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Ziwe Is an Iconic Host

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If awards for maintaining composure while hearing wild takes existed, 2020’s would go to Ziwe. Before landing her eponymous new Showtime series, the 29-year-old comedian was best known for her popular Instagram Live show, Baited, which saw her asking guests blunt questions about race. In moments that would soon go viral, from influencer Caroline Calloway demanding compliments for her answers to chef Alison Roman struggling to name five Asian people, Ziwe wears a reassuring smile for the guest and a knowing eyebrow raise for the audience. That same grace under absurdity leads the way in Ziwe; the pilot features a wild interview with Fran Lebowitz that would’ve elicited flustered stuttering or nervous laughter from a less talented interviewer.

The series is the culmination of Ziwe’s career so far; the iconic interviews on race and society are still there, but they’re not the whole show. The half-hour variety series also includes sketches reminiscent of her days as a writer for Showtime’s Desus and Mero and music videos for bops similar to her album Generation Ziwe. Ziwe spoke with ELLE.com about the new show, her intellectual influences, and her legendary confidence.

How did you come up with the structure of your show? We’ve got the music, we’ve got the interviews, and we’ve got the sketches. It’s so you.

The show is a combination of all of the things that I’ve been doing up until this point. I’m a live performer; I’ve been performing in New York for the last five, six, seven years. I’ve been doing music, and I was also doing interviews on YouTube as well as the Instagram Live and in live shows. So there’s live-to-tape interviews versus studio interviews—which was the YouTube series—as well as the music videos and the sketches, which, I’ve been performing sketch forever. I did improv at Upright Citizens Brigade and iO Improv. So really, this is just a combination of all the skills I’ve been refining over the last decade.

How has your experience working on your show at a major network like Showtime differed from your Instagram and YouTube series?

Honestly, it’s been such a pleasure because now I actually have a budget rather than operating at a loss where I’m like, investing in myself only for no one to watch this. I now have a large platform and I get to interview guests like Fran Lebowitz, who I wouldn’t have interviewed otherwise because she doesn’t have the internet, she doesn’t have a Twitter or an Instagram. I could never ask her.

Props to that booker who got Fran Lebowitz.

Shout out to her, right? It was honestly such a pleasure and Fran’s interview is absolutely wild.

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Have you ever been genuinely shook by some of your guests’ answers?

I am shook every single time my guests answer questions. And that’s the nature to which I like to interview. I am an agent of chaos, so I ask questions with no idea how they’re going to answer the question. I like that sort of spontaneity. Maybe that comes from my background as a comedian and improviser. I like being really present and being an active listener, so I’m always shook, and that’s kind of the fun. That’s what keeps these interviews fresh for me, because I never know what people are going to say.

Is there an interview you admire that’s your favorite, that you go back to often?

One of my favorite interviews was Oprah and Dave Chappelle; that was a very iconic interview. And Oprah with Harry and Meghan. That also absolutely pivoted the way I was editing the show. That interview came out the day we started the edit, and that really informed how we were going to do graphics and how we were going to cut and do commercial breaks. Oprah’s like, a huge influence on my work, and I think you’ll see that in the new Showtime show.

But then, also, there’s an interview with Dick Cavett and James Baldwin that I found to be really compelling, because it’s just a late-night interview with this host and he’s interviewing James Baldwin, who happens to be one of the most prolific and thoughtful American writers in American history. It reinvents the idea of a late-night interview because what could be seemingly really boring, just someone promoting a book, is actually this thoughtful conversation that’s pertinent today, that’s discussing race. And I love the way that interview, in particular, ages. I’ve always been trying to search for, how do I ask questions that will feel relevant five, 10, 15, 20 years [from now]? Like, how do I have conversations that feel like there’s substance?

You’ve said that seeing Stephen Colbert helped you decide to go into satire. Do you feel like your approach to satire is primarily because of your African American studies background? Or do you feel like it’s just the way you see the world?

Greg Endries

My satire is unique because I have a unique purview of this world, as every single person does. I am a Black woman born and raised in New England in the post-racial Obama era. I went to boarding school and then I went to a private college. And before that, I went to public school from kindergarten to eighth grade. All of those experiences really influenced how I interpret American culture, how I ingest media, and where I see my placement in the world. And I use those life experiences to inform my art.

But my experience isn’t necessarily uncommon with other Black women, right? I think a lot of Black women can relate to the idea of, like, living your life, doing your thing, and all of a sudden someone brings up race. And you’re like, wait, why did you just say that? This is a Wendy’s. That’s an experience a lot of us can share that I am fortunate enough to bring to my art because of my position in the world. Some people bring that to their painting, some people bring that to their book writing, but I bring it to my comedic performance.

“I said that I was a brilliant comedic genius before I knew I was.”

