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No One Was Safe on Showtime's Ziwe — And That Was Part of the Fun

By skewering everyone, Ziwe created an environment where guests were delighted to be called out.
  • Drew Barrymore and Ziwe (Photo: Francisco Roman/Showtime)
    Drew Barrymore and Ziwe (Photo: Francisco Roman/Showtime)

    Ziwe knows how to start a conversation. She’s not one to tip-toe around topics of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or xenophobia. She made a name for herself asking blunt questions that some would call uncomfortable, but just by posing them, she made her subjects and those watching interrogate why the questions, like “how many Black friends do you have?,” would be seen as uncomfortable at all. The result was always a combination of hilariously cringey moments and thoughtful revelations (whether or not the revelation came from the guest), and the concept was compelling enough to garner the comedian her very own late-night talk show on Showtime, Ziwe. But despite the series’s online appeal — clips and full episodes from the show pull in hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube — two seasons is all it will get for now. On April 5, Showtime canceled Ziwe.

    Guests walking onto the Ziwe set knew what they were getting into. Whether they were familiar with the comedian’s Baited web series, which she took to Instagram Live during the pandemic’s early days, or were simply briefed (or warned) by their publicists, every big name joining Ziwe always seemed equal parts scared and excited to see how she would set them up to flail. Ziwe’s effortless charm helped ease guests into uncomfortable territory — they were able to set aside any stress about speaking out of turn because that was the point of the show. In every episode, someone would almost always say something problematic, whether they fully believed it or not, even Ziwe.

    That approach made the talk show prime material for an endless flow of viral clips, thanks to soundbites from guests like Chet Hanks, Fran Lebowitz, Andrew Yang, and Julia Fox, but the show also skewered the culture around the desperation to trend online. “Coming up” clips between segments were always guests quoted wildly out of context (a quote we would never actually see in conversation) and everyone and everything would be introduced as “iconic,” raising the tone of each second of the show to hyperbolic heights. Not even Ziwe’s writers were safe from being baited — she joined them at the end of more than one episode to joyfully shout with large smiles “White supremacy!” pausing just a little too long before adding, “is bad!”

    Beyond those gotcha moments, Ziwe was a wildly funny sketch show. In between interviews, regular guest stars like Patti Harrison, Michelle Davis, Cole Escola, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Aparna Nancherla, and Laura Benanti would join Ziwe in sketches tackling topics like whitewashing Hollywood, virtue signaling, and Black rage. And of course as a self-proclaimed multi-hyphenate, Ziwe would perform a song in every episode, satirically pushing her own “problematic” thoughts, like how easy it is to just stop being poor.

    No one on the Ziwe set was safe from being put on the spot, and that equal distribution of discomfort is part of what set the talk show apart from other late-night series. Ziwe has a rare ability to allow guests to revel in their own unease instead of shying away from it. For some guests, it offered an opportunity to react in a way they might not be able to in other interviews, like when Amber Riley was able to openly laugh about a certain Glee co-star’s alleged problematic behavior under the guise of reacting to Ziwe. For others, it gave them a chance to take real ownership of past behavior in a lighthearted way — in between joke responses Ilana Glazer offered a genuine, thoughtful apology for appropriating “Yas queen” on Broad City.

    While Ziwe would often put on a stoic persona when asking particularly pointed questions, first and foremost, she sought to entertain. In between interrogations, she allowed moments for guests to sit back and enjoy the show’s bits just as much as audiences at home. With these little respites and her acidic wit, she turned getting gotcha’d into a delight.

    Ziwe Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on the Showtime app.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Ziwe, Showtime, Amber Riley, Chet Hanks, Ilana Glazer, Ziwe Fumudoh