But it's just - the whole thing seems sort of unearthly. In the whole list of projects that were considered in Project Plowshare, it was almost, you know, people were calling and saying that, you know, I've got it's like I've got a tree stump in the back of my backyard, and I can't get rid of it. Maybe there's an extra atom bomb lying around where I could blow it out.

It wasn't quite to that level, but it was close. Cities were thinking, well, maybe we could, you know, we need to move this hill, so that we can run the train tracks or road over to the other side of town. Maybe there's a, you know, a spare nuclear warhead lying around that we could borrow.

GROSS: In the voiceover of that little film we heard an excerpt of, the announcer says that radiation will be trapped within, you know, within the area of the explosion. Did it work out that way? Was it trapped as predicted?

OWEN: Yeah. You could stand on the spot and not be in danger of being irradiated, but it didn't do what they hoped it would do which was to all sort of be - become trapped inside melted rocks so that it didn't contaminate the gas. When they drew gas out of that chamber that they created, it was radioactive. And so you couldn't pipe it into people's houses and so that they could cook dinner on it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Owen. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Where The Water Goes: Life And Death Along The Colorado River." Going to take a short break and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us my guest is David Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Where The Water Goes Life And Death Along The Colorado River."

So you've said that you learn some of what you know about water while writing on assignment for Golf Digest. I will use that as a segue from your water book...

OWEN: (Laughter) I know where you're going.

GROSS: ...Yes. To The New Yorker piece you wrote in January about golfing with Donald Trump, and you had golfed with him five years earlier on one of his courses in West Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, I imagine. And what was the occasion for golfing with him?

OWEN: I think the golf world maybe even still thinks of Trump as a potential benefactor because Trump is probably the most prominent rich person who believes - still believes in investing in golf courses and so Golf Digest had great hopes that Trump was going to be a kind of a savior. Trump had just - a course of his that he had built in Scotland was just opening, and Golf Digest was doing a piece about him. And I went to visit the course in Scotland, and I also went to see Trump in Florida at one of the many golf courses he owns.

And we played golf, and I stayed at Mar-a-Lago one night. We had dinner together. This was in West Palm Beach. And so I went, pulled up in front of the club and if you go to a golf club, there's a place called a bag drop. You pull up and an attendant takes your golf bag out of the trunk of your car and goes and takes it away from you. So I pulled up to the bag drop, and there was an attendant with a white hat and white shirt and white pants standing at the curb. And so I popped the trunk on my rented Kia and I palmed a $5 bill to give him a tip and I got out and just as I was about to slip the fiver into his hand, I realized that the attendant was actually Donald Trump.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding (laughter).

OWEN: He had came out. He had come out to greet me at the curb. You know, I've been at the - you have to check in at the gate, and I'd been announced. And he'd come out. So I (laughter) - I slipped it into my pocket, and we went in and had lunch. But it was a close call.

GROSS: That would have been so embarrassing.

OWEN: Maybe he - although if, you know, it's - I think it's almost - one nice thing about Trump is it's almost impossible to embarrass yourself with him. He - my - when we had lunch, my cell phone rang, and my cell phone never rings because we have no cell phone service at home - not only wasn't embarrassing, I could have of - if I'd wanted to, I could have just talked on it at the table, and I don't think he would have batted an eye. You could - you know, you can wear a hat indoors with him. You can ask him what anything costs. And even though he'll always add at least one zero to whatever he says, you know, you can eat with your feet, I think, and it wouldn't it a problem. So it's - he has that going for him.

GROSS: How did the man that you golfed with compare with the president you're watching on TV?

OWEN: Very much the same. And if I'd had any idea, you know, five years ago, it seemed inconceivable that what has happened could happen. But you see very much, you know, people say to me, you know, isn't he kind of in on the joke about himself? And I said, you don't know. What you see is very much what he is. He talked about money and himself pretty much and his own money but other people's money too. He introduced me to somebody. He said, you know, this is the richest guy in Germany. And the guy he introduced - the German he introduced me to wasn't displeased to be introduced that way.

He introduced me to a woman as, you know, a very rich lady. The - we were in the locker room. And the crooner Vic Damone was putting on his golf shoes. His wife had recently just had a serious stroke not long before Trump told me that she was worth $900 million - you have to knock off at least one zero - worth $900 million. And Damone had been - she was very ill. Damone had been sitting up with her all night, had been trying to sleep during the day. And he'd only just recently started going out a little bit in the afternoon to play golf.

