Interview: It’s Ziwe’s world, we’re just living in it
Stars don’t often rise as quickly as Ziwe Fumudoh, but the 29-year old actress, writer, mogul and icon has transformed the idea of late night talk shows with wry humor, hilarious skits and guests who sometimes don’t know quite what they’re getting into.
Whether it’s noted author Fran Lebowitz talking about “slow walkers versus racism” or Eboni K. Williams, Ziwe matches the styles and tone with the moment, sometimes in the moment, all while never taking her foot off the gas pedal. “You have a book called Pretty Powerful. Why do you think ugly people can’t be powerful?” she asks the Real Housewives of New York City. She tackles issues of race, wealth and beauty with deep satire and a subtext of piercing truth and even musical numbers.
I talked with Ziwe over a video chat [honoring her with a pink backdrop and pink shirt “Oh, thank you! Super iconic. I love it.”] about the genesis of the show, emerging from quarantine with creativity and drive and got a very special scoop for those of you who really love the original songs on her show.
Erik Anderson: First I want to say congratulations on the success of your show.
Ziwe Fumudoh: Thank you.
EA: Your meteoric rise has been iconic. But what I want to know is what is the Ziwe origin story?
ZF: What is the Ziwe origin story… I think what got me to there, I was in college, and I started studying poetry. I absolutely loved poems, but I realized very quickly that there aren’t many poetry jobs in the current market. I was raised by immigrant parents, so I would feel really horrible becoming a professional poet. So on a whim, I applied to this internship at Comedy Central, which was with Chris Rock; it was seven people of color in the country who flew to New York and lived in the dorms and worked. I interned at Colbert Report for a week, and I got a joke on the show. That sort of inspired me into realizing that there’s more to life than becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist, that you could be a professional artist.
After that, I went back to Chicago for my senior year of college. I started my own humor magazine, and I started interning at The Onion and freelancing for them. Then I moved to New York. I started performing. I got a job at this website where I was a writer’s assistant. That’s when I started doing the YouTube series, Baited. Then I just kept refining that and doing live shows and working in New York while I was also writing on The Rundown with Robin Thede and Desus & Mero and Dickinson and Cartoon President. Then the pandemic happened, and I didn’t have any outlet for my creativity, so I started doing Instagram Lives, joining the cacophony of people who would always do notifications. Then I interviewed Caroline Calloway and then Alyssa Milano and then Alison Roman and then Rose McGowan back to back to back, and the show sort of blew up. Then I was able to sell this variety series.
EA: There you go. That’s perfect. One of the things I love just hearing about that and people that I’ve talked to over the last couple of weeks is it’s how they managed and handled the pandemic both in terms of work and creativity and just mental acuity. It sounds like you just kind of took it and ran.
ZF: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t as conscious as, “I’m going to use this opportunity to write King Lear.” It was more sort of an outlet for the sort of disruption, I felt. Like every other person on the globe, felt just absolutely like the rug was … It was taken from underneath you, because all of a sudden, this was just one day, March 18th, where everything is closed. New York City as I knew it, my life as I knew it was halted, and there is no ending in sight. At first, people were like, “Oh, this will only be two weeks.” Then suddenly it’s a month and then five and then six. So my Instagram Lives actually started to blow up in May, so that’s two months after we’d been in quarantine. So it really was just sort of my natural reaction, is to create, and that’s how I process trauma, through comedy. So that’s the reason why I was able to create something so special during the pandemic. But it wasn’t as consciousness as like, “I need to get back to work.”
EA: Let’s talk a little bit about the show, which just aired its fourth episode. How would you describe your interview style?
ZF: I would describe it … I mean, it’s satirical. I find this to be sort of like a subversion of traditional late night interviews, which have existed since the days before Johnny Carson. So it’s this deconstruction, where usually on a late night interview, someone goes to promote their movie or their book, and they have these sort of anecdotes that they repeat around town, whereas my show is so chaotic and surprising. You don’t really know what my guest is going to say, nor do you know what I’m going to ask. In that spontaneity is real, vulnerable, honest conversations with celebrities and politicians that are not being had in any sort of public sphere.
EA: It’s unlike anything else. It’s sort of like Between Two Ferns, but then also with traditional late night elements of it. It’s clear, too, that you have people that come on like Fran Lebowitz, who didn’t know who you were and didn’t know what to expect. That created some of just the most fascinating and really volatile conversation, because she almost couldn’t help herself to sort of reveal things in a way that maybe she didn’t realize. So how do you manage that in the moment?
