Ziwe is here to revolutionize late night. Even better if it makes you uncomfortable
Ziwe has always loved asking people questions. Maybe a little too much.
“That was something I was penalized for in school — like, I was annoying,” says the comedian in a video chat. “But now it serves a purpose.”
The 29-year-old New Yorker is known for her frank, funny conversations about sensitive issues, especially race. It all began with a YouTube series, “Baited,” where she’d needle her comedian friends by asking humorously uncomfortable questions like, “On a scale of Malcolm to Martin, how much do you hate white people?”
When the pandemic struck, Ziwe, who uses a mononym professionally instead of her full name, Ziwe Fumudoh, and describes herself as “the Cher of alternative comedy,” took to broadcasting celebrity interviews on Instagram Live.
These discussions often yielded cringe-worthy responses, like when embattled chef Alison Roman was asked to name five Asian people and couldn’t. They also have made Ziwe into one of comedy’s hottest rising stars.
Beginning Sunday, she will bring the same fearless satire to “Ziwe,” a late-night series for Showtime, where she previously worked as a writer on the network’s popular late-night show, “Desus & Mero.” Filmed on a candy-colored stage decorated with portraits of Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, the variety show features sketches, musical numbers (like Cher, Ziwe also sings) and slyly edited interviews with celebrities. (Ziwe to Fran Lebowitz: “What bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?”) Each episode focuses on a single subject, like immigration, beauty standards or the wealth gap, and includes appearances by Bowen Yang, Cole Escola and other comedians from Ziwe’s circle.
In the movie “Late Night,” which opened in limited release Friday, Mindy Kaling plays Molly Patel, a woman plucked from obscurity to help revitalize a long-running but creatively stagnant late-night show.
”My show is super-hyper-feminine and very pink. That was a conscious decision, knowing how late night is traditionally masculine, how it’s mostly guys named Jimmy or John wearing a suit. So how do I undercut that in my own special way?” says Ziwe, who dresses like Elle Woods (she’s wearing a fuzzy fuchsia cardigan over Zoom) and takes an aggressively high-low approach to cultural commentary, name-checking both Michel Foucault and Teresa Giudice with ease.
The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Ziwe grew up in a largely working-class town in Massachusetts but attended Phillips Academy Andover, one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country — a contrast that “really informed my purview on race and class,” she says. After graduating from Northwestern, she landed in New York and worked a day job at Lorne Michaels’ Above Average Productions while performing at venues around the city.
There were lean times, but it’s worked out well so far. In addition to her series, she has an essay collection, “The Book of Ziwe,” due next year.
“My goal is world domination,” she says.
How did you approach developing your own late-night show? Were there certain conventions you wanted to do away with?
It wasn’t so much, “I never want to do this again.” It was more, “How do I subvert these norms that I’ve become accustomed to, having seen Johnny Carson and David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon and all these people do these traditional shows over the course of several decades?”
What were your comedy influences growing up?
I’ve seen every episode of “Arrested Development” six times. I was a huge fan of “The Colbert Report.” I watched “The Colbert Report” my freshman year of high school in tandem with reading “A Modest Proposal,” the Jonathan Swift essay on satire. This was right after the [White House] Correspondents’ Dinner, I believe. And so I was like, you really can say whatever you want, if it’s a joke. I thought that that was such an interesting approach that Stephen [Colbert] had to comedy. And so I’ve always been kind of trying to emulate that. I was a huge “Office” person. I was a huge “30 Rock” person. I watched all of the Disney shows as a kid, like “Lizzie McGuire.” Britney Spears was my idol as a 7-year-old.
You’ve said before that your parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, don’t really understand what you do for a living. Has that changed lately?
No. I was just talking to my parents. I was like, “Oh, yeah, the trailer for my show just came out.” And they’re like, “What are you talking about?” I think my dad is getting Showtime. So they’ll see it. But they really have no concept. When my parents were fleeing a civil-war-torn Nigeria, they weren’t expecting their daughter to be a professional comedian. That wasn’t necessarily in the cards. But that’s how it happened.
“No one wants a TV show more than Cole Escola,” Amy Sedaris says of the rising star, who once turned to sex work to make ends meet. “And they deserve it.”
Did it occur to you that comedy was something you could do professionally?
I went to college as a math major. I hated it. I was in these classes of all these men who would belittle me and I was like, “You guys suck.” I didn’t know that you could be a professional artist. I had a wonderful poetry teacher named Rachel Webster, who was so thoughtful, and she really helped me nurture a love of writing. So I was like, “I’m gonna be a poet.” And then I was like, “Wait, there are no poet jobs except, like, poet laureate.” I applied for an internship at Comedy Central. And then that opened my eyes, the world of entertainment.
It was Chris Rock’s internship [program] at Comedy Central. He really hadn’t seen many people of color behind the scenes in entertainment. We were the “Rock-terns.” We were cycled through on-air promo and “The Daily Show” and then development and I got to see the ins and outs of the entertainment industry. I did “The Colbert Report,” and I got a joke on the show as an intern.
It was the only week I interned there, and it was the same week as Trayvon Martin, Edward Snowden and Prop. 8 [were all in the news]. You get a joke on the air as a 21-year-old kid and it’s like, “Wow.”
