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ZIWE ON TOP
“Honestly, I don’t know about you, but I hate talking about my parents in interviews. My parents are so private!” Ziwe exclaims.
I’m trying to find some common ground between myself and the comedic actress over a morning phone call patched through by her publicist. We are both first-generation Nigerian journalists in a burgeoning media landscape and with what I think are similar senses of humor, but clearly, I am outmatched.
Ziwe is the queen of interviews. She goes seamlessly from making her guests feel at ease (albeit on the edge of a sword) to unveiling their deep-seated biases, a process that seems more appropriate for a therapy sofa than a top-rated network show. Ziwe is not known for taking an easy way out in her notorious sit-downs with various celebrities, from Real Housewives to Gloria Steinem. Her parody-like investigative journalism approach has been lauded by critics as, “Absolutely iconic,” “Messy,” “Funny,” “Stupid,” “Political,” and “Smart,” all at the same time.
“I feel like most Nigerian parents would prefer their children to be doctors, lawyers, or accountants,” she goes on, to appease me, “So, they definitely did want that task for me. But I think that they’re really intrigued by this. It’s hard for them to conceptualize what I do for a living until I’m on CBS This Morning. My father loves Gail, so he was impressed by that. I don’t think in their wildest dreams they could have imagined that this was the path of their kids.”
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The second season of her eponymous Showtime series Ziwe will be airing this fall, following viral moments that consumed the internet. There have been spats with Hannibal Buress over songwriting credits, Phoebe Bridgers being described as a “wispy blond” in her lower thirds, and Andrew Yang stopping by during his run for New York City mayor.
There was also Chet Hanks getting grilled on his patois accent: “That was such a fun interview to do because it happened so last minute, honestly,” said Ziwe.”He just texted me randomly like, ‘Hey, loved you in The Bachelor.’ And I was like, ‘Chet, want to do my show.’ And he said, ‘Yep.’ And then he flew in that weekend and we sort of just taped. I mean, it’s literally what you see on the screen. It’s really funny because so much of it feels chaotic. The interview was probably one of the more chaotic ones we’ve ever done. And it’s a testament to the scene that we created together.”
Her high-profile guests sit in a hot seat of rapid-fire, being probed on everything from race to class orientation in a zany, albeit confrontational way. It’s hard for her to pick a favorite amongst the wide range of characters and conversations that have happened across her seat.
“My interviews are like children. How do you pick your favorite child? Because they all have extremely different energy. The interviews are all such different vibes. Fran Lebowitz is such a different vibe than Adam Pally, which is in even more different vibes than Stacey Abrams. To pick one is impossible because it’s different strokes from different folks. On a different day, I might be like, ‘I’m vibing with this.’ But it depends on the day, it depends on the hour. It all kind of hit my cultural case settings.”
Ziwe might seem like an overnight success or an industry plant to some. You can’t go anywhere without seeing billboards of the smiling star in her matching tweed two pieces. Her bestie dates with supermodel Em Rata are all over my timeline, and red carpet photos from the newly minted star are plastered on gossip sites. Her ambitious variety show approach takes the best parts of growing up Gen Z and combines them in a generation-now format that is made to go viral.
“They say it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. I have been kind of in the comedy industry peripherally or actively for a while. And I’m still a working writer. I still write, I was writing for Our Cartoon President and I acted in Dickinson and wrote in Dickinson and acted in Succession. I think that’s kind of part of the hustle of making it as an entertainer. You kind of have to be able to do multiple things as to just waiting for someone to discover it.”
Ziwe has a composure to her hustle, a methodical SAT-test approach to reaching fame. Her reserve and tone are that of a girl who was valedictorian and voted most likely to succeed. In high school, she was president of Acapella Club a la Pitch Perfect, which had not yet come out. She was a huge fan of the Colbert Report which had been introduced to her when her freshman year high school teacher said, “The power of satire can do anything.” She grew up with a sensible appetite for every episode of 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and Kenan and Kel.
“There are so many iconic 90’s sitcoms that are so much part of my makeup. But the people I look up to the most are the people in the cut who are grinding, trying to make it happen, and doing some of the best live performances that are better than some of the things you see currently on TV. And they’re just doing it in a room for six people. Absolutely working it out. I think one of my big coming of ages was when I was in high school, I read my first Toni Morrison book and I was like, “Oh my gosh, what is this? This is such a different world than anything I’ve ever read.” And so in the comedy that I create, I hope to create a world where someone else perceiving my art is like, “Okay, more is possible. Anything is possible. I too can go forward and create something that feels exactly geared to my sensibility.”
