Will Ziwe be the King Lear of the pandemic? The comedian says her show is just the first act

·10 min read

Ziwe’s always been ahead of her time—America just had some catching up to do. The comedian and writer’s been honing her craft for years, cracking jokes on Twitter, performing elaborate pop numbers at live shows, writing for Desus & Mero, and baiting her friends into some hilarious interviews. But it wasn’t until last summer that the world really started to take notice; in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Ziwe brought her hilariously frank interview style to Instagram Live, which quickly amassed a loyal viewership. With pop culture pariahs like Caroline Calloway and Alison Roman sitting in the hot seat, her Instagram became the “must-see TV” of quarantine.

Just shy of a year later, Ziwe hopes to turn her comedy into actual appointment television in the form of Ziwe on Showtime, produced by purveyors of indie-cool, A24. The culmination of all things Ziwe, Ziwe is a proper variety show, a pastel-hued vessel for the comedian’s interviews, her music, sketches, thought-provoking conversations, and more. Ahead of Ziwe’s premiere this Sunday, May 9, The A.V. Club spoke with the comedian to get a peek inside her brain, which she says is “cotton-candy pink [and filled] with conversations from James Baldwin.” The conversation was something of a reunion, considering Ziwe was once an intern at The Onion, where she shared many a lunch break with this writer. Fittingly backed by an image of Midsommar’s May Queen, the comedian discusses what she learned from her time at “America’s Finest New Source,” the influence of Britney Spears, and whether or not Ziwe is the King Lear of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more

Interview material has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The A.V. Club: First of all, credit where credit is due: I truly think you revolutionized the way video-call—I didn’t realize that we had this space in front of us to use—

Ziwe: [Leans in.] Yes, depth perception! [Laughs.]

AVC: Has that always been a tool in your repertoire?

Z: No, not even! It was just by the nature of doing Zooms all the time, and you’re just [Leans in.] floating and dying. So I just started to play in that field, and I would watch other people do Zooms and I would be influenced by that as well.

AVC: So you’re really just changing the game as it happens.

Z: Yes, I like to think of myself as the Nikola Tesla of Zoom calls.

AVC: There was a tweet at the beginning of the pandemic that mentioned that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined because of the plague. Is it possible that Ziwe is our King Lear?

Z: Doesn’t he die? [Laughs.] Isn’t that a tragedy?

I mean, I don’t know! So, we’ve known each other—I think I met you when I was 19 or 20 years old, [working at] The Onion. [Note: The Onion, like The A.V. Club, is owned by G/O Media.] So you can testify to the fact that I’ve been working on iterations of this show for literal years. So, it may seem like, in the pandemic I wrote my King Lear, but it’s more like: In the pandemic, I finished the first chapter of my King Lear. Even though it’s not chapters, it’s acts because it’s a play. [Laughs.] We’re mixing metaphors here.

AVC: But did 2020—to put it broadly—make you think of or approach your art in a different way?

Z: I mean, 2020 was a humbling experience; it made me reinvent the way I approached life as a human, where suddenly I’m taking care of myself, and I have plants in my house, and I’m resting, and I have a smaller circle, and I’m really investing in, like, emotional bonds. And so I think that that’s reflective of my work, where it’s more quality over quantity, certainly. Does that answer your question?

AVC: Definitely. I think there’s just been a lot of press and media around, like, “Oh, Ziwe is having the best quarantine out of anybody!,” and I’m sure that feels really weird to hear.

Z: It’s very strange to be like, “Yes, me, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk—great 2020s!” That’s certainly never been my intention; all I wanted to do is create meaningful art, and that’s what I’ve been doing for years. And, you know, with 2020 and the conversation around the racial uprisings, people are finally starting to pay attention to conversations and discourses about race. But I’ve been doing this for years, so that’s what 2020 did, is that people started to notice what I’ve been doing.

AVC: As you mentioned, we met during your time at The Onion—how did working there help bring you to this moment?

Z: I think The Onion makes you into a high-capacity writer where you just throw a lot at the wall—and most of it gets rejected, and then you don’t get paid, and then you don’t eat. The Onion was the first place to ever pay me for a joke. So that experience where you’re just writing it into the void, you learn to be less precious about what you create, and you learn to also not be afraid to kind go out of the box and really write things that are both satirical and thoughtful, but are also funny. And I think you see that reflected in my work, where I’m satirical —I’m funny, but I’m also saying something that has a point.