That must have been an interesting time to get into comedy. How did the Trayvon Martin case influence you?
That specific case was really traumatic for me. I’d seen the world through rose-colored glasses. Watching that trial, it was obvious to me this guy should go to jail. The 911 responder was like, “Don’t follow this kid.” To me, it was so clearly wrong, and watching the way he didn’t go to jail — that was shocking for me. I would describe it as a watershed moment in my understanding of our judicial system. I processed this trauma with laughter. As a kid, I always processed the hard things I had to deal with with comedy.
You said you saw the world through rose-colored glasses. How so?
I grew up in New England, and so it had been imparted in me that racism was over, that this was the Obama era — “Yes, we can” — and anything is possible if you just believe, when that is not the case for a vast majority of people.
That was part of my reckoning in college as well. I had never heard about the Scottsboro nine until I took elective courses on African American studies in college. I had never heard about Emmett Till. I had never heard about the Black Panthers. I had never heard about Assata Shakur or Fannie Lou Hamer. Mind you, I had one of the most prestigious American educations, and these are figures I’ve never heard about. And I did not hear about them in school until I took really niche African American studies classes. So that broke my brain. I had to take a step back and really question everything I had grown to be familiar with.
You called your web series “Baited.” I am wondering if you were consciously trying to reclaim that term, which is often used in an accusatory way when people bring up the issue of race — as if it’s a cheap shot.
Honestly, it’s inspired by the Fox [News]-industrial complex. My coming of age was during the Obama era. He would wear a tan suit, and they would talk about how he was a traitor to the American Constitution. The ways in which that industrial complex speaks about race is really quite fascinating to me, because it’s always on their mind, even if it’s subconscious. Yet when a Black or brown person speaks about race, “Well, then, you’re making it about race again. Oh, you’re baiting.” I just really wanted to play with that public discourse and the idea of what “baiting” even means. People talk about race all the time, whether subconsciously or consciously. But when you explicitly confront it, it’s taboo. I’m working to eliminate that taboo.
What question would someone be able to bait you with?
The sky’s the limit. Honestly. I never want to position myself as someone who is beyond reproach. That’s not what I’m doing. I am like my guests. I go to these conversations vulnerable, and I hope for the best. And I’m surprised with what they say, and together we make effective, impactful comedy, but it’s only because I come to it humble, knowing that I don’t know everything. Because I don’t.
Sarah Cooper has become one of the social media sensations of the coronavirus era thanks to her lampooning of President Donald Trump.
What inspired you to start making your own videos in the first place?
In that internship with Comedy Central, I talked to the comedian Aasif Mandvi. And he kind of gave this like parting wisdom. He was just like, “You guys are lucky the internet exists. Don’t let people stop you from creating. Just put your work out there. And eventually it will stick.” And that was something that I took forward.
Specifically with the YouTube series “Baited,” and then Instagram Live, I have had these conversations my entire life, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another Black woman who hasn’t been confronted about race since they were 2 years old. Many times I’ve been at a bar and someone’s cornered me to talk about their Black nanny or someone’s reached out to grab my hair. So I’ve constantly had to confront race. And I’ve constantly been viscerally uncomfortable about this, but no one really cares whether I’m uncomfortable or not. And so I wanted to reverse that dynamic, and create a position in which I could heal myself. My version of healing is having these conversations. I don’t think of my guests as these anomalies. I see them as reflective of the society at large.
Do you ever wonder what drives your guests to participate, knowing they might not come out looking so great?
I always ask them, “Why did you do this?” Each guest has their own respective answer. Some of them are fans of my comedy. Others really want to be part of the public discourse, and think that the conversations are really beneficial. I really appreciate my guests because you can say whatever you want about their respective answers, but it takes a certain amount of bravery. So I’m eternally grateful to their bravery.
Who is your dream guest?
Kim Kardashian is up there. She’s one of the most recognizable women in American history. I just think that what she does with social justice is so compelling. And I think that there’s a really interesting conversation around her and race. I would love to interview Chet Hanks as well. There are so many.
Tell me about your experience as a writer at ‘Desus & Mero.’ What did you learn there?
They were honestly comedians that I had been following since I worked at Above Average. And I would watch their videos and minimize my screen and laugh and my boss would be like, “Why are you laughing so much?” “Oh, spreadsheets!” They’re two masters in their fields. Watching their comedy about the Bodega Boys, and they reminded me so much of where I grew up. Even the word “bodega.” That’s a word that I grew up saying, and that really evokes a strong passion in me to, like, go back to those days and not be ashamed of where I came from. They will forever be influences of mine. I think of them as the Jon Stewart to my Colbert.
Whose career do you emulate?
Oprah Winfrey is like one of my biggest professional idols since I was a kid. The Harry [and] Megan Oprah interview on CBS aired the night before we started editing the show. It really impacted how I edited the show going forward.
I would say that is the single most impactful interview in the Western canon of the 21st century. It was actually so wild to have like the crown and then America’s royalty, Oprah Winfrey, in one space talking about the racial implications and the political implications. That was my Super Bowl.
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