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‘Ziwe’ Steps Through the Looking Glass Into the Next Wave of Late Night

Now with the backing and distribution of Showtime, internet sensation Ziwe Fumudoh has room to scale a different type of late night comedy

Showtime/Ringer illustration

On Ziwe, no one should get comfortable. Not even Ziwe.

A sketch in the premiere of the Showtime variety series begins as a standard faux commercial. Jane Krakowski and Cristin Milioti star as two women discussing American Girl dolls—specifically, the “Imperial Wives” collection, a spinoff highlighting the darker side of our nation’s past. Colonial-era Mrs. Winslow “comes with a Bible covered in smallpox.” Gentrifier Andrea reads White Fragility in the condo her Republican parents bought her. For the most part, the dolls are familiar riffs on the complicit white woman. But there’s one last addition to this gallery of rogues: Tina, a Black 20-something “who uses the language of social justice for profit.”

Last summer, Ziwe’s star and namesake conducted a series of viral interviews on Instagram Live that made her a household name, at least if your household was made up of extremely online millennials living in Brooklyn. Fusing the DIY scrappiness of the early pandemic with the anger and discomfort of the protests breaking out across the country, Ziwe’s Instagram act had its greatest success in spotlighting and confronting a certain kind of public figure. Caroline Calloway, Alison Roman, Alexis Neiers, Alyssa Milano: All were younger white women savvy enough to go on the show as a display of self-awareness but not so much that they knew how to answer questions like “How many Black friends do you have?”

The Instagram sessions grew big enough to earn Ziwe glowing profiles, a book deal for an essay collection, and finally, a TV show produced by the Oscar-winning, ultra-hip A24 (and aired on Showtime, which also hosts Ziwe’s former employers Desus and Mero). Along the way, Ziwe earned praise for what she brought out in her guests: a kind of flustered embarrassment when asked to identify Louis Farrakhan, or what they like about Black people, or why they hate Black women. But even as it confronted others’ hidden biases, Ziwe’s comedy has always taken equal aim at herself—an already intricate parody that gains an extra layer of context when thrust into the ossified landscape of late-night TV.

The first episode of Baited, Ziwe’s YouTube series that preceded and influenced the Instagram show, was shot shortly after the 2016 election. In the years since, late night has undergone a sea change catalyzed by PR disasters like Donald Trump hosting Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon messing up his hair. As a reaction against such enabling, sanitizing stunts, late night took a turn toward openly opinionated, progressive hosts. Viewers now have ample sources of infotainment at their fingertips: Samantha Bee; John Oliver; Seth Meyers; Stephen Colbert, who overtook Fallon in ratings in what was seen as a symbolic reversal. (Colbert also cocreated the animated series Our Cartoon President, in which Ziwe voiced Kamala Harris.) Rather than distract audiences from the news, these hosts sought to channel their frustration and position themselves as moral authorities in the process.

While all this was going on, Ziwe was honing her own persona, one heavily inflected by the norms of social media. “This is a show in support of Black women everywhere,” she introduces one episode of the YouTube show. “And one Black woman in particular: me!” The personality-driven interface of sites like Twitter and Instagram tends to conflate activism and narcissism, an elision Ziwe elevated into high art. Self-serving mock outrage is her character’s bread and butter. After asking a guest to spell “systematic oppression,” Ziwe playfully chides him: “There’s no spelling that will erase what I feel every day.” With a show called Baited, the bad faith is implied—and the emcee’s moral authority is off the table.

Scaling these clips into a full-fledged TV show gives Ziwe and her writers the space to sharpen the schtick even further. From the jump, the series just looks different from a typical late-night show. Inspired by Barbie’s Dream House, the hot-pink set is as feminine as it is deliberately obnoxious. Episodes have sketches and music videos interspersed throughout and are unsurprisingly structured around interviews: One is filmed in the studio well beforehand, while the other is shot live to tape before each episode airs. (Critics were given the first three episodes, but without topical interviews like Sunday’s sit-down with Gloria Steinem.) At a virtual premiere event last Thursday, Ziwe explained that her conversation with Fran Lebowitz was edited down from two full hours of face time, swapping the spontaneity of live interrogation for the control of a premeditated cut.