And what Trump said to him was he said, you know, if you need me to appear as a character witness if your wife's children tried to cut you out of her will, I'd be glad - I'd be delighted to do it. And it was sort of his, you know, I think it was his version of brotherly compassion. But it's not the sort of thing you would expect somebody to say.

GROSS: Was Trump a good golfer?

OWEN: He is a good golfer. I think he's almost certainly, of all the golf playing presidents we've had, he's probably the best. Golf Digest ranked the golf-playing presidents at one point. And it made Dwight Eisenhower number one. But I think in a head-to-head match, Trump would beat him.

Even though Trump is 70 - Trump is 70, he hits the ball a long way for a man who's as old as he is. He out-drove me. And he's - I think he's been maybe even playing more now than he was before he was president. If he played a lot, he could be quite good.

GROSS: So who had the better score?

OWEN: He did. He played better than I did. But it was interesting, when the article came out, he called me on my cellphone. And it was it was kind of a surreal experience. I was standing in the cemetery at Trinity Church. I was working on a story that was totally unrelated to golf. And he was very upset. But he wasn't upset about any of the things that I thought he might be upset about, the things that flashed through my mind that one of the illustrations in Golf Digest had been a golf ball with a sort of turf toupee on it that looked like his hair.

I had mentioned in the piece something that had happened when we had dinner which was two little girls came up to our table and asked him to dance. And Trump asked them if they wanted to be supermodels when they grew up. The - I had quoted some of the things that he had said to people and I thought, oh, he's upset about these. But no, the thing that he was upset about was that I had not said in my article that he had shot 71 when we played golf - 71, a very good score, one under par.

And the reason I hadn't was that he had not. We hadn't been playing for score or keeping score. We hadn't been playing a match. We'd been giving each other putts and doing just, you know, sort of - it was just a friendly round. It was perfectly ordinary. But he wanted that number. And it didn't matter. I said, you know, I said, you know, Donald, I said very nice things about your golf game. You know, I talked about what a good putter you are and how far you hit the ball. He wanted the number. And he called the editor of Golf Digest, too. And I think we see this repeatedly almost on a daily basis in the news.

He - there's a kind of affirmation that he needs, that he craves. And it's very specific. And it's often, you know, if he doesn't get it, he can't let it go and he can't be mollified with, you know, your bicycle - you have a very nice bicycle, Donald, even though your friend's bicycle is nicer. It's interesting. I think, you know, the person I see on TV, the person who tweets is very much the person that I played golf with.

GROSS: My guest is David Owen, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the new book "Where The Water Goes." After a break, we'll talk about his New Yorker article on high-tech help for people with hearing loss. And we'll hear from "Saturday Night Live" cast member Sasheer Zamata. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Owen, author of the new book "Where The Water Goes" about the Colorado River. He's also a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Your latest piece in The New Yorker is called "High-Tech Hope For The Hard Of Hearing." And lots of people have hearing problems now because of rock concerts, street noise, power tools, age. And you have a problem with hearing. Would you describe your hearing for us?

OWEN: Yes. My ears ring. It's a problem called tinnitus. It's a high-pitched sound. It reminds me of the cicadas that I listened to when I was falling asleep during my youth in Kansas City. It's there all the time. And it's been there for about 10 years. And I'd gotten very good at ignoring it until I started writing about it and discovered that when you write about it you think about it all the time. So it's - I'm much more aware of it now than I was a few months ago. But it's a common problem. And I - and since my New Yorker article came out I've heard from quite a few people who have the same problem or a worse version of the same problem.

One person who wrote to me had said that he'd gotten used to the - you know, the buzzing in his ears, but when it started beeping it began to drive him crazy. Unfortunately, there's nothing to do about it except to ignore it or to try to mask it with sound - a white noise generator or a fan, or in some cases to wear hearing aids. In some cases, people get relief by bringing up the sound of everything else so that the buzzing or the ringing isn't as apparent.

GROSS: So scientists have re-evaluated some of their assumptions about what causes most hearing impairment. What's one of those changes underway now in understanding hearing loss?

OWEN: There's been a discovery within the past decade or so that - what's referred to usually as hidden hearing loss. And it's not really a different cause. It's, you know, still things like noise and excessive noise. But the discovery was that the damage takes place not in these little tiny hair cells which line parts of our inner ears but in the nerves - the nerve connections that those hair cells are linked to. The nerve connections sort of become unplugged.