ZF: Totally. Fran was such a pleasure to interview. What was wild is that initially, she wanted to only sit for 45 minutes because she had dinner. But the interview was … We taped for two hours, because she just was so immersed in the conversation. So that was a pleasure to talk to her. What I like about Fran is that she has been in the public sphere since the seventies, right? For 40-plus years. So she’s talked about everything, but what I thought was really cool about my interview is that we suddenly were getting fresh, interesting new takes from Fran Lebowitz, even though she’s been interviewed by every single person ever and befriends all the greats, like Toni Morrison.
So what was that like? I mean, with her, you have to just be an active listener, but that’s the case whether it’s Bowen [Yang] and Patti [Harrison] or Julian Castro or Fran Lebowitz. You just have to really be present in the moment and take their words at face value. I think that’s when you have a really interesting interview, because, again, I don’t know what they’re going to say to these questions, nor do I know what my followups are going to be. I’m just really present in the moment. So you’re seeing us think in real time, which I think is compelling and new.
EA: Exactly. I think that’s the thing that’s completely unique to the show and what is so kind of energizing by it, because there’s a lot of talk shows and late night and ways to approach it, but this is … It’s really unique.
ZF: Thank you so much.
EA: The Andrew Yang was a really neat thing because the Jay-Z question sort of felt like it was a gotcha, but it wasn’t really, because he already had offered information. But it created something that really kind of blew up, and I feel like that’s kind of what you’re good at.
ZF: Oh, thank you. Honestly, that wasn’t a pre-prepared question. He had just mentioned music. So, I mean, you can infer so much about a person from what they listen to and what Jay-Z song is their favorite, because he has such a big catalog. So that just came from him bringing up the fact that he listened to rap in the early 2000s. Okay. Who’s hot then? Jay-Z. So it really was organic, but the questions are organic. They’re all based in some sort of reality. Even asking Fran slow walkers versus racism, it’s because she’s on record saying that all slow walkers should have the death penalty, right? She’s hilariously hyperbolic about that. But every question, it stems from a reality.
EA: I think that’s what was fascinating about it. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps your guests on their toes. Then us, too, as viewers, it makes it just exciting to watch.
ZF: Thank you. Thank you. I mean, I’m just someone who loves to have conversations with people. I’m like a chatterbox. So that’s natural in conversation, right? When you meet a new person, you’re just kind of finding what you have in common, and then suddenly you kind of run off. But I try to bring the energy of real-life discourse, real-life conversation with real people onscreen, which is … Yeah, it’s so basic, but I think it works.
EA: It seems like it’s basic, but you’re a really good listener, and other people might not. They’re just going to like, “Here’s my question, my question, my question, my question,” and you kind of just power through it.
ZF: Yeah. Well, I research my guests. So I’ve read both of Fran Lebowitz’s book. I read Andrew Yang’s book. I read Gloria Steinem’s book. So I think especially if they’re taking the time to just come onto my show, which is so silly, the least I could do is know who I’m talking to. Then you can have a more substantive conversation.
EA: Exactly. Who is a dream interview for you that you really want?
ZF: Kim Kardashian is my dream guest. Yeah, I think she would just be so … I mean, she’s so iconic. She has such interesting perspectives. So I’d love to chat with her.
EA: I think she would be a perfect guest for your show and for the tone of the show.
ZF: She’s iconic, really.
EA: What interview do you think would scare you the most?
ZF: All of my interviews scare me, honestly, because it is chaos! It’s organized chaos, but it’s chaos. So I honestly never know what my guests are going to say. So it’s a lesson in active listening. So when I ask these questions, I don’t know how they’re going to react. They’re prepped on the show. They know that I’m playing a character and I’m going to ask left field questions, and we send them the other interviews so they have a sense of what the show is about. But yeah, it’s like improv. We’re really just building something together. So every interview scares me, but that’s why I’m so passionate about it. It’s because I’m constantly challenging myself.
EA: You mentioned that you are essentially playing a character, which is kind of cool, because one of the things I also think you’re really great at is your branding.
ZF: Oh, thank you.
EA: Whether it’s pink or your trademark eyeliner, it’s something that separates you from everybody else. You know who it is, it’s Ziwe. How did you develop that style and choice, and what does it say about you?