Her resume boasts a long list of steady work before she stood in the spotlight. A junior year internship at Comedy Central included work for the Daily Show and Colbert Report. As a chatty intern, she was able to get a joke on the show. She spent time at The Onion and started her own humor magazine while beginning to take classes at IO in Chicago. This all led to her first job at Lorne Michael’s website Above Average which led to a job at Desus and Mero and her first late-night job at The Rundown with Robin Thede. Every so often she was shooting her web series Baited with Ziwe, and maintained her day job to make sure that she could eat. When Showtime bought her show she was propelled into every creator’s dream.
“I remember when I was first coming up as a comedian, you’re sort of mining, “Okay, what does a professional comedian look like? How can I be more like X or Y who’s successful?” And over the course of my career, I learned that the only thing I’m going to be good at is being myself. Everyone else is taken. Or I could just stand in on what makes me funny and who I am. And that is where what looks fun comes out of it because it’s like, okay, I’m really just doing this first and foremost for myself. And I’m lucky that anyone pays attention and I’m lucky that I get to connect with wider audiences, but it kind of starts with myself as a nucleus.”
In a sense, Ziwe is a character of her character. She’s cosplaying a prime-time investigative barbie doll that takes on today’s most pressing topics with humor, sass, and sincerity. It’s a character that fits in a world of pastel-colored Elle Wood backdrops.
“I come from a deep love of news background. I think that local journalism is really important. So I think that you see that element in how we interview guests. I think what’s the nice thing about the show is that where sometimes celebrity interviews can feel like trotted territory. The show manages to always be unexpected even though it has kind of figured out its format. It’s still surprising even to me. When I’m prepping to interview any respective guests, I watch a lot of their interviews, I’ll read their book, I’ll listen to them on podcasts. But you prepare and research beyond, but then you have to let the magic happen and come onto set and just talk to this person like a human. And you create something that you could never could have planned for. So what I like about the interviews on the show is that there’s a lot of room for surprise.”
She takes her job seriously which is why her eponymous show has had a metoric rise to the top of the culture zeitgeist.
“I come heavily prepared. I am someone who loves research. I’m someone who’s… I have a good memory. I love facts. I love a fun fact. And so I just study. I’ll treat it like school, I’ll study. And then when I feel prepared for an interview is when I know who… At least I think I know who I’m talking to and then the guest surprises me. But I like to have that foundation of, ‘Okay, this is what you’ve said in the past, these are some of your opinions according to X, Y, and Z quotes. But let’s unpack this.’”
Her meticulous planning has led her to a neurodivergan dreamland, from writing to acting, standup, and being an influencer— Ziwe has a blank canvas in front of her, with a paintbrush in hand and a bucket full of dreams.
“It’s like a child hitting a buzzer,” she says of her career right now, “like a baby emperor being like, ‘I want more.’ I’m writing a couple of movies right now. I’m kind of open to anything. What’s nice about the space that I feel like I’ve created for myself is that I never get bored with what I’m doing. Okay, I’m hosting and then I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re going to make…’ Literally in the shows, you can see it’s, ‘Hosting. Okay. Music video. Okay, we’re going to write this fake commercial starting, Jane Krakowski.’ There are so many pivots. So I feel that professionally as well. There are so many lanes for me to try. I cannot wait.”
Fame seems to be a blase topic for the rising starlet, what’s meaningful to her is touching people’s lives. “When it used to be that when I would create art, it would be in a vacuum where very few people would watch it. What’s wild? Even my old school Baited clips, I would post that and it’d get maybe 2000 views and I’m posting the same clips on TikTok and they’re getting 7 million views, which is wild. But I think that the viewer, the actual analytics of it, who cares? But I think when you’re on the street and you’re talking and connecting with people who are saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, I joke like this with my friends. Oh my goodness, I absolutely love this interview. We talk about it in class.’ I really love the connection that it allows me to have with my audience, which is so wide ranging.”
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For now, she is still simply Ziwe the same girl who was always creating her way through her life.
“I feel like all of my dreams come true, but that’s through perseverance. I approach life honestly the same way that I always did. I drink my ice chai with oat milk.”
story | @kokontuen
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