Comedian Ziwe On Her New Showtime Variety Show

Originally published on May 15, 2021 4:03 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, Ziwe Fumudoh - henceforth, she prefers just Ziwe - is a writer and performer with a talent for putting people on the spot. Her YouTube series, "Baited With Ziwe," as well as her Instagram Live posts, feature pointed, funny and frequently awkward interviews where she asks her guests, who are mostly white, very direct questions about race and racism. Now she is bringing those comedic chops to late-night television. The show is called "Ziwe," and when we visited with her recently, she told us that she got her start in comedy through - wait for it - poetry.

ZIWE: You know, I came to New York. And I'd been working as a writer. And, you know, someone asked me, like, hey, do you perform? And I lied. I said, yes, I perform all the time.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ZIWE: And then I got my first show. And the rest was kind of history. But I was initially really timid. But poetry and comedy, just the connection there is my love of, like, word economy. And it's about timing and rhythm and selection, so that - those - I see those as really similar, actually.

MARTIN: That's wild. Thank you. I'd never heard that connection before, so thank you for that. Gave me something that - you gave me something to chew on. Poetry has spawned a lot of great art. Like, you know, Jill Scott started as a poet and so...

ZIWE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But you're the first comedy writer that I personally know, comedy performer that I know who started as a poet. So that's really - that's why you've given me something to think about here. But talk about your interview style. As I said, like, your first show says it, "Baited With Ziwe." That is kind of part of the thing. How did - do you remember, like, how did that come about?

ZIWE: The show - I think I was just in a lot of spaces as one of the very few Black people in a space. And I would have these really awkward encounters and think, wow, I wish there was a camera here to see how uncomfortable this was. And that inspired the interview style. But all of this really stems from life experience.

MARTIN: So let's play a clip. I mean, here you are. You're speaking with the famed writer and critic Fran Lebowitz on an episode that you did which focuses on a group that have become known as Karens. So here's Fran Lebowitz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ZIWE")

ZIWE: What percentage of white women do you hate? And there is a right answer.

FRAN LEBOWITZ: Yeah. There's no right answer. I actually never thought about this. I would say that I am less concerned with race than you are.

ZIWE: Really?

LEBOWITZ: Yes.

ZIWE: Well, that's your life.

LEBOWITZ: I could tell you this - that I do not hate anyone because of their race.

ZIWE: No, this tracks. You don't hate Black people. You hate idiots, and that - any color, any creed. It's what Martin Luther King preached about, actually.

LEBOWITZ: A lot of people noticed how much we have in common.

ZIWE: I would argue that you are the Martin Luther King of, you know, women writers who are satirical.

LEBOWITZ: No argument.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. All right. Well, tell me about this. First of all, why did you want Fran Lebowitz? And tell me a little bit about that encounter. Like, what was - that was - it was very interesting.

ZIWE: Oh, thank you. Honestly, Fran Lebowitz is such an icon, specifically in New York. I mean, this is a woman that's been in the public sphere for the last 30 years. And so I was really intrigued about interviewing someone who's so public and asking her questions that she's literally never been asked before in her life. And that was really exciting and an exciting challenge to me. So, yeah, I was really eager to interview her.

MARTIN: I've heard you say in interviews that frank talk about race is healing. But I do want to ask you about that, because your - the title of your YouTube show was Baited, and you do bait people. Is that healing?

ZIWE: What do you mean?

MARTIN: Baiting people - is that healing? I'm just interested in, like, what do you feel like it does? What's it for?

ZIWE: Sure. I think the word baited is sort of this sly subversion of the ways in which the right, specifically conservative media, talks about any Black person that deigns to speak about race. And suddenly, you - if you defend Obama, well, then you're race baiting. You talk about how rap music is great, well, then you're race baiting. You wear a tan suit to the White House, well, then somehow you are a race baiter traitor.

And so I just always found that sort of hyperbolic labeling to be quite interesting in American media. And so that's where that term came from. But to answer your question, do I think my comedy is healing? I guess it depends on who is the recipient. For me, it's healing. It allows me to have conversations about race that are uncomfortable in ways that are really, really fun and palatable, as well as just acknowledging the fact that, hey, I don't know everything. My guests don't know everything. And we it's OK for us to just be wrong - loudly.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting, because I was thinking about the fact that, as you just pointed out, like, there's a cohort in this country right now that's very vocal, that feels that Black people talk too much about race anyway and have created a situation where, you know, they can't speak openly because they will be attacked. OK. And so their argument, the argument for folks who have that point of view is that race has become such a minefield that people can't really have frank conversations because it's just too sensitive. So people either avoid them or respond in kind. And I just wonder if you think about that at all while you're constructing your show and your pieces, like, the fact that there is such a polar opposite view of how race conversations are unfolding and should unfold.

ZIWE: I mean, totally. This is an exact version of that. The idea is that you - it's - that it's inappropriate to speak about race. That's how I was raised. And so this show in particular puts all of those conversations into the forefront because, ultimately, race is at the - it's the fabric in which our country was built. And so to just ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist has not really done us very good in the last 200-plus years. So, ultimately, my goal is to have these really conversations, because, ultimately, that's what we need to grow and unite and learn as a nation.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, part of what's interesting about your videos is the fashion choices. Can you talk a little bit about that?

ZIWE: Yes. I love fashion. I mean, I was also one of those children that - I was a tomboy. I didn't like wearing dresses. I revolted against that. And so as an adult, I really came into my femininity and what these pieces could do for my personality and for my mood on any given day. And so I find that fashion is sort of a deconstruction of like the typical, like, masculine late night where it's just suits and guys named Jimmy or John. So that's my own form of self-expression.

MARTIN: Yeah, for sure. You know, I can see - so who's your favorite? Do you have a favorite designer, like, a favorite look?

ZIWE: I mean, my favorite look is like '90s "Clueless." But as far as - I wear a lot of LaQuan Smith. I'm really loving his work right now.

MARTIN: I have to say, the look of the set is very - it's very pink. It's very - I wouldn't have - I wouldn't have known to call it '90s "Clueless," but I totally get where you're coming from. It's very pink. It is very different than a lot of the other late-night sets. I'll just put it that way for folks. When they get a chance to see it, they'll see what I mean. So how will you know if you've succeeded in what you wanted to do?

ZIWE: If people can watch this and laugh, that's success. I'm a comedian.

MARTIN: That was Ziwe, host of the new show "Ziwe," which is on Showtime. Ziwe, thanks so much for joining us.

ZIWE: Thank you, Michel. This was such a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.