Where Will Ziwe Go Next?

·15 min read
Photo credit: Tyler Joe
Photo credit: Tyler Joe

From Harper's BAZAAR

Let’s get one thing straight. Ziwe is a mononym—one word, like Madonna, Prince, and Beyoncé. Because it’s 2020, and when you say “Ziwe” in 2020, we all know exactly who you’re talking about. So there’s no reason for Ziwe to be weighed down by the burden of a last name.

That’s because, until recently, Ziwe Fumudoh (if you must know her last name) was hosting the closest thing quarantine had to Must See TV every Thursday night: Baited, her Instagram Live show in which she calmly interrogated assorted guests—sometimes fellow comedians, sometimes canceled internet celebrities, sometimes beltway insiders—about race and racism (often their own).

Upwards of 150,000 people viewed each episode, with over 5,000 diehard fans tuning in live to watch the likes of Alison Roman or Caroline Calloway or Alyssa Milano fumble through questions about optical allyship and Black history.

If her timing seemed prescient, that’s because it was. Baited began in 2016 as a YouTube show, and Ziwe will tell you that she’s been pushing the project “uphill for half a decade.” So when a pandemic forced America indoors, and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmed Arbery ignited a new reckoning with the country’s legacy of racism, police brutality, and the systems that uphold it, Ziwe was ready. I remember seeing her years ago, onstage at the Bell House. She was performing a musical tirade against Melania Trump wearing a full-on catsuit. The woman commits. She’s persistent in her art. She’s not the kind of person who waits.

Baited may be on pause, but Ziwe is still going hard. She’s working on a book of essays about race inspired by the show, due out in January 2022, tentatively titled The Book of Ziwe. She won’t divulge who her favorite Baited interview was, but says she loved interviewing Yes Jules because “she freestyle rapped unprompted,” and Simone Sanders, a senior advisor for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, because what followed was “an interesting conversation about Democratic leaders meeting young progressives where they are.”

And maybe her interview with Sanders was just the beginning of a foray into political interviewing. In response to Joe Rogan proposing that he moderate a four-hour presidential debate (which Donald Trump enthusiastically endorsed on Twitter), Ziwe countered, “If we're nominating ourselves, I would also like to moderate a presidential debate.”

But first and foremost, Ziwe is—like me—a stunning black woman in stand-up comedy. As someone who also doesn’t identify with the Caucasian boys club, it feels so gratifying to see another Black female comedian poised to take over the industry—and to do it in heels, bodycon, feathers, and Fenty makeup. So that’s what this interview is about. But it's also about having conviction in your art, it's about asking yourself (and others) the tough questions, and, in no small way, it's about healing.

Photo credit: Tyler Joe
Photo credit: Tyler Joe

Sydnee Washington: How many days are you away from giving up?

Ziwe Fumudoh: I see it as macro and micro. On the macro level, I'm doing horribly. I'm sad and I'm scared. But on the micro level, hey, I'm alive. I have a job. I can't complain. So, I just take it a day at a time.

SW: Well, the thing is, you're extremely busy now. I know the DMs are blowing up. I know the emails are crazy. I know you're on the phone. I know you're working. But somehow, I see you on Zoom and you got a look on, your face is together. Tell me what's going on with that.

ZF: I like to test out what looks I wear for my live show on Thursdays during my Zooms. So if I get a compliment, I'm like, Oh, I should wear that look.

SW: The fact that you're able to put on not just one eyeliner, but two eyeliners, and a bob, and a look during a full blown pandem-dem speaks volumes about who you are as a person.

ZF: It just reminds me of the old world. It helps me center myself to do my makeup. It makes me feel good.

SW: I remember in the beginning of the quarantine, people were making fun of women for still getting ready and still putting clothes on. And it's like, No, this is not for anyone else. This is for me. I need to have some kind of routine, because if I fall all the way off and then the gates of freedom open again, I don't want to not know how to put rhinestones underneath my eyebrows.

ZF: I don't want to forget how to contour.

SW: Exactly. When you contour, people can't tell that you're depressed.

ZF: My mood picks up when I have a face on. I don't necessarily love putting on makeup, but I like having makeup on.