Honestly, your confidence is inspiring. Was there a specific event or time in your life that helped you build your confidence?

There wasn’t a watershed moment exactly where I was like, today’s the day that I’m a confident young woman. It was just over time realizing, slowly but surely, that a lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re making it up as they go along. If I wanted to get the most out of my life, because I know that we’re not here forever, it was imperative that I step out on faith and do all the things I wanted to do.

There’s a very famous Muhammad Ali quote, which is, “I said I was the greatest before I knew I was.” That really imparted so much wisdom in me, which is like, I said that I was a brilliant comedic genius before I knew I was. I really put faith in myself and then let that guide me and learn with my respective mistakes. It’s all about just taking that step forward.

A lot has happened for you in the pandemic year, like truly becoming an iconic comedian as the world is falling apart. How has your life changed and how have you been able to take care of yourself and your mental health?

My life has changed in that I’m making a television show. That’s something that is radically different than a year ago, where I was a staff writer on Desus and Mero—literally this time last year. But conversely, I’m still primarily in a virtual world. We’re doing this press tour virtually. So day-to-day, my life is pretty consistently similar.

How have I been taking time to take care of myself? I’ve been watching a lot of Real Housewives. Potomac brings healing in my life. I just like to sit and relax, but I still have a lot of work to do before all of this is over.

Do you ever get sucked into that feeling I think a lot of comedians and writers feel, where enjoying content just feeds back into the work? You’re like, am I really taking time for myself, or am I just researching?

ziwe

Greg Endries

You know, that’s a really compelling question, because it is sometimes harder for me to watch a comedy and stop the analytical aspect, where I’m like, that’s a reference to this Carol Burnett sketch from 20 years ago. And ooh, I love the way he does physical comedy. Sometimes it’s hard to not break it down. That’s why I watch unscripted television when I feel a little too critical. But then there’s some times, like, I recently watched this film called Bad Trip with Eric André, Lil Rel [Howery]. Have you seen that?

It was so good!

That was amazing. Usually it gives me anxiety to watch comedy, but that was an experience that was so lighthearted and fun, and it actually inspired me to write my own feature. So it depends on the piece of work. Sometimes I can remove myself enough, but when I can’t, I just watch Real Housewives.

How’d you come up with your aesthetic? It’s always eyeliner on point, jewels glistening. Especially the “Stop Being Poor” video, it’s glamour and luxury that unfortunately aren’t always afforded to Black women.

There are a lot of answers to this question. I grew up as a tomboy and I never wanted to wear dresses. I only wanted to wear dirty pants, and my parents would pressure me to wear dresses because that’s what women did. So I was really averse to that. And then there was a time in my early adulthood where I started to really embrace femininity as a power, as a piece of strength. And then, as I grew up in entertainment and as an artist, I noticed this consistency where the most intellectual women are sort of desexualized and masculinized. They wear pants and suits and glasses to seem smart.

I really wanted to play with the idea of, is there a world where a female Black woman intellectual could be hyper feminine? Does that exist? It’s kind of a stark contrast to the late-night world, which is traditionally men in blue suits named Jimmy or John. I want to distinguish myself from that path. That hyper-femininity that you’re seeing on the show is a direct contrast and protest to that dominant aesthetic. It’s actually more of a social commentary, but I do love a look.

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I really love that parallel that both you and Amber Ruffin are doing.

I love Amber Ruffin, she’s brilliant. I love that she uses natural hair and her hair is beautiful in person. I really appreciated that. Seeing that in the NBC space is really radical and exciting. I’m trying to do my own thing as well and really see like, how do we transcend what it means to be an intellectual with a 34-inch wig? What does it mean to be an intellectual with red bottom stilettos on and a little tiny miniskirt? And things like that. You can be ultra-feminine and also smart. I really wanted to play with that ideal and wear pink, because that’s like the standard femininity of Barbies. I like to think of it as a subversion. It’s almost like Legally Blonde.

How has it felt to be embraced by your fellow female comedians, some of whom may have been idols of yours? Like with the Amazon special Yearly Departed.

It’s such a pleasure to see some of my heroes onscreen growing up and then get to collaborate with them in real life. Watching Jane Krakowski act on 30 Rock, and then to have her in my show’s pilot, that’s exciting for me. It’s been such a pleasure. There are so many brilliant women. I’m so lucky I get to highlight them on screen as well as behind the scenes, because our director is a woman—both of our directors, the music video and our interview director—as well as our director of photography, as well as our camera operators and our sound person.

I know it’s very frustrating to get the “what’s next” question when you’re like, ’I’m literally releasing a show now,‘ but in a perfect future, what would you like to accomplish?

World domination.

I knew you were going to say that. [Both laugh]

That’s what’s next.

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