Ziwe Knows She Isn’t for Everyone—That’s What Makes Her Iconic
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Ziwe is serious. At least I think she is. Before our virtual chat, I secretly wondered if a conversation about the creative process would be flipped into a satirical sit-down I’d cringe at later. When you’re talking to someone who could teach a class on eye contact and preparation, getting nervous is understandable. But then she calls you “iconic,” the butterflies in your stomach suddenly vanish and you’re just happy to be there.
This is the magic of Ziwe Fumudoh, the 29-year-old comedy star giving late-night television the makeover it needs. Sure, she didn’t invent the viral moment but she’s taking it to new heights with the same refreshing candor and spit-out-your-drink humor employed on her self-produced, Instagram Live show, Baited. Now, guests as varied as Fran Lebowitz, Andrew Yang, Phoebe Bridgers, and Gloria Steinem have gotten the iconic experience that took Ziwe years to develop.
When someone’s star shines so bright and seemingly fast, it can be easy to forget that “overnight” success rarely happens overnight. Even before her writing credits on Desus & Mero, and The Rundown with Robin Thede; before her bylines for The Onion; before her headline-grabbing variety series on Showtime, the VOTY 100 honoree was developing her craft without the fanfare.
“If you’re asking me how I got here to this moment, I think years of suffering. I’ve been a writer-performer-producer for years on some good projects, on some bad projects, but I’ve always consistently invested in myself,” she told me. “My Instagram Live show started off very slow and no one would watch it. Comedians would come and I’d have to apologize for the fact that the Live had, like, 20 people. Then suddenly I’m interviewing Caroline Calloway, Alison Roman, Alyssa Milano, back to back to back to back, and then the show took off. But I got to that moment in time from a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that you’ll never see.”
Discipline and patience aside, what makes the BlogHer speaker one of one is a fierce dedication to being herself, a tactic that can be tempting for creatives to overlook. In other words—if you’ve got a niche, she is proof that leaning into it can pay off.
Ziwe also waxed poetic about healing in real-time, creating for herself, why she doesn’t have a favorite interview subject, and more. Ahead are excerpts from our conversation.
I first watched you perform years ago at a local stand-up show and can still remember the audience’s reaction. Most of us couldn’t stop laughing and then there was a faction that didn’t know how to react. How aware are you of this divide while performing?
I think as a performer, as an interviewer, I have to be actively present. I’m emotionally intelligent as a Pisces, so I’m feeding off of what my live audience gives me and what my respective guests give me. To me, you’re making art together, even in a live performance scenario where I’m doing the full set: the jokes you laugh at, the jokes you don’t laugh at, the way you boo, the way you tense up. I feel all that energy and together we create a piece. So I am very collaborative in that sense.
Whenever I watch your work, I often think about Toni Morrison and how she discussed writing without the “white gaze,” or an assumption that her reader is a white person and should be accounted for. I like to assume that your outlook is similar, or that you at least create art you personally enjoy.
I read Sula my freshmen year of high school and that book changed my life. Toni Morrison is the reason I am a creative. I create my work first and foremost for myself. When I was growing up, I did not have the vocabulary. I found myself in racist scenarios to defend myself and as a kid, I was sort of gaslighted into thinking that me being offended was in my head. And then the older I got, the more I learned about Black culture and African culture. And I learned about all these important figures and got my voice to be able to defend myself.
This is me regressing. This is me trying to parent my inner child and give myself the tools to defend myself when I was 11-years-old. So in my healing for myself, I hope that I can offer other people the tools to go into their communities and resolve issues as well as take a good, hard look at the ways in which they contribute to the marginalization of other people.
My show is not for everyone. I can’t make a show for everyone. My show is hyper-specific and niche. And that’s why I think it works because it has a clear POV and it has a clear aesthetic. It’s centered in myself and that’s why it’s named Ziwe.
Do you think there’s a downside to that?
It’s a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, I’ve been asked before, “do you think you’re putting yourself into a box by joking about this stuff?” It’s like, would you ever ask someone who uses puppets or talks about airplane food, if they’re being put into a box with that sort of really specific comedy? No. But because it’s about race, it feels hyper-specific, but that’s okay.
But conversely, in my specificity, all I have to do is be myself. I remember when I was coming up as an artist, I would try so desperately—maybe if I sound like this guy, then I’ll get my jokes sold or I’ll get a TV job.
You’re never going to do a good job of pretending to be someone else. You’re constantly just chasing the trend as a carbon copy. This is a lesson that took me 10 years to learn. How you are going to find success is if you find your own path and be your own trailblazer. I used to hear that advice and be like, whatever, this person can only say that because they’re rich and famous. With that being said, I spent a lot of years in obscurity. No one cared about my work. No one knew my work and it wasn’t even that good. It’s really about finding your lane, staying in your lane, and constantly growing.
Being yourself is something you hear since you could hear words, but to take that to heart is a challenge. But it is the most rewarding idea to be appreciated and loved for who you are. In the words of Toni Morrison—”and she was loved.”
Do you have a favorite interview subject so far?
Honestly, all of my interviews are memorable for different reasons. They’re like my children. Like my YesJulz interview, where she starts freestyle rapping and I’m dancing. That is my child. Versus talking to Fran Lebowitz and her saying, I don’t want to play any games. Every single interview I cherish because again, I create these interviews with my guest in tandem. We work together to make something brilliant and artistic and compelling.
Who is still on your wishlist?
Kim Kardashian would be a fantastic, iconic guest. I asked [Ellen DeGeneres] if she would ever be an iconic guest on my show and she said yes, so hopefully we get a season two. I would love to interview Barack Obama. I need a hundred seasons of the show because there is a litany of people I would love to converse with.
You’re also writing a book and working on new music. How does the development of those projects differ from sketch comedy?
It is an experience. I turned in the first draft maybe two months ago and I’m currently working through the rewrite process. It’s a book of essays about race and pop culture.
I’m working on new music constantly. Jen Goma produced “Wet Diaper (Goo Goo Gah Gah),” and she and I have been making music together for years. She’s a fantastic artist. My agents always ask me, “when are you going to do real music?,” as opposed to satirical comedy music like “Universal Health Care,” which I still think is a chart-topping banger.
It helps me feel better because if I were just to read the news, I don’t think I’d ever leave my bed, so that’s how I cope.
What’s your advice for the creative who is struggling to bet on themselves?
You can’t be precious about what you create. I remember there was a time where I would be so afraid to step out on faith because I was afraid of being bad or getting rejected. I create at random, every single day, all the time. I’m constantly writing notes to my phone or leaving voice memos to myself of new melodies. I’m constantly collaborating with my artist friends. If you’re an entrepreneur, solopreneur, or any sort of creative, it’s about finding a community of people you trust with your babies.
I am not afraid to write really bad stuff and I constantly do it. And then over time, I’m not afraid to go back and say, hey, this is horrible, but I have a better idea. Or I’m going to take this idea from four years ago and I’m going to make it really hot with this spin that just came to me two days ago. Like there’s a sketch on the season finale of the show with Stacey Abrams. It’s the story of Ziwe; a trailer for a biopic, and it’s starring a white woman. This is an idea that came to me five years ago. I pitched it to very various places and they couldn’t make it for whatever reasons. Now I finally have the opportunity to bring this art into the world.
So it’s about investing yourself, writing down ideas, not being afraid to be bad, and then sticking with yourself and bringing those to fruition, whether that’s a year or 10 years from now. Trust your inner voice and don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. That’s how you will succeed.
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