SW: On your show, Baited, you keep reiterating that the point is not to drag. It's not to call people racist or call them out, but it's to expose ignorance and how some people will show who they are without you even trying.

ZF: Exactly. I don't need to trick anyone into being racist. They volunteer that on their own. I think most people are racist and that just has to do with being socialized in a racist place. So I try not to judge. I try to come from a place of: Let's start with a base level understanding that none of us are perfect, all of us have biases, and then ask how we can correct these things and learn about ourselves as a community. I think that the only way we can eradicate racism in this country is to first acknowledge that it exists, which a lot of people refuse to do. You meet people and they say, "I don't have a racist bone in my body." It's like, You're a liar.

SW: I love your show because you're always in control. And I remember seeing you two or three years ago on stage at the Bell House. You were wearing a black latex bodysuit and doing your Melania song. I knew you and maybe you knew me too because we're the It Girls of comedy. We come in so funny, we're giving you a look, we're giving you confidence. We're doing something different. We're not in a sweat pant and we're not talking about socks.

ZF: You were referring to yourself as the Naomi Campbell of comedy, and I refer to myself as the Naomi Campbell of comedy. So I was just like, Who is this girl? Who?

SW: And two can exist in the same community.

ZF: No, I'll be the Rihanna. You can take Naomi.

Photo credit: TYLER JOE
Photo credit: TYLER JOE

SW: Oh, okay! How did you reach that point of undeniable confidence in your comedy? Where did it come from?

ZF: It took me a long time to grow confident in my art. I was afraid to perform stand up at first. I was afraid to perform improv because I didn't know if I would be good. I started as a writer by trade, but I've always had this personality. I've always had strong opinions. I've always turned looks. And so as I've grown older, especially in this industry, I've just learned to believe in myself. That just comes from seeing people make art that's really good and seeing people make art that's really bad, and then sticking by my art regardless, saying, Hey, look, if I'm going to live one life, I should support myself and love myself.

You really have to step out on faith. And I think that Baited, which began as a live show I created in 2016, is me stepping out on faith, knowing that something that I could create in 2016 would be relevant in 2020 because I am a good artist.

SW: How are you doing with all the scrutiny on you and your show? Especially with everything going on in terms of race relations, how do you feel secure with where you are?

ZF: I feel secure about where I am because I feel validated. I feel validated that this project I've been pushing uphill for half a decade is finally being appreciated. Because I knew the interviews you and I did together, the interviews Gary Richardson and I did together, the interviews that I did with Aparna [Nancherla] and Josh Gondelman and so many other people, I knew that they were fuego when I did them. And finally, I'm getting eyes on this thing that I worked so hard on.

SW: As artists, we feel validated when everybody else catches on. But that's the issue. I know that my work is great, I know that I'm valued, but I have to wait until I get press, until I get all these people to finally start watching, and that takes a toll on us too.

ZF: For sure. If you live your life for external validation, you're already shooting yourself in the foot, because there's no amount of validation that'll make you feel whole if you don't love yourself. That's just a fact. So I don't want to give you that impression. It's not the external validation that necessarily makes me feel whole. I started this year, before any of the press, when I dropped Generation Ziwe, and it got one like on Instagram. I dropped that and I said, I'm going to have my foot on your nuts. And what I really meant is that I'm not going to stop this year. I'm going to go hard and you're going to see the fruits of my labor. I put that into the universe and I've made good on my promises to myself.

SW: You did. And it's very inspiring to watch a peer and a friend keep going. The pandemic hit, and you can sink or swim. And your show not only rose to the occasion, but blew the hell up, which it should have a long time ago. Why do you think there are so many eyes on it now?

ZF: I think that we have fundamentally shifted as a society because of the George Floyd protests, because of the way that COVID-19 has affected marginalized communities. I think we're at a pivotal watershed moment in American history where suddenly people are having to take a close examination of themselves and the ways in which they perpetuate racism. And cue the perfect show that helps you examine racism in a way that does not necessarily villainize you, but makes you look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself some really tough questions. So you're asking how did the show blow up? Opportunity met preparation.