And it's called hidden hearing loss because it affects things like sentence comprehension, understanding, but not necessarily how people do on the standard hearing test, which is called an audiogram. An audiogram is a test of your ability to hear pure tones. And you can lose a lot of nerve connections without losing the ability to do that. You have to lose a huge number of them before that becomes affected.

And so it's been a big problem with veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest single purchaser of hearing aids in the country. They buy 20 percent of all the hearing aids in the United States. Tinnitus, the ringing in the ears, and hearing loss are the number one and number two service-related health claims for United States veterans. They're related to the - what's been called the signature wound of those wars, which is traumatic brain injury. A huge cause of hearing loss is gunfire, and soldiers are exposed to a lot of that. And even worse are explosive blasts, like the blast of an improvised explosive device.

And so many veterans come home with tinnitus, with hearing loss and with hidden hearing loss so that they sometimes will test - their hearing test will look normal or nearly normal and yet they have trouble understanding what people are saying. It's an enormous problem for veterans. And it's a problem for anybody, I think, especially who grew up in a period of extremely loud music, of a general sort of ignorance about hearing protection and are now, you know - baby boomers, basically, you know, now getting older, which - aging causes hearing loss, too.

GROSS: It seems like there have been so many breakthroughs in terms of eyes. There's cataract surgery. There's surgery to repair impaired vision. You can get your eyes corrected more or less permanently instead of wearing glasses. But it's been much more difficult to make those kind of breakthroughs in terms of hearing. Why is it so much more difficult with hearing?

OWEN: Hearing is hard. When you look at the inner workings of this system, it's amazing that any of us can still hear at all. These tiny, tiny, tiny, super sensitive cells that can be affected by an enormous range of sound. We can hear across an enormous range of frequencies. And when they become damaged they don't regenerate. You know, unlike your taste buds, unlike olfactory cells in your nose, they don't come back once they've been damaged. So hearing loss is permanent. You hurt your ears when you're young and that's something that you live with for the rest of your life. And it gets worse as you get older, as you age.

The difficulty is that there are so many - there are so many parts, so many tiny parts that scientists are only just beginning to figure out ways in which they might possibly be able to induce these elements to come back. There's hope, but it's probably - it's not going to happen in the next few years.

GROSS: What are some of the breakthroughs that have happened already or are on the horizon?

OWEN: Well, scientists have figured - you know, there are many animals, non-mammals that actually do regenerate the parts of their hearing systems that get damaged. It was first discovered in chickens about 30 years ago where it was discovered that chickens that had these tiny cells in their ears damaged by hearing actually - a couple of weeks later they'd come back. That doesn't happen in humans. But there's starting to be research that suggests that there are ways to make that happen in us, too.

And what gave scientists hope is the fact that at the microscope level, at the electron microscope level, you know, the cells inside a chicken's ear and inside a human's ear don't look all that different. And so the idea is that if you could just figure out how to make our cells behave like the cells in a chicken or in a fish then we could actually restore hearing in people. Now, meanwhile, there are some truly miraculous aids for people who have trouble. The technology of hearing aids and hearing improvement devices is incredible.

Cochlear implants, the devices are actually anchored to the skull. And they bypass the eardrum and connect electrodes directly to the hair cells and the nerve fibers in the - deep in the inner ear, can - you know, especially if they're implanted in infants before they - their brains have learned to process speech, the results can be remarkable. So there are many - there are technological advances that are truly staggering. But the - sort of the underlying biological problem scientists haven't figured out yet. But they're much more optimistic than they were even a few years ago.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

OWEN: Oh, Terry, thank you.

GROSS: David Owen's article about high-tech help for people with hearing impairment was published in The New Yorker. He's a staff writer for the magazine. His new book about the Colorado River is called "Where The Water Goes." After a short break, we'll hear from "Saturday Night Live" cast member Sasheer Zamata. She has a new stand-up special. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest, Sasheer Zamata, has been a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" since 2014. Now viewers have a chance to see her own comedy act on a new stand-up special called "Pizza Mind," which is on NBC's comedy streaming site, Seeso. She also appears in the film "Deidra And Laney Rob a Train," which just premiered on Netflix, and the film "Sleight," which will be released later this month.

Zamata has a background in improv and performed with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, where many comics have gotten their start. Listeners of "This American Life" might also know Zamata from her appearances on that show.

FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado spoke with Sasheer Zamata. They started with an excerpt from her stand-up special in which she's telling the story behind her first name.


SASHEER ZAMATA: My name's not actually from any island or African culture. It's from "Star Trek."


ZAMATA: My parents are Trekkies.


ZAMATA: Technically Trekkers. That's what the fans were called when the show first came out. And they were watching an episode together, season 2, episode 50. And...


ZAMATA: ...Captain Kirk was flirting with this alien princess, as he does. And he gave her a rose. And she goes, oh, we have something like this on my planet except it's made out of crystal and it's called Sasheer. And my parents were like yes...


ZAMATA: ...That'll be our daughter. And they gave each other a Vulcan high-five and called it a night.


ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's from the stand-up special "Pizza Mind." Sasheer Zamata, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ZAMATA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

BALDONADO: You started in comedy doing improv, you even did it in college. But when you moved to New York, you did improv, you did sketch and you started doing stand-up. What made you want to start doing stand-up comedy?

ZAMATA: People in my improv classes were talking about trying stand-up. And the way they described it, they were all scared. They thought it was a big endeavor. And I like doing scary things, so I was like, well, I'll give it a try. And I did, I went to a open mic by myself, didn't tell anybody, wrote some jokes. And I didn't do awful, so I remember, like, going on stage during my five minutes.

And then I came off stage and, like, sat next to another woman. And she's like great job. And I was like thanks, that was my first time. She was like, well, I couldn't even tell. And I was like, this is my life forever (laughter). I can do this forever now. I just wanted to keep going and get better and learn how to tackle this thing that was new to me.

BALDONADO: Your stand-up special, "Pizza Mind," deals a lot with issues like racism and sexism. And I want to play another scene from "Pizza Mind" about an interaction you had with someone else who works on "SNL" who mistakes you for another African-American female comedian. Let's take a listen.


ZAMATA: People also have a hard time telling black actresses apart. I was talking to somebody who works at "SNL" who's seen my face for years. And he asked me, didn't you work at "The Daily Show" before you worked here? He was talking about Jessica Williams. Exactly, yeah. OK, she's not here.


ZAMATA: No, she's great. Yeah, she was a "Daily Show" correspondent. She is my friend and not me. She's not me.


ZAMATA: But I wanted to help this guy out. I was like, oh, well, I was in a Apple commercial, maybe an Apple commercial aired during an episode of "The Daily Show" and you got confused? Which would have made him an idiot if that's what he thought but I was still reaching. And he just looks at me and goes no, I don't think that's it, and walks away not knowing his mistake. And I got so mad at myself.

I was like why am I doing this? Why am I hemming and hawing trying to make the situation less awkward for the person who made it awkward? It's not my fault that he can't tell the difference between black women, that's on him. So I'm dead. I'm not doing that anymore.


BALDONADO: That's from the stand-up special "Pizza Mind." I'm not sure if this exact thing happened but I'm sure variations of this happen all the time. Did that really happen with a "SNL" co-worker?

ZAMATA: Oh, that's a real conversation, yeah. I don't want to call out the person who said that but yeah, it was surprising 'cause it was like, really? You see my face all the time here (laughter) and you thought that I worked at "The Daily Show"? I mean, yeah. And I really did try to dig him out of that hole for him. I was like yeah, maybe an Apple commercial is where you saw me and you got confused. All of that was true. And I don't think he ever really realized what his mistake was.

BALDONADO: What do you think that instinct is to try to make it easier for the person who's saying this to you? I mean, it's totally on the other person who made the mistake but there is this instinct to try to make it nicer, easier for the other person.

ZAMATA: I think because you - as soon as that person realizes that they have made a mistake that may be construed as ignorant or even racist, the conversation gets so awkward. And they may be a nice person. They may even be my friend. So there's like a little part of me that's like, oh, no, no, no, no, it's OK. I don't want you to feel bad. And it's kind of like, you know...

BALDONADO: You're not racist.

ZAMATA: ...Yeah, yeah, trying to like coddle a scared kitten or something and be like no, it's fine. We're all friends here. We're all OK. But then it's like no, I don't have to do that. You should learn. You should just learn from your mistakes. You should feel that emotion. And if it feels awkward, and then don't do it again and actually be conscious of what you're saying next time.

But yeah, I'm really am over trying to make sure other people are comfortable in this conversation when they're making me uncomfortable. It's not my fault. That's something they need to work on.