ZF: That’s a good question. When I was growing up, I was a tomboy. My parents would put me in dresses, and I would get so angry. But over the course of my life, I’ve learned to embrace femininity and see it as a source of power, rather than a source of repression and subjugation. So why my aesthetic is so feminine is in stark contrast to the ways in which I was socialized to think that to be a smart woman, you have to be in a tailored blue suit and glasses and talk really low like Elizabeth Holmes and have a briefcase, which is inherently misogynistic, right? Instead, it’s a hyperbolic version of feminism that feels very much like Barbie or Elle Woods in Legally Blonde or Cher Horowitz and Dionne in Clueless. That sort of heightened extreme is in contrast to the stark masculinity of these intellectual spaces.
EA: I almost wore my Clueless shirt, too, and you just mentioned it. It was so close, because it’s also pink.
ZF: What’s your Clueless shirt?
EA: It’s Cher, but it was just like “Okay, I have some pink shirts. I have this. What am I going to wear for Ziwe?”
ZF: There’s a Clueless book. Have you read it? It’s by Jen Chaney from the Washington Post.
EA: Ooh, I haven’t but now I will.
ZF: I recommend it. It’s very good.
EA: I will. I love that.
One of the things that you approach on the show in both a way that I think has subtext of seriousness, but is funny, too, is race and how we talk about race and who gets to. I mean, having Cole Escola as one of your writers, who is an absolute genius, and-
ZF: Cole is a genius.
EA: I mean, complete and absolute genius. You look at things from who gets to write jokes about race? Who gets to write about all of this? I almost don’t even have a question. I’m curious if this is an active way for you to create other conversations outside of this show.
ZF: Definitely. Yeah, that’s my intention, is that people leave every episode with a lot to think about and a lot to discuss. My show is inherently made to get a reaction. The reaction is hopefully laughter, but it’s also to be more pensive. But yeah, that’s definitely a goal. I think with race, I mean, I was socialized, one, to really not talk about race and then, two, yeah, to not talk about race and also that race wasn’t really an issue anymore, that Barack Obama was President, post-racial, Martin Luther King’s awesome, Robert E. Lee sucks, and that was kind of the extent. Then, obviously, 2016 happened, and what’s wild is I shot the first episode of the YouTube version of Baited the day after Hillary had lost the election. So suddenly, that’s like a watershed moment in American history, especially speaking of race because of the candidate who sort of polarized people with his really strong opinions.
So it was just … Yes, I’m always trying to have these conversations, because unfortunately I’ve always had to have this conversations. When I was younger, I didn’t want people to talk about the fact that I was different because I had a funny name or because I had dark skin or anything like that. But if you’re a person of color in the United States, it’s something you kind of are forced to confront and talk about. These conversations were sort of erratic and random and uncomfortable, and you kind of leave them wondering, “Hey, was anybody else watching this weird exchange, or was it in my head?” So my television show brings those weird exchanges to the screen and makes them seem as laughable as they are, because, yeah, because that’s how I process the trauma otherwise.
EA: I was really glad when you were talking to Gloria Steinem that she was like, “White feminism is not feminism.” That’s the kind of thing that audiences need to hear more of, anyway, and from white people.
ZF: From Gloria Steinem, who is a civil rights icon, honestly.
So it’s a great conversation. Again, that was really compelling, too. Yeah, I’m really happy with all of the conversations we have. So every single interview’s sort of tailored to the energy and the expertise of the guests, right? So Eboni K. Williams feels drastically different than Patti feels drastically different than Stacey Abrams, which feels different than Gloria Steinem, because they all have different vibes. So, again, we’re creating this art form in tandem for the betterment of ourselves and our audiences and for comedy’s sake.
EA: Absolutely. One of the other great things about your show is how many fun songs there are. So I guess my question is when does the album drop?
ZF: I think we’re dropping a soundtrack to the show on June 14th, so soon. So in 11 days.
EA: Oh my God.
ZF: Yeah, I think this is the scoop. Hey, God bless.
EA: Okay. That is… I am scooping. Love it! And on that note, Ziwe, thank you so much, it was such a pleasure talking with you today, I’m so excited for the success of the show and wishing you the very, very best.
ZF: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. It was such a pleasure chatting with you, and I hope to see you soon.
Ziwe Fumudoh and her show Ziwe is eligible for Outstanding Variety Series and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series. The show is currently streaming on Showtime.