Photo credit: Tyler Joe
Photo credit: Tyler Joe

SW: A word, I felt that in my core. My pinky toe is shaking. But there are other people who have web series or shows on Instagram. They're prepared. Their shows are great. But it's not popping. So what would you say to them?

ZF: When I was doing this live show in April, there were weeks where I was interviewing Mary Beth Barone or Benito Skinner or Nick Lehmann and the viewership was like 15 people. And it's embarrassing to be like, "Hey, can you be a guest on my livestream?" and it's quiet. But then cut to two months later and suddenly there are 4,000 people and Janet Mock is commenting, Janelle Monáe is commenting. So that is a testament to me sticking by my ideas.

People always ask Cardi B, "What's the most money you've made while stripping?" But they never ask her what the least amount of money was—and it's zero dollars. Similarly, in comedy there are times when you have a show where zero people show up, nobody, zilch, and you still have to put on a show. So you have to have conviction in what you're doing. Earlier, when I started comedy, I would try to adjust my personality for what was hot or adjust my jokes for what was happening. Oh, I see that people are really loving cat humor. Let me do some cat shit.

As I've grown older and more mature, I've learned to just keep a laser-focus. I can't follow trends. I have to set them myself.

SW: You’ve said your show is also about healing and I want to get into that. What is your definition of healing and how do you take it to the next step?

ZF: I get a lot of comments from viewers about my show, and the comments that make me feel like I'm doing the right thing are the comments that say, "Hey, I watched your Alison Roman interview and the way you questioned her made me feel some healing because of experiences I've had with white women in my workplace, in my school, in my neighborhood where I didn't have the power to question whether or not they were being racist. So just thank you." And I appreciate those comments so much. Because I've also had experiences as a Black woman where I've been totally powerless. Someone's treating me like absolute garbage and all I can do is sit there and take it. In this livestream, I'm reversing that. I'm saying, Hey, you are a vessel for me to question white authority and white supremacy.

SW: And the thing is, the way people come into the show, they're thinking, This is comedy, this is entertaining, but then you turn it around. Yes, we're laughing, but we're also trying to build from it. But as a Black woman, it's hard to have that much power because then people think, Oh, well, then you're the person who speaks on race and you know everything. And it's like, No, no, no, no, no. That's not why I signed up. How do you deal with that?

ZF: Yeah, exactly. I don't know if I would describe myself as a civil rights activist; I would describe myself as a Brooklyn-based comedian. My comedy has activism in it, and I studied African-American studies, so I've read literature and research about this. But ultimately, I'm trying to make decisive and influential art because that's what I'm an expert at. Everything else, please take what you can or leave what you hate. I'm trying to make comedy that changes the world and hopefully heals people. Basically, I am the Martin Luther King Jr. of alternative comedy.

SW: I want to get into mental health a little bit, because this is such a weighing time. With all the research that you're doing for Baited, how do you stay somewhat sane? Where do you find joy so that you can maintain and replenish and move forward?

ZF: I love what I do. There's not a version of me that's doing anything else. That's just a fact. I replenish myself by continuing to do what I love.

Making art is the only thing that makes me feel like my purpose on Earth is fulfilled. I was so depressed before I made art in college. And I found that it really helped me feel like I'm living a much fuller, happier, healthier life. I encourage everyone to find their art, whether that's eating cheeseburgers every day. If that makes you happy, that makes you happy. But creating art is cathartic. Creating art heals me. And hopefully my art can heal other people. But first and foremost, I do it for myself. It is a selfish process.

SW: What are your plans to expand how many women of color are in these spaces or on these shows or are getting the exposure that they deserve?

ZF: One day I will sell the show. And I'll hire a bunch of brown and Black women and give them their first opportunity. I'm so thankful that Robin Thede gave me my first TV writing job. That exposed me to this industry and now I'm getting offers to write on different shows because of a Black woman opening the door for me. So my goal is to open that door for other Black women.

SW: You're on the first day of a Baited TV show. What are you wearing? Who is your guest?

ZF: I think I would just call my talk show Ziwe, and on the first day, I would be wearing an entirely pink suit. And my first guests—that's a hard one. Joe Biden, Kim Kardashian, and Lena Dunham.

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