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Ziwe masters the art of asking all the wrong questions

Ziwe in character on "Ziwe."Barbara Nitke

Ziwe enjoys a good haymaker. On her self-titled Showtime variety and talk show, which resumes its second season in November, the guests don’t tell breezy anecdotes or set up clips from their latest movie. Instead, the host’s questions are designed to make the subject and the audience squirm a little.

In one episode, she presented comedian Julio Torres with a quote in which he had said he didn’t want to use his gay or immigrant identity as a calling card. Ziwe asked him, “Who do you want to represent less, immigrants or gay people?” She showed actor Adam Pally a photo of himself with his hair in cornrows and asked, “Is this allyship to the Black community?” She asked Ilana Glazer if she was profiting off of climate change by calling her stand-up special “The Planet Is Burning,” and followed up by asking if any fossil fuels were used to make “Broad City.”


Her aim is to subvert the tradition of talk show niceties to get to something more real. “It’s a different entry point,” Ziwe says ahead of her live show Oct. 14 at The Wilbur, “where you really get to understand the celebrity by giving them an unfair question.”

According to “Ziwe” writer Sam Taggart, who will be on the bill at the Wilbur, the idea is to brainstorm questions no one else would tackle to get an interesting reaction. “If I could ask them anything that would be something that, in polite conversation, I’m not allowed to ask, what would it be?” he says, describing their thinking.

The Ziwe who hosts the show is a character she’s been honing for roughly eight years and polished on her YouTube series “Baited.” She calls her TV persona “Beyoncé on a budget,” someone with more confidence than she’s earned, similar to Stephen Colbert’s character on “The Colbert Report” (where Ziwe once interned). “This character is like inherently sort of high status in the way that she approaches people,” she says. “She’s so assertive and so direct, which feels kind of counterintuitive to a traditional interview where you’re lower status.”


Josh Gondelman knows what it’s like to sit in the hot seat opposite Ziwe. He was a guest on “Baited” (he was co-executive producer for “Desus & Mero” when Ziwe was a writer for the show). “It was very flattering and incredibly stressful to be a guest on ‘Baited,’” he says. “Like, I don’t consider myself to be a racist person, but there really is no good answer to the question, ‘As a white boss, how would you fire James Baldwin?’”

Ziwe and guest Charlamagne tha God on "Ziwe," her Showtime series.Greg Endries

In character, Ziwe can take risks and create a performance that allows her to dig into the satire. “For me,” she says, “the art has to have a bit of separation for it to feel honest, which seems like a contradiction. But if it was me, I would be so much more protective of how I looked and how I was perceived. And when I have separation [from the character], it allows me to be imperfect . . . and feel at peace with that.”

On the show, Ziwe says the guests know what they’re getting into. “It’s about creating something together,” she says. “I never want to leave with my guest being upset with me. But I’m OK with the audience feeling strongly. There’s a distinction there, right? Because good art is evocative, bad art evokes nothing.”


Another important distinction — the uncomfortable questions are there to create entertaining tension, not damn someone for moral failings that are all too common. “The character is judgmental,” says Ziwe. “I think the ethos behind the show isn’t as judgmental.”

Ziwe Fumudoh was raised by strict Nigerian immigrant parents in Lawrence, then attended Phillips Academy Andover and Northwestern University. She has moved in a variety of social circles, and that has had an impact on her comedy. “What I learned with each iteration of my education is that I know nothing,” she says. “Everyone kind of believes that their perspective is correct. So I like to approach conversations with the knowledge that they think they’re right. I think I’m right. How can we see that we agree at any point?”

Each episode of the show revolves around a hot-button issue like race or climate change. But Ziwe will tell you the emphasis is on comedy. “I think I lead with laughter, lead with what makes me laugh. Because life is short. And no one wants to, like, eat medicine for an hour. If you get interesting worldviews as you are entertaining people, that’s great. But it’s comedy first.”

Some of the most heightened satire on the Showtime show comes out in songs. She performed “Wet Diaper (Goo Goo Gah Gah),” about fetishizing women as girls, while dancing lewdly and singing in baby talk. “Stop Being Poor” lights up out-of-touch people who believe poverty is a choice. “Stop being poor,” goes the chorus, “let the wealth trickle down, let the money hit the floor.”


When she does the songs live, it can be disconcerting to see the audience singing along gleefully to the worst elements of her character. “The character is saying some of the most grotesque things,” she says, “but to have a crowd cheering back with you, it’s like, oh my God, what is this ideology that we’re all kind of complicit in at the same time?”

Music will be a part of her show at the Wilbur, and there will be interviews and audience interactions. But that’s about as specific as she gets in describing it. “It’s like lightning in a bottle,” she says. “We walk away, and it never happens again, like every show is slightly different depending on where you perform it.”

Ziwe doesn’t like to get too comfortable with the audience. She describes one show in which she was discussing Barack Obama while will.i.am’s 2008 campaign anthem “Yes We Can” was playing in the background, when something clicked. “The audience was loving it, but almost salivating over it in a way that I didn’t love,” she says. So she ran the ship aground, singing the same song over and over until some people walked out in anger. “I had them in that I lost them intentionally,” she says. In that moment, she felt more in control, and produced a more genuine moment.



At The Wilbur, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m. $26-$50. www.thewilbur.com

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.