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What Does “Iconic” Mean to Ziwe? Let Her Tell You

Fresh off an interview with New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, the Showtime host chats dream guests, beauty standards, and the initial response to her show after three weeks

Getty Images/Cody Pearson

The character Ziwe plays on her show is proudly ignorant. In her infamous interviews, the mononymous comedian regularly compares her guests to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. (No offense to Real Housewife Eboni K. Williams, but calling her a civil rights leader is a little much.) She’ll ask Gloria Steinem if she’s the face of white feminism or the white face of feminism, then tell Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison she doesn’t think in terms of race. Fluent in the buzzword-laden language of social media—every guest is “iconic,” every answer is a sensational headline—the Ziwe of Ziwe comes off like someone whose knowledge of social justice comes mainly from infographics on Instagram.

Out of character, Ziwe is anything but. Speaking on the phone late last week, shortly after taping this Sunday’s interview with New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, the host is focused and precise, whether she’s pinpointing the true satirical target of censoring Fran Lebowitz or articulating her takeaways from working as a writer on Desus & Mero. After our interview, she emails to clarify her inspiration for a mock “Ziwe for Mayor” campaign ad, which casts her as a rich dilettante in search of a glamorous second act. (“I moved to the city in 2000-and-who-gives-a-fuck. Now, I want to give back—but first, I need to get more out of it.”) Yes, she’s partly riffing on the candidate widely mocked for such out-of-touch behavior as decamping to the Hudson Valley for the worst of the pandemic. But she’s also riffing on the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, and she’s careful to note it.

Launching a late-night show is difficult in the best of times, let alone now. In its first few weeks on air, Ziwe has nonetheless managed to break through the noise with a mix of eye-catching fashion—inspirations include Barbie, Rihanna, and Dionne from Clueless—and pointed discomfort. Three weeks in, the creator, host, executive producer, and regular musical guest of Ziwe takes some time to talk about dream guests, Gayle King, wealth hoarding, and what “iconic” means to her.

First of all, congratulations on landing Andrew Yang.

Oh, thank you.

You have such a wide range of guests that come from such different backgrounds. How do you think about who you want to have on the show?

I could talk to anybody. I like interviewing people, so I could talk to anyone. So as far as who is on the show, it really depends on what we’re trying to do for each respective episode. An episode like “Beauty Standards,” having Eboni K. Williams, a beauty pageant star as well as the first Black Housewife of New York, and then Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette—that’s just a natural marriage. And then for the episode about white women: Gloria Steinem, iconic feminist; Fran Lebowitz, iconic feminist with lots of opinions. It’s really about trying to service the theme of the episode in the best way possible.

Obviously an iconic guest is a prerequisite for your show. What does “iconic” mean to you?

The thing about “iconic” is, it’s a word that’s overused. That’s kind of the joke that I’m doing: Everything can’t be iconic and nothing’s iconic. And what’s wild about iconography is that what’s iconic for you isn’t iconic for me. So to me, Martin Luther King Jr. is an icon, but to some, Robert E. Lee is an icon. So I really like to play with the iconic bads versus the iconic goods.

How did you think about the themes that you wanted to tackle?

It just came down to the plethora of ideas we had, that I brought into the room. For example, a plastic surgeon was an idea I had two years ago. I really wanted to go to a plastic surgeon’s office. What would that be like? How do you deconstruct the inherent sexism that could be had in a plastic surgeon’s room—or racism, or whatever-ism is in that room. I thought that that was a really interesting space that hasn’t been explored intellectually aside from the garden-variety reality shows. So, that was an idea. Then you work backward. Okay, beauty standards, beauty, what else is beauty? And then we made [the mock commercial] Blossr, and then “Goo Goo Gah Gah.” So it depends on each respective episode.

“Stop Being Poor” was an idea that happened before “Wealth Hoarders” was set in stone. So it’s a working document and we’re just taking really strong ideas that we pull from societal narratives. “Stop Being Poor” is inspired by Reaganomics and the pandemic. Millions of Americans were told to just figure it out when all of a sudden the economy stops and they’re left to default on their loans and lose their houses and be evicted. And then “Stop Being Poor” is a natural progression because it’s like, well, this is what it sounds like you’re saying for us to do. Then we go to “Wealth Hoarders.” So it really just depends on each respective episode and the piece.

Are there any Holy Grail dream guests that you have in mind or would it be jinxing it to name them?

People ask me this all the time. Kim Kardashian’s a dream guest! I think she’d be iconic.

She would have been perfect for “Beauty Standards.” Maybe you’ll do a Part 2.

I think I actually will. We have an allyship episode coming up with Phoebe Bridgers and that’s a theme that is full of ideas that I think we have to repeat. So I’m not against us repeating themes because there’s so much to cover.

So much of the final interviews we see as an audience is added in postproduction. What’s the editing process like?

