"If you’ve ever tried to explain a meme out loud, you might agree that the Vegas aphorism extends to certain corners of the Internet: What happens there, stays there," says Sonia Rao of Ziwe Fumudoh's new variety show. "Some would argue the same logic applies to life during a pandemic. As it becomes safer for vaccinated Americans to socialize in person again, do we want to be reminded of how we might have coped with distance? Maybe not. And yet, with promising results, the Showtime series Ziwe attempts a double whammy — it’s a television adaptation of a premise popularized on a pandemic-era Instagram Live series. While the comedian Ziwe, who is Black, previously confronted guests about their notions of race on a Web series called Baited, the Instagram version took off as much of her core audience of young millennials moved their social lives onto apps. Her hard stares and purposeful pauses found the humor in race relations, just swipes away from the influx of earnest anti-racist infographics."
Ziwe may depend on its guests, but it proudly proclaims its allegiance to Ziwe the person: "Like in interviews on The Colbert Report, a guest’s answers on Ziwe are held up for display, often in hilarious, out-of-context chyrons ('White Woman Has Opinion on Obama') that appear suddenly onscreen," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The primary purpose of the chyrons and the interviews’ intrusive editing is to reflect brilliance back on Fumudoh — her confidence in asking the question, her wit in responding, and her magnanimity when she chooses not to jump on someone’s inept answer. None of this is a secret. The host’s high-glam look, the camera angles that have her looming over her underlings, the lengthy, jokey musical numbers that largely exist to show off Fumudoh’s charisma — all of it is part and parcel of the larger project. Her Instagram tagline has been co-opted for this show: “You’d be an iconic guest,” she says to the person she is luring in. But the icon has always been, and still is, Fumudoh. That is its own form of performative commentary. It is very different for Fumudoh, a Black woman, to demonstrate a Colbertian balloon of self-love. When someone like Colbert forced guests to play along with his antics, it was only a reification of the cultural power he already held. When Fumudoh does the same thing, it is a radical reversal....That doesn’t mean the series is always a convincing platform for those politics. For all of Fumudoh’s skill as a performer, the show’s songs tend to be long and thematically repetitive. The sketches often feel like emptier, less complex explorations of the same ideas that come up in her interviews. Even the interviews, the show’s strongest feature, are so heavily edited that they feel mediated with music cues and unsubtle signaling that let the audience off the hook in a way that her early interviews never did. 'See, this is funny!' the show says. 'You can handle this!' Ziwe, so much bigger and glossier than Fumudoh’s Instagram show, is best when it recaptures the original videos’ feeling of live, uneasy, intimate, and intense conversation — when it’s riding on friction and interpersonal messiness."
Ziwe fizzles outside the freewheeling, casual Instagram live format, struggling to adapt either its bite or cathartic provocation: "It’s when the show expands from one-on-ones that Ziwe, as a comedy project, flounders, with jokes relying too heavily on racism as a neon-lit punchline," says Adrian Horton. "The sultry jazz number 'Lisa Called the Cops on Black People' falls flat, great outfits aside, when the bit doesn’t move beyond its chorus that a racist white woman called the cops on black people, a la Amy Cooper. A plastic surgeon Ziwe visits for a consultation is baited into the dead-end discomfort of marketing plastic surgery. A stunt with a group of white women named Karen – it’s unclear if they’re real people or actors – does nothing more than demonstrate the known fact that white women can be racist while thinking they’re being fair, as Ziwe mugs conspiratorially to the camera. Baited, but the comedy of discomfort sours when the punchline doesn’t prod further than the obvious."
Ziwe pulls no punches when it comes to Karens and white feminism: “We are socialized to never speak about race, especially not on-camera and especially not for your professional living,” says Ziwe. “I wanted to really subvert these conversations. Every single person I know can relate to being cornered at a bar and someone white is talking to them about their ‘Black friend.’ And you’re like, ‘What are you talking about?' I wanted to bring that sort of awkwardness and absurdity on-screen, in a way that translates so that people can realize how truly wild it is. That’s what my comedy aims to do. And sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not. But that’s definitely the aim.”
What Ziwe learned writing for Desus & Mero: "I mean, honestly, the best advice that Desus and Mero gave me was leading by example," she says. "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."
Ziwe wants to stand out from the late-night boys' club: ”My show is super-hyper-feminine and very pink," she says. "That was a conscious decision, knowing how late night is traditionally masculine, how it’s mostly guys named Jimmy or John wearing a suit. So how do I undercut that in my own special way?” says Ziwe, who dresses like Elle Woods. She adds: "It wasn’t so much, 'I never want to do this again.' It was more, 'How do I subvert these norms that I’ve become accustomed to, having seen Johnny Carson and David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon and all these people do these traditional shows over the course of several decades?'" What were her comedy influences growing up? "I’ve seen every episode of Arrested Development six times," she says. "I was a huge fan of The Colbert Report. I watched The Colbert Report my freshman year of high school in tandem with reading A Modest Proposal, the Jonathan Swift essay on satire. This was right after the (White House) Correspondents’ Dinner, I believe. And so I was like, you really can say whatever you want, if it’s a joke. I thought that that was such an interesting approach that Stephen (Colbert) had to comedy. And so I’ve always been kind of trying to emulate that. I was a huge Office person. I was a huge 30 Rock person. I watched all of the Disney shows as a kid, like Lizzie McGuire. Britney Spears was my idol as a 7-year-old."