In this FRONTPAGE feature from the new issue of Highsnobiety Magazine, we catch up with the singularly incisive television sensation Ziwe.
There was no magic moment when Ziwe realized she was funny.
It didn’t occur to her when she was elected class clown of her high school. Nor did it happen when she landed a coveted spot in Chris Rock’s internship program at Comedy Central. Or when one of her jokes appeared on The Colbert Report when she was just 21 years old.
Instead, Ziwe’s a-ha moment arrived in a very “gradual and organic” way. Throughout her life, Ziwe (she prefers the mononym) has been using humor as a way to “deflect or process” various situations she encounters on a day-to-day basis. “people were telling me that I was not funny and that I should stop,” she says matter-of-factly before taking a brief pause. “Honestly.”
Born to Nigerian parents, Ziwe was raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She received a scholarship to attend Phillips Academy—one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country—then went on to Northwestern University, initially majoring in math before pivoting to African American studies and poetry. She wanted to become a professional poet, but after realizing that there weren’t many lucrative jobs in the field, she began pursuing a double major in Radio/Television/Film.
Still hoping to channel her passion for writing, Ziwe applied for and was accepted into Comedy Central’s internship program and eventually launched her own humor magazine while interning at The Onion. She also dove headfirst into New York’s comedy scene, taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and trying her hand at stand-up. She admits it was an initially harrowing experience: “I overcame that fear by just doing comedy, like performing and failing, and realizing that failure was not a death sentence but opening another opportunity to try again and get better. For a lot of people, the risk of failure is enough to stop you from ever pursuing your true passions. That was a huge obstacle for me.”
“One day someone asked me if I wanted to do a comedy show,” she says. “I lied and was like, ‘Yeah, I do [them] all the time.’ Then I did the show, and it didn’t go horribly. So I continued to do it over and over and over.”
In 2017, Ziwe debuted a YouTube series called Baited, in which she prodded her coworkers into uttering racial faux pas. If it wasn’t immediately clear from Baited that Ziwe was bound for success, then it was made manifest when she moved the show to Instagram Live at the height of the pandemic in 2020. It became hard to avoid her viral videos, like the clip of cookbook author Alison Roman (who faced backlash after criticizing Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo) struggling to name five Asian women on the spot. Or the one which shows influencer Caroline Calloway asking Ziwe for an “ally cookie” as a reward for purchasing books from a Black-owned bookstore. Ziwe shuts her down: “There are no cookies in this game.”
Thousands of viewers tuned in each week to watch Ziwe’s guests fumble through questions like “What do you qualitatively like about Black people?” and “How many Black friends do you have?” Spectators became enthralled by her signature squint of judgment and pushing her face as close to the camera screen as possible. Baited captured the alternative comedy style that Ziwe had been mastering for years. Ziwe, the character, allows her “to have a layer of defense so I don’t feel self-conscious asking what some would argue are slightly rude questions.”
Ziwe’s comedy highlights the awkward racial encounters that so many Black people, particularly Black women, can relate to; a non-Black stranger coming up to share how many Black friends they have, or someone telling you “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could have” while you’re shopping for produce.
I had one of these experiences just days before Ziwe and I spoke. As I was getting out of my car in Los Angeles, a middle-aged parking attendant rushed over to me and flashed his cell phone in my face. “Look!” he said excitedly as he displayed an image of a light-skinned girl who had tight brown curls, features differing from his green eyes and straight hair. “This is my daughter. She’s Black… but she’s mine,” the man told me, unprovoked. “My lady was with a Black guy before me.”
Confused, I responded, “She’s adorable. You take care of her, OK?” then rushed away. But afterwardsI couldn’t help but think how Ziwe might have handled the situation. I’d like to think she’d say something like, “Cute kid. What do you get out of showing random Black women that you have a half Black child, sir?” I giggled to myself, taking a note to tap into her energy the next time I experience one of these interactions.
Ziwe has received many messages from people sharing how they interpret the show or how it has made them feel seen. Some don’t see her perspective at all. “But really, my goal is to make people laugh,” she says. “I mean, we’re living in such a difficult political climate, so the biggest takeaway I want from this show is for people to appreciate the comedic elements of it.”