It depends on the thing. Like where [Fran Lebowitz] was talking about Obama and we bleep it out—that idea came immediately as she was speaking, because she brought up Obama unprompted. I actually tensed up. Then I thought, “It’s weird that I’m tensing up. He’s not even president anymore!” I really wanted to explore the liberal media agenda. Because a lot of times, these real shows, what they would do is just cut that out. But I love the idea of “censoring it” with a bleep to show the censorship. And then it becomes a commentary about the power of journalists or so-called journalists who are actually just entertainers. So that’s something that happened immediately.

But then other things, like the headlines. For example, “Eboni K. Williams Objectifies Religious Icon.” That comes in post where we’re just sitting, we’re watching it, and it’s like, “This moment is so funny.” How can we emphasize, highlight the hyperbole of this reaction for her to answer the question, would you smash Mother Teresa? That’s offensive, inherently. And so it’s just about adding and subtracting to make the comedy really sing. It’s a process.

A lot of your fans came to your work through the internet. How did you think about introducing yourself to people who were seeing you for the first time in the context of this show?

I think that you see that with us leading with [the episode] “55%,” which is sort of an introductory course on what the show talks about, who the show’s guests can be, and what the headlines are doing. And there’s sketches and there’s music. It just feels like a perfect pilot episode.

But how did I prepare? Ultimately, I started to think about, what are the shows that I’m actually satirizing? CBS This Morning is something that we constantly are returning to. Gayle is in our episode! We use a clip of her talking to “Soho Karen.” So, CBS This Morning is something that I watched a lot of and thought, OK, how can we structure our show to feel like this?

I remember our first day of editing, Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan dropped the night before. I was absolutely captivated with how the interview was edited and the fact that there were commercials every 20 seconds. I don’t have a TV, so I was watching television for the first time in maybe three, four years. That was really exciting to me. What is the process? How do you comment on that process? It’s really about ingesting real television media on CNN, on CBS This Morning, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and then how do we use a lens that really analyzes it and creates something special and new while still feeling referential. I would say my show feels fresh, but it also is grounded in the real world. If you’ve seen a talk show, you will understand the basic premise of my show.

I feel like the lean into the camera at the end of your topical interviews is almost your version of the Desus & Mero neon sign.

Oh it is, absolutely.

What did you learn about late-night and variety shows from working with them?

Desus and Mero are two brilliant comedians. They are like students of comedy. They have really deep references. And they are also really, really spontaneous and they’re really good improvisers. Not only did I learn how to be a good boss and treat people kindly, but I learned the power of improvisation and being in the moment. Because my interviews are at their best when every single person in the room is surprised, including myself.

You mentioned music earlier. I absolutely wanted to ask about working with [composer] Nicholas Britell.

He’s an angel, he’s an angel. He’s so perfect. He’s so talented. I’ve been a fan of his for years. So having him, we licensed his songs for our show. It was one of the greatest moments of my career. I’m so proud of that song and the animation by Cartuna. I’m just beyond, beyond happy with it.

It also hints that this is really high art. So it’s like, you’re listening to Nicholas Britell and then I’m talking to Eboni K Williams: “So are pretty people ugly or ugly people smart?” It’s just this constant contrast. It’s chaos.

You’ve got a mix of high and low.

It’s all high and low!

I’m always curious how people assemble their staffs when they step into the position of being the boss. How did you curate the voices you wanted to be contributing to your show?

My writing room is really small. Me, Jamund Washington, Jordan Mendoza, Cole Escola, Michelle Davis, [and] writing assistant Malloy Moseley. All of these people—save for Jamund, who I met via A24—are people I’ve performed with for years in comedy. With specifically Michelle Davis, she’s someone who this is her first WGA job and Jordan’s first WGA job. And these are two really, really funny, hilarious comedians who should have broken out years ago, but for whatever reason they hadn’t. So I was honored to bring them into my room and let them play and have fun and go hard.

Cole Escola obviously is an icon. They are so talented, so brilliant. For example, “American Girl Doll” was written by Cole. That was an idea I’d been floating around for years. And I was like, “Cole, I have this idea. American Girl imperialist doll.” The premise is that it’s so weird that American Girl dolls, aren’t some of them slave owners? Like, I never stopped to think about it, but wait: Aren’t some of them the bad guys? They took that idea and ran with it, and then suddenly Jane Krakowski is making out with Cristin Milioti.

I’m sure the learning curve for hosting your own show is super steep. So now that you’re mid-production, is there anything you’re adjusting?

There’s stuff we’re adjusting because the news is constantly changing. We have Andrew Yang; obviously you have to ask him about his tweets this week. I’ve read some of the reviews. I try not to read them because it really does kind of make you spiral. So no and yes.

Honestly I’m more concerned with like, am I doing my best? Am I doing justice by my audience? Am I doing justice by my vision? That’s first.

Now that the show’s out in the world, what has the response been like?

It’s madness. It’s really, really surreal to see myself on billboards and to see trending on Hulu or whatever. But I really try not to invest in that because it’s easy come, easy go. I really have to take my time and invest in the actual work, writing, the production of it to make sure the show is quality because all of that stays. It’s like, will the show be good in five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years? Hopefully!