Showtime’s ‘Ziwe’ Turns Viral Phenomenon Into Crackling Satire
Comedian Ziwe Fumudoh is making that much-coveted switch from internet sensation to fronting an actual TV series. Last year amid pandemic lockdowns her “Baited with Ziwe” truly went viral on Instagram Live with its blunt, hilarious series of interviews with fellow comedians and other celebrities, none of whom could escape Fumudoh’s sharp-edged questions regarding race and other topics. Now Fumudoh gets to indulge in what a slicker format can offer on Showtime with “Ziwe.” Colorful, bold and slyly provocative, its early episodes prove to be a brisk, enjoyable offering of genuine satire. Few gags are throwaways and while Fumudoh’s enemies are clearly racism and ignorance, she is not shy to also cast a subtle critique or two at the liberal side of the aisle as well.
The format of “Ziwe” is designed like some surreal talk show where Fumudoh, going by Ziwe, invites a central, well-known guest and then develops the rest of the episode’s themes around them. For the series premiere she doesn’t play easy and invites Fran Lebowitz, who is a total pro who knows how to roll with the punches. Lebowitz looks delighted when Ziwe asks questions like, “What bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?” When Lebowitz makes the usual PC claims about not seeing skin color, we get the sense she’s sincere, but Ziwe can’t help but cast a suspicious eye. Lebowitz of course comes across in the end as one of those great, lasting provocateurs in the tradition of Gore Vidal, concluding that if she’s prejudiced it’s against stupid people. Other guests include Real Housewife Eboni K. Williams, who is also a great sport even when Ziwe slyly calls her out for once being a Fox News host. Williams tries her best at defending viewers of the network as not all being dumb racists. When the topic of white-dominated perceptions of beauty comes up, the banter from Williams is as lively and funny as Ziwe’s (“I consider myself caramel”). In the same episode Ziwe visits a plastic surgeon who entraps himself by showing Ziwe a potential plan for touch ups and says, “it’s you, but better.”
There is always a refreshing glee in watching someone make the rich and famous squirm just a little, even if it’s not malicious. When Ziwe sits down with comedians Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison to discuss wealth in America, her first question is how much they make. Yang later retorts with a brain-twister of his own and wonders if it’s possible to build personal wealth and be a socialist at the same time. Nothing is off limits including discussions on cancel culture and political correctness. Ziwe targets racism and bigotry, but notice how there’s also other forms of politically self-aware humor. When Lebowitz says age has only made her more radical, and that she has criticisms of Obama the comment is bleeped out, with a disclaimer stating, “Reasonable criticism of a Black president.” Ziwe even throws in a #liberalagenda and #hope over the bleep. But the sharpest comedic knife is reserved for some of the more incendiary issues being discussed today in the United States.
When Ziwe isn’t conducting the interviews she then cuts to some brilliant bits of comedy. A satirical ad promotes a line of “American Girl Imperial Wives Collection” dolls, including a Pilgrim with a smallpox packing Bible and a president’s wife who begs to bomb another Middle Eastern country when they run out of oil money. Another segment introduces us to a club of “Karens” who discuss how the name has been tagged as an identifier of racist white women. It turns into a great moment of light humor as the various women named Karen discuss how sure they’ve called a manager to complain about bad service before, but not with any racist intentions. An edgier segment features Ziwe dressed like a stereotypical pop star and crooning a sexualized song in literal baby talk. It is meant to be a statement on how modern pop infantilizes women and it works with brilliant hilarity. As satire it strips down modern pop to look at just how shallow and dumb lyrics have become these days.
Fans of Ziwe Fumudoh will approach this show with her web series in mind, but seen strictly as a TV show it delivers with a brand of satire that has real intelligence. Some shows try to sneak the more meaningful content in-between raunch and absurdity, Fumudoh never wastes a moment on a useless joke. “Ziwe” dives straight into genuine cultural criticism when it wonders why Trump got 55% of the white female vote, or why Asian representation has to mean glorifying an arms dealer in reality TV schlock like “Bling Empire.” Because the host has great charm and the choice of guests is eclectic, none of the material ever feels forced, even when it’s more challenging than what you get currently with Stephen Colbert (who Fumudoh once interned for). “Ziwe” proves that discussing dicey social topics doesn’t mean lacking a funny bone.
“Ziwe” season one premieres May 9 and airs Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on Showtime.