Ziwe was produced under the constraints of the pandemic. But where a lack of audience can read on other shows as eerie, it’s the perfect setting for Ziwe’s aggressive awkwardness. A professional curmudgeon with her own form of niche fame, Lebowitz makes for an ideal foil, unable to conceal her disdain at deliberately absurd queries like “What percentage of white women do you hate?” or “What bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?” (The answer: “Day to day, I encounter more slow walkers.”) All the while, graphics punctuate the interview with sensational chyrons modeled after clickbait, such as “FRAN LEBOWITZ: ALL PERSISTENCE MATTERS.” It’s a gotcha interview in the style long perfected by The Daily Show, but with its unfair questions and proud solipsism, the person telling on themselves is the interviewer, not the interviewee. Not that the cringe factor doesn’t get results. After introducing her guest as someone she’s idolized “ever since she agreed to do this interview,” Ziwe goads Lebowitz into asserting that “the only people who think white women are in charge are Black women.”

The tongue-in-cheek tagline for Ziwe is “a provocative new voice in comedy.” But while a late-night show fronted by a Black woman is inarguably new, there are certain precedents for the balancing act the show attempts. On The Colbert Report, a younger Stephen Colbert did a rough impersonation of Bill O’Reilly—a liberal aping a conservative who had to both stay in character and signal the true target of his jokes. On Between Two Ferns, Zach Galifianakis made a spectacle of his own deadpan incompetence. With Ziwe, it feels like we’ve gone fully through the looking glass: On the other side of the Trump administration, the “woke” talk show host is now enough of a trope that a spoof of it can fully sustain its own talk show, just as the Fox News anchor could in the mid-aughts. A music video in the second episode puts Ziwe in a literal sexy baby outfit, much to her costars’ chagrin. “This song makes me really uncomfortable,” one complains. “It’s called SATIRE,” she barks. “Ever heard of it?!”

The first episode of Ziwe is the most in line with what audiences already know her for, the better to introduce her to newcomers. (The title is “55%,” after the proportion of white women who voted to reelect Trump.) Future installments expand her approach to themes like wealth and beauty standards and include guests like comedian Patti Harrison and Eboni K. Williams, the first Black Real Housewife of New York. Ziwe takes on a slightly different valence depending on who’s in the hot seat. With comics like Harrison and SNL’s Bowen Yang, everyone’s in on the joke and riffing accordingly; Williams can roll with the punches like any good reality star, but still feels slightly at sea. Upcoming guests run the gamut from musician Phoebe Bridgers to Happy Endings star Adam Pally.

Perhaps because it’s so expected, “55%” is the weakest of the first three episodes, and the one that comes closest to making Ziwe the very archetype it otherwise sends up. A focus group of real-life women named Karen can feel like it’s working to embarrass its subjects, who aren’t public figures, simply for lacking fluency in the internet’s language of race and power—a dubious target, and a glimpse of what a less precise version of Ziwe could look like. But the other samples show that Ziwe has the range to expand its approach beyond the kind of tension that first made its host famous.

With its high production values and extreme specificity, it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine Ziwe as a full-on weekly talk show like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver or Desus & Mero. This kind of meta-commentary works best in small doses, the better for Ziwe to more carefully calibrate its line of attack. It’s also hard to gauge how much of an audience there is for a show that may not reference the internet much outright, but arose from it and still retains its rhythms. The longer Ziwe goes on, though, the more opportunity viewers will have to tune into its frequency. Out of character, Ziwe can be strikingly earnest: “I hope if people watching the show get anything, it’s that we all have something to learn,” she told the crowd at last week’s premiere. On Ziwe, she’s anything but—and late night’s all the better for it.