BALDONADO: Now, you were cast on "SNL" in 2014. And it may be one of the most visible "SNL" castings ever because it was at this time when "SNL" was criticized for a lack of diversity and particularly for not having any women of color on the cast for a couple years. What was the casting process like for you from your perspective?

ZAMATA: It was mostly odd because it was so public. Like, I had been auditioning for this show for a couple years before this point. And then they asked for a rushed showcase of black women in LA and in New York. And I was in the New York one. And then they chose people from those pools. And then I found out, like, after the holiday break. This was all in December. And yeah, it was very stressful. I mean, I didn't love it. I didn't love that it was so public.

BALDONADO: Well, had "SNL" been a goal of yours? Like, as a kid, did you watch the show and think that's what I want to do, I want to do that?

ZAMATA: Yeah. I watched "SNL" and "MADtv" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and didn't know how to get there at all, didn't even know how the people who were there got there. And then when I got to college, I started doing improv. And then the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has a touring company. And they go to colleges. And a group came to my college at UVA. And there was like a talk back between the college groups and UCB team. And someone asked how do you get a career in comedy? And Bobby Moynihan, who happened to be in the group, said move to New York, go to UCB and work really hard.

And so I did that. And then (laughter) - and when I moved to New York, I didn't know how much improv and comedy would play into my life. I thought I was going to do theater and Broadway and stuff. But I kept going to see UCB shows. And I was just such a fan that I was like, I should just really try this and dove in hard, started taking classes back to back, start taking sketch classes and started doing stand-up all at the same time.

And then eventually I was like, oh, this is all I want to do. This is all I want to dedicate my time to. And then eventually my managers and agents saw me perform and signed me. And then I started getting money for it. And I was like, oh, this is even better (laughter) now that I'm getting paid for it. And yeah, and then it turned into my career.

BALDONADO: Do you have a favorite "SNL" sketch that you've worked on or that you loved performing in or writing?

ZAMATA: This season, we did a sketch that was a "Stranger Things" parody. And I watched "Stranger Things" when it came out and loved it. And by the end of it, the biggest question I had was where were Lucas's parents? The little black boy, he - his parents were nowhere (laughter), at least not anywhere searching for him. And I was like if I was running around the woods looking for monsters late at night, my parents would be freaking out and they would try to find me.

I think - I remember my mom, like, ripped me out of a Steak 'n Shake 'cause I was out too late. So if I was like in danger, the consequences would be much greater. So I just wanted to put that in sketch form. And we have the performers for it. And Kenan and Leslie, like, made wonderful harsh parents. And yeah, I was so happy with the way that it came out.

BALDONADO: Well, let's take a listen to that sketch, it's really funny, a sketch from earlier this season which was a parody of the Netflix show "Stranger Things." And you're playing the little African-American boy.



LESLIE JONES: (As character) Lucas?

ZAMATA: (As Lucas) Oh, no. Oh, God. It's my parents.

JONES: (As character) Lucas, where the hell have you been? We haven't seen you in days.

KENAN THOMPSON: (As character) What makes you think you can be out this late? Kids in this town are getting snatched up by kidnappers.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Dustin) But it's not kidnappers, Mr. Sinclair.

KYLE MOONEY: (As Mike) Yeah, it's the Demogorgon.

THOMPSON: (As character) A Demo-what?

MOONEY: (As Mike) It's a monster, and we're looking for it.

JONES: (As character) Lucas, I told you not to hang out with these little white kids.


ZAMATA: (As Lucas) But we have to find the Upside Down.

THOMPSON: (As character) The what?


ZAMATA: (As Lucas) It's like the normal world but it's scarier and there's danger at every turn.

JONES: (As character) Baby, people who look like us already live in the Upside Down.


THOMPSON: (As character) Let me put it to you this way, Lucas. You don't have to go looking for scary stuff. It's going to find you.


GROSS: That's a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" featuring Sasheer Zamata. We'll hear more of her interview with our producer Ann Marie Baldonado after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer, Ann Marie Baldonado, recorded with Sasheer Zamata, who has been a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" since 2014.

BALDONADO: Now, radio and podcast fans may also know you from your appearances on "This American Life." You've been on a bunch of times.


BALDONADO: And - yeah. Some of them funnier, some of them poignant, but all great pieces that you worked on. And one great piece you did was for an episode where the theme was It'll Make Sense When You're Older. And in it, you talk to your mom about race. It's about your relationship. It's about how she was one of the first black students to integrate a white junior high school in a small town in Arkansas during the civil rights era. I want to play a bit of the piece.