For years, Ziwe spoke of getting a TV deal, so when Showtime came knocking – the same network where she’d worked as a writer on Desus and Mero – she knew it was time to get to work. “This was during the dead of the pandemic and we produced the show in six months, so it was really kind of like gametime,” she says. “It was about assembling a team and getting it together so that we can continue to shoot more episodes, because it’s like, in the words of Tyra Banks, ‘You’re only as good as your last photo.’”
“It’s really, really rewarding,” she continues. “It felt like a culmination of a decade, maybe a lifetime, of work. But I also felt the pressure of having to go forward and do what I said that I could do.
ZIWE made its sparkly pink debut on May 9, 2021. The first season saw her discussing topics ranging from beauty standards to allyship to whitewashing to immigration, all with her trademark wit. On the season’s opener, she bluntly asked New York City icon, author and humorist Fran Lebowitz, “What bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?” In another episode, she pressed comedian-actor Adam Pally about why he opted to wear cornrows in the 2016 film Dirty Grandpa.
The second season, which premiered a year later, featured guests like Chet Hanks, Ziwe’s former Northwestern classmate and the son of Tom Hanks, who she questioned about appropriating a Jamaican Patois accent. Elsewhere, comedian/actor Ilana Glazer apologized to “marginalized communities” for ignorantly using the phrase “Yas, Queen!” on Broad City, and Ziwe blatantly asked radio host and TV personality, Charlamagne Tha God, if he hated Black women.
Just as exciting as the guests Ziwe invites on the show are the looks that she turns – which are heavily inspired by Dionne Davenport’s rich school girl aesthetic in the 1995 cult classic Clueless – with the help of stylist Pamela Shepard, who she met while working at BET’s The Rundown with Robin Thede. Her outfits shatter the idea of what a late night talk show host has traditionally looked like. Her looks have ranged from a preppy pink and white Balmain dress paired with Versace platforms to a monochrome green look featuring a Gucci suit and Jeffrey Campbell boots. There’s even an Instagram fan page called “Ziwe’s Closet” that breaks down her outfits from the show and other appearances.
“To me that is like, the highest honor, because I follow a couple of the closet accounts,” she says excitedly. “I follow the Bella [Hadid] and Zendaya closet accounts. So if there’s a moment where I thought I made it, it was like ‘Oh my gosh, I have someone surveilling my looks.’”
When we speak, Ziwe is preparing to resume production for the second set of episodes for the ongoing season (set to arrive on November 20), which she said is going to be “reloaded… crunch wrap supreme.” We discuss what she’s most looking forward to: “Maintaining the standard that we set out in the first 12 episodes of the series, and having interviews that continue to entertain and shock even ourselves. You never want to get too formulaic. You never want to get boring. What is really fun about our show is that it’s so surprising. We have some really wild guests that are lined up for this next batch, so we want to continue pushing the envelope.”
Nowadays it’s more difficult for Ziwe, who used to slide into the DM’s of her prospective guests, to narrow down who she wants to bring on the show “because you’re trying to figure out who is the best guest for each respective theme,” she explains. “Someone who can bring comedy, but also a thoughtful perspective. The guests deeply affect the creative content of the show, even if everything is written before they show up. Because once you’re sitting across from the person, the interview is really quite improvised. You have questions and you have games that you prep, but you really have no idea what to expect from the guest. So it’s a negotiation of figuring out what guests are perfect for the show. But I have a long list of people I’d love to talk to.”
In addition to her show – where she serves as host, writer, actor, executive producer, consultant and musical guest – Ziwe also released a pop mixtape titled Generation Ziwe in 2020, which features tracks “Make It Clap for Democracy,” “Ponderosa With Omarosa,” and “AOC Bamba.” She’s also slated to release a book of essays sometime next year. “What’s next for me is world domination,” she says. “I would love to interview Ted Cruz one day and ask him how he sleeps at night, but time will tell. I’m just taking it a day at a time.”
In the introduction of the ZIWE episode “Hot!”, she makes a powerful declaration: “Earth is in its flop era.” On her Instagram, she posted a screenshot of this moment, which depicts her standing at a podium in front of two American flags. But that was just weeks before the nation’s highest court axed Roe v. Wade, banning the constitutional right to abortion. “Thanks to the iconic Supreme Court, I, like all other American women and gender non-confirming women, no longer have autonomy over my body,” she says when asked about the worst part of being a celebrity is.
On the other hand, she quips: “My favorite thing about being a celebrity is that people ask me about what it’s like being a celebrity and I have no real answer.”Head here to get a copy of the new issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.