Comedian Ziwe Fumudoh asks white people to be honest about race, for once

Ziwe Fumudoh / Corbin Chase
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If the truth can indeed set you free, the comedian and writer Ziwe Fumudoh may very well hold the keys to salvation. Her Instagram Live interview series has become required viewing in the pandemic age. Piercing through the conventional niceties of interview shows — and perhaps belonging to a new generation of highly confessional web series like Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk — Fumudoh guides uncomfortable conversations about race to their absurd, unsettling, and ultimately hilarious conclusions.

The show started as a YouTube series in 2017, where Fumudoh, who goes by just her first name when she performs, laid much of the groundwork for her transition to Instagram Live. She interviewed friends and collaborators in the comedy scene about race with a searing and uncompromising wit. On Instagram Live, the show features a wider scope of guests, but also an escalation of stakes. Ziwe's comedic gift is navigating the most awkward of situations in person. With a socially distanced video chat, she might as well have super powers.

When the chef and author Alison Roman appeared on the show last month, Ziwe asked how many Black friends she had. It was an innocuous but sly line of inquiry, and Roman’s squirming through qualifiers (“like, someone who would pick me up at the airport?”) coupled with Ziwe’s penchant for timing and irony, make for an excruciating 60-second exchange that you simply cannot look away from.

But more than ambushing white people with questions about race, Ziwe skirts a delicate line, careful not to lead her guests into a den of wolves. She’s more interested in the truth — which is often awkward enough in itself.

“We all have these perceptions, but a lot of people don't say what they actually feel, but you feel it in interactions and with subtext,” Ziwe told Mic. “And so with the show, my intention is to have productive conversations about race at a really integral moment in American history.”

Like many projects in the pandemic, Ziwe’s Live series arrived as a means of adapting to the changing nature of live performance. In the pre-COVID era, the 28-year-old comedian held a monthly show at Union Hall called Pop Show, in addition to a number of credits including writing for the Showtime late-night series Desus & Mero. She says she was inspired by colleagues who started to experiment with Instagram Live. “It kind of just came out organically, honestly,” she explains.

And then widespread protests against racialized police brutality spilled into every facet of American life, as industries from media to sports to fashion dealt with internal reckonings surrounding race. It created a particularly timely context for Ziwe’s unique brand of comedy: an uncanny ability to use awkwardness as raw material for humor. She says one of the funniest moments of her Alison Roman interview was when she asked Roman what she liked qualitatively about Black people. “She started to answer the question with, um, 'I liked their food and I liked that they dance.' I said, stop, please don't answer any more!”

This is not just for entertainment. This is to enact change, hopefully.

Where pranksters like Sacha Baron Cohen use clever deception as a means of revealing the unsavory attitudes of the rich and powerful, Ziwe’s approach is decidedly more down to earth. Despite their apparent gaffes and embarrassments, you truly can’t come away from an episode despising one of her guests, and that’s very much the point.

“My intention is not to force my audience into hearing racist language. I don't want anybody to feel triggered in that sense. And I don't necessarily want to entrap my guests into saying something that will ruin their career,” she said. “I'm just looking to have productive conversations about race. And I think the humor comes in the tension and the awkwardness. Because people talk about race, maybe not publicly, but they have opinions. And so it's like, why don't we bring this to the forefront of media?”

Ziwe says her guests have so far been happy with their appearances, while acknowledging the moments of awkwardness, of which there have been plenty. The influencer Caroline Calloway was featured on a recent episode where she mistakenly referred to Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton as a Harlem Renaissance poet. Alison Roman struggled to name five Asian people.

But for all of these potentially embarrassing moments, Ziwe manages to disarm her guests with a certain charm. As though she already knows the ways in which they might make a fool of themselves and has preemptively chosen not to judge them.

“There is this negative connotation to being an assertive Black person who's intimidating and hostile and giving you 'gotcha' moments, right? And so I'm trying to de-stigmatize the conversation of race as it's not something that should be seen as aggressive or as something that's offensive or not dinner table conversation,” she says. “Actually it's what the dinner table was built on, right? Everything about our lives has to do with race.”

And for every moment of comedic gold there are moments where the viewer gets the impression that they might in fact be part of something bigger. On a recent episode with the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, Ziwe poses the intentionally loaded question: "Why do you hate Black women?" The exchange, both live, in the comments, and subsequently on social media, gave space for critiques of Harris's Slave Play without delving into personal attacks. Similarly, when asked about her time at Bon Appetit, Roman offered a striking admission of her own oversight. It's deeply human, relentlessly curious, and devilishly funny.

“I'm so thankful that I can exploit the humor that comes with the tension and awkwardness of talking about race while still making sure that I am protective of my guests and foster a productive, healthy conversation which doesn't leave hurt feelings,” Ziwe explains. “It's really difficult to talk to someone and look them in the eye and say, 'how did you not protect Black employees when you were at Bon Appetit?' That's a really hard question, but I think it's a question that now that we have the answer to, we are better off for. We are better off in this conversation than before."

There are a few big names on Ziwe's list of hopeful interviews. Namely Kim Kardashian and, at my suggestion, Amy Cooper. But what Ziwe says she's really interested in is expanding the scope of the show to include politicians and policy makers. "I've kind of been on the entertainment side of it, but this is not just for entertainment. This is to enact change, hopefully."

“I would like to expand this show's concept until every single person in the United States of America can have a happy and healthy conversation about race that is honest, because we haven't been honest for so long,” she says. “And I think that it would be a shame if we came into this world and left without telling the truth.”