And I’m not afraid to fail publicly. And that is a curse because it’s really embarrassing, but it’s a blessing because it’s a weight off my shoulder to know that I can make a bunch of—the show is a variety show in the truest sense of the word. You’re going to see me dance, and sing, and then do commercials, do field pieces, and interviews, and everything is really funny to me. But some things will hit and some things won’t hit. And I’m proud to stand behind the work as a whole.

AVC: So, in the evolution from—I’m tracing things back—Baited, but even before that, how did you wind up on the variety show format?

Z: I think it’s a full culmination of everything I’ve been doing as a live performer in New York. You know, I had my YouTube series, which felt like a studio interview, and then I have my live-to-tape interviews, which were on Instagram Live. And then I was doing music, and I was doing music videos, and then I was doing these live shows where I bring up guests and do little game shows. So you’re really going to see my work as a performer come together in this A24 by Showtime show.

AVC: Speaking of the music, I love the way that it influences everything you do, even down to the iconic fashions. I feel there’s a lot of turn-of-the-millennium pop in the fashion.

Z: Yes, absolutely.

AVC: Why is that such a source of inspiration for you, specifically that era of music?

Z: I mean, that’s that’s kind of where I came up. I was one of those kids that was obsessed with Britney Spears, and I would sing “...Baby One More Time” ad nauseam, and my parents were annoyed by that. So I was really influenced by that moment in pop culture. I also find it to be quite radical, because not only were those women—specifically Britney Spears—kind of revered as the peak of femininity, but they were also ripped apart by the media. So I find that sort of contradiction to be quite fascinating in the ways in which I perform femininity. Because it’s hyper-feminine, it’s pink, and it feels really, really saccharine, but it’s also a commentary on, “What does it mean to be a woman?” Traditionally in media, you know, smart women wear glasses, and they wear pantsuits, and they wear blue, and they talk in a low voice, and [In a high-pitched voice.] they’re not very girly and silly and sexy. So I wanted to subvert that idea of what is smart, and what is feminine, and what can a woman be in the media space.

AVC: And that’s very clear in the glimpses we’ve seen of the show, and what the set looks like too—you really bring that aesthetic forward. Can you talk about how you turned your vision into the physical set of the show?

Z: I approached our set designer, Erin [Magill], and I said I wanted it to feel like Barbie’s Dream House, and that’s exactly what she did. It feels like Barbie’s Dream House with this pink light, the light and dark pink stripes, and then the posters of Michelle Obama and Oprah that feel like Teen Beat. There are books that are like Carrie Underwood’s autobiography, and then it’s like Malcolm X’s autobiography, and then it’s Kelly Clarkson—so it’s really a contrast of high and low, and feminine, and black radicalism, and it’s really just feels like what’s in my brain.

It’s the inside of my brain, which is cotton-candy pink [and filled] with conversations from James Baldwin. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve had a lot of iconic guests, even on Instagram, so we’re excited to see who’s going to be on the show. But is there an example of an un-iconic guest? Who would you not want to talk to?

Z: You know, never say never—that’s my answer to that. There are some guests who I revolt against because I don’t want to welcome certain energies into my life, but never say never. I don’t know how the show will evolve in five, 10, 15, 20 years, honestly. So there are people who I would not interview at this moment, but maybe there’s a point where I feel comfortable, that I could handle an interview with them, and really ask them questions that are important and actually give the public something meaningful. So, who’s to say?

AVC: Prior to Ziwe, you’d been working with Desus and Mero on their show. Did they give you any specific advice, or is there anything you learned from them that you applied to running your own show?

Z: I mean, honestly, the best advice that Desus and Mero gave me was leading by example. I watched them every day for two years lead a really brilliant, artistic, radical, culturally relevant show. And watching the ways in which they led, I thought there were things that I would try to emulate in my writer’s room. Specifically, the spontaneity of their comedy, as well as how they lead with kindness—that was really impactful for me as a young artist.

AVC: And finally, let’s say someone is coming to Ziwe—and I don’t know where they’ve been—but let’s say they haven’t seen your interviews, or your work, before. What would you want them to know before they watch?

Z: I think that they should know not to take anything seriously because we’re not here for a long time. It’s a joke, it’s silly, and I think when you can embrace the comedy of it, that’s when you are able to digest the commentary and the politics—the social commentary. But first, just accept it as a comedy.

Ziwe premieres Sunday, May 9 on Showtime.