It’s a bad day for both of us. An early, inconvenient hour, a last-minute location change, and the kind of hot, soupy weather that means boob sweat and bad smells. But the comedian Ziwe Fumudoh is neat, in a white teacup dress covered in candy-colored splotches, her hair tucked into a fluffy, orange bucket hat. This hat is enormous, and the effect is that Ziwe, who has forgone her usual platforms for a pair of sneakers, looks very small. She wears no makeup, and looks younger than her 29 years. Costumes — latex gloves, pink eyeliner, wild wigs — are her usual trademark, and I wonder, Could this be Ziwe, unproduced?
“It’s my first time outside in four days,” she says, a bit harried. It’s reasonable — she has had her head down, working on her new Showtime series, Ziwe, which she stars in, writes, edits, and produces (and which just concluded last night). It’s an extended version of her infamous Instagram Live series, Baited, which went viral last summer after a series of painful-to-watch interviews with the likes of Alison Roman, Caroline Calloway, and other semi-canceled white women. Ziwe includes sketches and musical numbers, but the show revolves around the interviews — in which she asks her guests very direct questions about race — which are still the best part.
We’re sitting outside a grimy coffee shop in Williamsburg. Ziwe is suffering from terrible allergies, and her eyes, hiding behind pink shades, are streaming. So is her nose. She dabs at them constantly, pulling tissues from the bottomless pack of Kleenex poking out of her lilac Fendi backpack.
Do you have allergies?
Okay. I was like, Is she upset about something?
No, I’m crying because I’m surrounded by grass.
No worries. I have this wild cold sore, and in every interview I do, people stare straight at it.
My eyes are really sore. You know this as an interviewer, but you’re never more self-conscious than when someone’s looking and you’re like, Oh my God, don’t look at me.
Do you ever get nervous during your interviews?
I get nervous all the time. I really want to hammer that I’m a human person. I’m nervous, and I want to make sure I do a good job. I want to make sure my guest isn’t pissed at me. I want to make sure that my audience feels satisfied.
I aspire to ask questions in as direct a way as you do, but I’m scared.
Don’t be scared. I’m scared too, but I do it anyway. It’s about being an active listener. That is my greatest strength. Actively listening and taking people at their word.
You’ve said that when you’re interviewing someone, you’re playing a character, and the way you dress is an expression of that.
It’s like when someone is a method actor and half of the work is the costume and the makeup. That’s the same for me. I interviewed Phoebe Bridgers in thigh-high stockings and Naomi Campbell with straight hair with two barrettes and over-lined lips. That gets me to a place.
Why did you wear this today?
Honestly, I wore this because I knew it was hot outside.
You came out of the pandemic with an entire show. If pre-pandemic Ziwe looked at you know, would this make sense?
This makes sense. It was ten years worth of planning. I’ve been working through these process literally for years.
You’ve said the goal of your comedy is “to punch up at the powerful.” Now that you have your own show and are more established, I wonder if your definition of what “punching up” means has shifted at all?
I wouldn’t say that it necessarily has. It’s not exactly about the individual … they’re not as interesting to me as the values they stand for and are upholding.
I’ve seen some critiques of the show in which people think you’re attacking individuals, or otherwise being baselessly antagonistic. How would you respond to that?
That’s the show. My guests are happy and willing participants. We are creating comedy together. We brief them on the show. The show has many interviews. They’ve seen it. I think to say that I’m baselessly antagonistic, maybe it’s a misreading.
Maybe the show isn’t for everyone. It’s supposed to be chaotic and give you anxiety and be silly and tense. If you don’t like that, then watch a straightforward interview. CBS This Morning is a very fantastic program with Gayle King, but you’re going to get something different from my show.
If you had to guess, why do you think people go on your show?
I don’t know.
Do you think generally they want to redeem themselves? I mean, no one wants to be humiliated.
Is it humiliating?
I think for some people it’s humiliating. And maybe some people do want to be humiliated. I don’t know. If you had to guess?
I cannot speak for why. I am not responsible for their actions. I really want to get that through people’s heads.
You’ve said one of your intentions with Baited was to interview your white co-workers and make them feel uncomfortable about race. Some of your early career experiences were in pretty white spaces — Colbert, The Daily Show, Hysteria. Did your experiences in any of these places compel you to make the work you do now?
The conception for Baited happened because I was the only Black person. The first week of a job, I saw the other brown person get fired. [My co-workers] were all white liberals who could never fathom the idea that they were offensive or racist. I would have to answer on behalf of the Black community, the brown community, every community.
I have a very unique perspective on race because I grew up in New England. I have the subtleties, the nuance, the feather dust of real problematic stuff that comes from the Northeast.
Your parents immigrated here?
They immigrated, they’re Nigerians. For Nigerians, specifically, education is everything.
Same with Indians.
Yeah, my parents were disappointed that I was an artist. I don’t even think they know what I do still.
You started out as a math major right?
Yeah, I did. And I hated it. Everybody was white and a man.
What was shifting to something more artistic like?
Well, I was depressed in college, and finding the humanities was easier. I did every fucking major, and then I landed on African American studies with a double major in film and a minor in poetry, because I have to see myself in the work or I don’t care.
What did you write poems about?
Race? It’s complicated. I would say that I saw the world in rose-colored glasses until I was in college. There was just a lot of police violence that I was noticing for what felt like the first time.
How was your sense of humor impacted by that?
I’ve always been comedic. It’s how I process trauma. Things are laughable, and if they weren’t, I would cry.
It wasn’t like a flipped switch and all of a sudden you were like, “I’m going to use comedy to deal with this.”
No. It was, Wow. Everything is horrible. This is so ridiculous, I’m going to laugh. But it’s art. It’s for consumption.
Have you always been artistic?
I’ve always been musical. I was a president of my a capella club in high school. I’ve been creating things for years privately. I have been working through this art for a while — really badly, by the way.
What do you mean “really badly?”
Not everything is good. Not everything is good.
When you first started your comedy, did it not land?
Yeah. Sure. It’s really hard for people to tell when I’m kidding and when I’m not kidding. It’s hard for me to sometimes to understand when I’m kidding and when I’m not kidding.
What do you mean?
I remember I had a co-worker once … I was joking about how I couldn’t wait to start my own Church of Ziwe. She’s like, “I can’t tell if you’re joking. It’s like, “Well … ”
You do have stan accounts that would join the Church of Ziwe.
I’m ready. That’s my pivot if this show ever gets canceled.
Well, say it does, where do you want to end up? Do you have any more ambitions?
Specifically, world domination. I would like to do everything under the sun before I take my last breath on Earth, whether that’s as a pop star or as a host on a bigger show or as a writer.
Would you ever pursue your pop-star route seriously? I know you write original pop songs.
Yes. I take it very seriously. I think no one else takes me seriously.
I loved “Wet Diaper (Goo Goo Gah Gah.)”
Thank you. People were surprised that I could dance. [She begins gyrating in her chair.] I have to put more into pursuing being a pop star seriously.
I have to dip soon, I’m going to do Ellen.
You’re doing Ellen?
I know. I’m really excited. I used to watch her show.
How do you feel about her?
I’m excited to do her show. It’s going to be wild. She’s an icon.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.