Here your mother is describing to you what it felt like to be one of those kids. And she talks about how she felt like she didn't ask for it, she didn't ask to be a trailblazer. And she felt really alone, like, she didn't have anyone to talk to about the experience. And here you ask her to describe what her first day was like. And then that sort of cuts to - at the end of what she's saying - it cuts to a bit of your stand-up act. So let's listen.


IVORY STEWARD: There was a lot of cussing at us while we were sitting on the bus. And momma had told us sit in the front of the bus so in case something happens, the bus driver is a witness. Well, he was just a witness to us getting cussed out every day. He did nothing. When we got off the bus, we stood outside the window of the office. So if there - anything happened, then they could witness something happening to us.

The person we were - I remember standing in the window was coach Collier (ph), who later became principal. So he witnessed the kids throwing rocks at us. I remember I had on a white blouse, a houndstooth vest and a black skirt and had on my cute little white bobby socks. And I remember looking down at my legs and how the rocks had pelted them. And one had broke blood. And some kid, I guess he pulled out a banana. He threw a banana. And it landed on my houndstooth vest. And I never got that stain out.


ZAMATA: Being in junior high, no matter who you are is hard. Like, it just sucks. People are mean. And so I started asking her questions about this like what was it like? And my mom said think of it like "Mean Girls," but they're racist. And I was like no.


ZAMATA: Like, that's the analogy where I fully understood. I was like, oh, my God. That's too mean.

BALDONADO: That's an excerpt from a piece from "This American Life" by my guest Sasheer Zamata. Was it hard to hear that from your mom, not only because she seemed still really hurt about the experience, but how - because she was so conflicted about her role in the civil rights movement?

ZAMATA: Yeah. It was interesting. She was totally on the side of I didn't ask for this, I didn't want to be a part of it. If I had a choice, I would have stayed in the schools that had all black kids. There was a lot of responsibility on her shoulders just to exist. Just her existing and being in an environment that did not want her was now a responsibility.

And, yeah, it was hard to hear because I can't even imagine doing that. She did that for years. She had a like a full ulcer by the time she left high school. She was under so much stress, and I really can't even compare anything in my life to that. I wouldn't - I also wouldn't want that, so I'm proud of her. I'm glad she did it. I'm glad she talked about it.

BALDONADO: Now, in your stand-up special "Pizza Mind" you say that your mom has started acting, too. Let me play a clip from the special.


ZAMATA: My mom just recently told me that she's getting into acting which is so cool because I'm an actress, and we get a new thing to talk about. And it's fun to see her try a new thing and be really excited about it. It makes me very happy, but I felt bad because when she first told me about it, a little part of my brain was like that, bitch, better not take my parts.


ZAMATA: And I don't want to feel that way. But there's only so many roles for black women these days. And I'm sure some of you are like you guys are in different age groups, you're not going to compete for the same roles, but casting directors can't tell how old black women are.


ZAMATA: They can't. And there's evidence of this because Gabrielle Union has played a teenager for three decades.

BALDONADO: That's from this stand-up special "Pizza Mind." I don't know if she's still interested in acting, but was that something that your mother had always been interested in or did you inspire her?

ZAMATA: She definitely wanted to be onstage. She was in a bunch of pageants when she was younger, and, like, after the "This American Life" story, I think she was inspired to do more of that and start taking acting classes. And now she's straight up signed with a agency in Indianapolis. And I'm so excited for her.

I would love for her to be like a late in life successful actress. I would love for that to be the main way she makes money, like just books commercials and does a little bit parts or maybe does leading roles. I don't know. Whenever I get control of something and I start making movies, I'm going to put her in as much as I can.

BALDONADO: Sasheer Zamata, thank you so much for joining us.

ZAMATA: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Sasheer Zamata spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Zamata is a cast member of "Saturday Night Live." Her new comedy "Pizza Mind" is on the NBC streaming site Seeso. She's also in two new movies - "Deidra And Laney Rob a Train" which just premiered on Netflix and "Sleight" which will be released later this month.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like this week's interview with Elisabeth Rosenthal about how health care became big business or our interview with Jeffrey Toobin about the conservative legal group The Federalist Society and its executive vice president who was instrumental in the nominations of Justices Gorsuch, Alito and Roberts, check out our podcast.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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