With her new Showtime variety series, Ziwe Fumudoh, known professionally as just Ziwe, is ready to create her “Ziwe cinematic universe.”
The comedian and author went viral last summer when she hosted an Instagram Live show “from my bedroom.” Not only did she host and interview guests from Alyssa Milano to Alison Roman, but Ziwe was also responsible for the show’s set design, hair and makeup, costume design and talent booking. Then, if she didn’t want to do an episode, she just didn’t do it, because she was only “accountable to myself,” she tells Variety on the first Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast. Listen below!
Now, with a new platform on Showtime and partnership with producers at A24, Ziwe finally has collaborators and can “scale the show up to the level in which I think it deserves.”
“Ziwe,” which bows May 9, is a “variety show in the truest sense,” she previews, noting that episodes will include sketches, music videos and field pieces where she talks to real New Yorkers about race, in addition to interviews with such celebrity guests as Fran Lebowitz, Adam Pally, Bowen Yang and Eboni K. Williams. While each episode may have a different interview-to-sketch ratio, they will all be structured around a single theme and include “Easter eggs” to connect to older episodes and therefore the overall universe she is creating.
Because Ziwe says “comedy…is how I heal through trauma,” she is always looking to “use laughter as a device to make me feel better about the world.” Through her witty lens, though, she also uses the show to satirize how America treats lower income individuals, comment on colorism and colonization, challenge classic beauty standards and explore the different relationships many individuals have to experiences of racism.
“When I’m interviewing my respective guests, I can’t control what their answers are,” Ziwe notes, but with sketches “we are able to craft an idea and really hone in on the satire of what we’re trying to criticize.”
“As far as the topics of each respective interview, which is wealth and allyship and 55% of white women and whitewashing, we came up with the topics first and then we developed the sketches and the music videos and the questions for the respective guests after the fact,” Ziwe continues. “It was really about, ‘How do we refine what we’re trying to say through a lens so it’s clear and consistent?'”
If an idea feels more like a “visual joke,” Ziwe and her writers’ room turn it into a stylized piece, such as a fake commercial for American Girl dolls (starring Cristin Milioti and Jane Krakowski) or a “Stop Being Poor” music video featuring Patti Harrison. The latter, she previews, was born out of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when “a lot of Americans were losing their jobs and they had no way of paying for their homes. They were getting evicted and the response in public discourse was like, ‘Hey, figure it out. Sorry, good luck, the stimulus check will come when it comes,'” she recalls, adding that she was “really heartbroken by that.
“I just don’t understand how you can treat citizens like that,” she continues. So she created a song where she and Harrison are dancing in matching tennis suits, wearing fake diamonds, rapping, “Stop being poor,” but the undercurrent is about “the last year in American politics.”
Although Ziwe isn’t afraid to dive into serious issues, her show is “always a comedy show first,” so paramount to the presentation of such conversations is that they are “palatable and enjoyable and light-hearted.”
Working with large companies like A24 and Showtime has not caused Ziwe to have to tamp down her mission, her messaging or even her line of questioning with guests. In fact, there have been times she claims they have encouraged her to go further and her response has been that she’s “not that radical.”
“This is about a journey,” she says. “You’ve got to walk before you run.”
But Ziwe isn’t slowing down any time soon. In August 2020, just a few months before her Showtime show was announced, she signed a deal with Abrams Books to write a book of essays that was described as one-part “anti-racist guide” and one-part “window into her life” as she talks about pop culture and social dynamics. Entitled “The Book of Ziwe,” this is the next piece in her universe, currently scheduled for a February 2022 release.
“There are things that you can write and really verbalize that you might want to visualize on your show, and these things are connected. I’m talking about race in my book as well, and I’m talking about my experience in the pandemic and my interpretations of the racial uprising of last year, Ziwe says. “It’s really about the different mediums and kind of conforming to them because people ingest in different ways.”
Variety’s Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast is hosted by Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in television. Each week during Emmy season, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.