Ziwe unpacks her satirical Showtime series, says this Kardashian is her 'dream guest'
Can Ziwe bait you into watching her new show?
That's the hope for the rising comedian, who became a household name for hyper-connected people who fell in love – and into hysterics – with her YouTube-turned-Instagram Live show "Baited," which featured often uncomfortable and comical conversations about race with guests ranging from chef Alison Roman to actors Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan.
Ziwe, who uses a mononym professionally and whose last name is Fumudoh, has taken her talents from the internet to TV with the Showtime variety series "Ziwe" (Sundays, 11 p.m. EDT/PDT).
The show features interviews with high-profile "iconic guests" – ranging from controversial New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang to indie rocker Phoebe Bridgers – mixed with hilarious fake commercials and original musical numbers.
"You have to be an active listener to be a good interviewer. I may have prepared a list of 100 questions, and if they answer one and it goes in some sort of a direction I didn't expect, it's up to me as an interviewer to follow that direction," Ziwe says over the phone from Brooklyn, New York.
"And that's where you get really honest reactions from not only my guests but from me because I'm not expecting it. I don't know what they're going to say. I don't know what I'm going to say but it seems like the conversation's happening in real life," the 29-year-old says.
One of those musical numbers is the "satirical banger" released May 21 "Stop Being Poor," which Ziwe co-wrote with Jordan Mendoza and features comedian Patti Harrison.
"It's about and it was inspired by the height of the pandemic where the government was kind of just like, 'Sorry you guys don't have any money, figure it out, good luck, bye!' " she says. "Like millions of Americans were like losing their homes, defaulting, and I just I don't know how to interpret people treating their citizens like that."
The song, much like the rest of the show, highlights her inherently smart use of satire. Ziwe, who cut her teeth writing for "Desus & Mero" and "The Rundown with Robin Thede" and co-hosted the Crooked Media podcast "Hysteria," subverts expectations for what a late-night comedy series should look like.
Ziwe shares details about the discomfort level of her interviews ("It's a constant confrontation," she says), her dream guest, her love of "The Boondocks" and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Question: You’ve written for other shows like “Desus & Mero” and you’ve done "Baited," but what is it like to have your own show entirely?
Ziwe: It's really quite a process. I think I've been doing a version of the show for years, so it's wild to have a platform where I get to scale and interview people like Gloria Steinem and Fran Lebowitz and Andrew Yang and Stacey Abrams, who's in our finale. It's just such an exciting process.
Q: What inspired you to begin having these conversations about race and culture?
Ziwe: I've always just had these conversations. If you're like a person of color with really awkward conversations about race, and sometimes you're like, "Wait, I wish there was a camera and someone can see how wild this experience and this conversation is." So ultimately, I was taking my real-life experiences and bringing them to the screen.
Q: How would you describe your comedy style and the style of the show?
Ziwe: It is very pink and very feminine and funny. It's a satirical comedy show. It satirizes talk shows and it's a deconstruction of the celebrity interview and I think that you see that in the way I talk to my guests as well as the fake commercials and sketches, you know fieldpiece interviews that I do with Karens or with plastic surgeons.
Q: Are your guests in on the joke at all? Do you feel like they know what they're getting themselves into when they sign up for this?
Ziwe: I don't know. It depends on the guest. But Fran, for example, didn't know who I was, and so that was such a fun interview because she was so honest and I really appreciated that. I'm not sure that I need my guests to know who I am. I just want to have honest conversations, but I'm never trying to trick them or deceive them. We brief them and their talent people.
Q: Who would you say is your dream guest and why?
Ziwe: I think Kim Kardashian is my dream guest, only because she has such an interesting purview on race. I think she's one of the most famous women in American history. She and Paris Hilton sort of founded the influencer culture. And so I think that talking to her about race would be really, really compelling especially as someone who is so prominent in pop culture.
Q: I feel like you've done much of the show in a timely way, like with the Karens. In terms of filming that and putting that together, what was that experience like for you?
Ziwe: What I appreciated was that, ultimately, I think I left with them feeling sort of human. They weren't net good or net bad, but they were sort of complex in understanding the misunderstandings about how they perceive the world. And so that was something that I really appreciated, was just hearing people named Karen talk about the phenomenon of "Karens" is ridiculous. And it's inherently like absurd, and that's part of the joke, right? It says there are real Karens out there, and their voices matter, but actually taking that word seriously and elevating their words because their names are Karen becomes really interesting satire, that felt like "60 Minutes" or "20/20."
Q: A lot of what I've seen from you that I appreciate and I think other people appreciate, is that so much of what we've gone through as Black people across this country in the past year – and not even just the past year, obviously – has just been traumatic, and to find moments of levity and of humor in that is kind of indicative of the Black experience in many ways in America.
Ziwe: I think from I can only speak for myself, and how I process trauma is through comedy. That's the only way that I know how to heal myself, and so I hope that by the way that I process also help other people process and heal and go back into their communities, and be better people and not say stupid things and try to be more thoughtful and try to advocate for themselves. It's really quite an odd experience to be seen, to feel seen.
I know that when I was growing up, I mean this stuff didn't exist right, and I probably was 14 when I saw "Colbert Report," but there wasn't really like satire about the Black experience. "Boondocks" was something that I really gravitated toward when I was really young. But I didn't have the vocabulary to defend myself. So I'm hoping that I create art that gives people like the steps to go forward and make their own thing and be their own person.
Q: You mentioned "The Boondocks," but were there other pieces of comedy or pop culture you feel inspired you or helped inform your sense of humor?
Ziwe: I mean "The Colbert Report." I think ("Ziwe") feels like an analogue for that. It's the similar idea of like a character who approaches political issues from this like hyper-specific place, so that's an influence of mine. I never talk about how big "The Boondocks" was, but that is one of the most impactful texts for me because of the ways in which they dealt with race was really sort of hysterical, like crying hysterically, because it was just absurd. Riley and Huey were both so distinctly different characters, foils of each other, and the character of Rob was really, really offensive, so I really appreciated that part as well.
I worked with Desus and Mero for two years. They're two of the most bombastic, wild, silly comedians that I have come into contact with and so they were huge influences for me – before I even was working with them – because they reminded me so much of where I came from in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Q: How did you come up with your question about counting 4-5 Black friends? I feel like that's kind of become part of your thing.
Ziwe: People defend not being racist by saying, "Oh I have Black friends," and at the height of the racial oppression during the pandemic, people were getting caught with blackface and people were abusing their staff, but (they said) "No, it's OK, I have Black friends." And this was a constant refrain that comes up in American media a lot, and so I wanted to really unpack it. Well, everyone is saying they have Black friends when they are accused of racism – how many Black friends you guys have? It was just me exploiting the tropes that I find to be ridiculous.