Ziwe Fumudoh was forced to pivot during the pandemic. For the 29-year-old comedian, that meant transitioning her comedy show "Baited with Ziwe" from a high-production-value series on YouTube to a more stripped-down presentation on Instagram. A year later, Fumudoh — who goes by just her first name professionally — is back in an even bigger studio with a brand new audience on Showtime.
Her new show, "Ziwe," is a product of the internet, born of a Black content creator. It is the rare instance in which a Black creative's viral digital content — content that made so many people say, "You should have a show!" — that has actually realized the opportunity to make the transition to the mainstream. And, like fellow digital-to-mainstream trailblazer Issa Rae, she's doing so with her name in the credits as creator, star, showrunner, and executive producer. But in the process, "Ziwe" may have lost something special.
It's not hard to see why so many people loved her Instagram Live show. Hovering at the top of a split screen, always with bold, colorful eyeliner and in Domme-meets-Dionne-from-"Clueless" fashions, Ziwe mostly interviewed white women deemed problematic, controversial or canceled — internet personality Caroline Calloway, former New York Times recipe writer Alison Roman and actor Rose McGowan all made appearances. Once there, they'd be baited into uncomfortable, cringey moments with questions about race and social justice in a way that revealed familiar flashes of privilege, ignorance and self-absorption. It was a turned-tables situation in which Ziwe was in control and making the white women uncomfortable — but any barbs that stung her guests were self-inflicted.
"As a Black person in the Northeast, you're taught that racism does not exist, and you're constantly being gaslit into thinking: 'This is in your head. You're just being sensitive,'" Ziwe told Vulture last year. "This live show is a confrontation, like me reparenting myself, like, 'Now that I have my third eye open, I can see and confront these demons.'"
The show's timing was perfect: It debuted when white awareness of racism and Black lives' mattering was at an all-time high, when a long-overdue reckoning held many white people in high-profile positions accountable for their ignorance or malice and when many people were stuck at home and living online. "Ziwe," a variety show that premiered Sunday on Showtime, is the latest iteration.
In profiles and interviews about "Baited," Ziwe repeatedly talked about how she enjoyed having power and control in a space not normally afforded to her. "I have gotten through life as a Black woman in white spaces by being extremely controlled," Ziwe said in her Vulture interview. "My comedy is about power. It's having to listen to a Black woman and not being able to make me stop. 'For the next 15 minutes, I'm the captain now!' I'm very Captain Phillips with that."
Unfortunately, the same power and control she had over her show's previous live format isn't reflected — or felt, at least, by a viewer — in the first episode.
Granted, it's the first episode and not necessarily representative of the entire season. Still, her first guests, Fran Leibowitz and Gloria Steinem, diverge from Ziwe's typical interviewees on YouTube and Instagram. Steinem has self-awareness and knowledge, both lived and learned, that Calloway and McGowan lacked. Leibowitz claims she doesn't even know who Ziwe is or what her show is about and doesn't seem to care.
Where a live interview can be revealing even in a long pause, editing is an interference used to construct a narrative.
There's also more editing, less of the raw and obvious discomfort that put her show on the map. A glance from Ziwe to the camera in close-up is followed by a cut to Leibowitz; we don't know whether we're seeing Leibowitz's immediate reaction to Ziwe or whether she's been stewing or brewing. That long buildup, that inevitable boiling over that captivated me last year, is missing. Where a live interview can be revealing even in a long pause, editing is an interference used to construct a narrative.
That's not to say Ziwe gave up her power for mainstream access and Showtime's capital — instead, I'd say that in watching the first interviews, it seems like Ziwe has compromised in a way that so many Black creatives (me included) have throughout the history of America's media and entertainment industries. The power she wielded in her Instagram story was more radical and revolutionary, but is that ever retained while going through Hollywood's machine?
We see that's not the case with Dave Chapelle's "Chapelle's Show," arguably one of the greatest TV variety shows — perhaps the greatest — by an individual comedian ever. In 2005, he famously quit the acclaimed Comedy Central series in its prime, walking away from a $50 million deal and bolting to South Africa with his family to reflect and slow down. Part of what led to such a shocking decision were fears that his sketches, particularly one about a magic pixie in blackface, had become socially irresponsible.
"I was talkin' to a guy ... he basically said to me that comedy is a reconciliation of paradox," Chappelle told "CBS This Morning" in 2018. "And I think that that was an irreconcilable moment for me. That I was in this very successful place, but the emotional content of it didn't feel anything like what I imagined success should feel like. It just didn't feel right."
Unlike their predecessors, Ziwe and other Black creatives also have the option of sidestepping the traditional entertainment industry altogether. KevOnStage, real name Kevin Fredericks, is an example of a Black creative who has still managed to amass power similar to what he could have gained through Hollywood, founding his own studio and burgeoning empire while staying independent. Choreographer JaQuel Knight recently managed to get his dance moves copyrighted, paving the way for other creatives to license their creations on platforms like TikTok in the same way musicians do music.
Knight's project will be huge for Black teens who have seen their work make white counterparts rich and famous. "Saturday Night Live" indirectly confirmed the need for a serious consideration of Black cultural ownership over the weekend in a sketch called "Gen Z Hospital," showing how Black cool has been commodified for cringey jokes, for cheap virality, for the mighty advertising dollar. In the sketch, Gen Z was given credit for slang created and normalized by Black people for years. It was yet another instance of digital blackface, reflecting larger issues of cultural appropriation and erasure of Black people, especially groups and communities most often excluded — including, but not limited to, people from the hood, folks in the South and our LGBTQ communities.
In the rare instances we do benefit, as Ziwe has, any potential of radical power that the internet offered as a medium are usually compromised for often more lucrative yet less subversive and ultimately contaminated offers of fame and fortune.
There's no denying that Black internet culture is internet culture and internet culture now drives American culture. But Black people rarely reap the economic or political rewards of the cultural capital we cultivated. Instead, a white-dominated industry does, rebranding and selling Black works as mainstream and white. And in the rare instances we do benefit, as Ziwe has, any potential of radical power that the internet offered as a medium are usually compromised for often more lucrative yet less subversive and ultimately contaminated offers of fame and fortune.
"Ziwe" still could turn around in the rest of its season and try to capture some of what made it so wildly different and refreshing on Instagram. It's left me wondering, though: Is it better to have any power than no power at all? It's a tough question, especially for those Black culture makers at the margins: Black cis women, Black trans women, Black lesbians, gays and queers. Is it better to prioritize the long game, to gamble with time, when our lives are forever being cut short for nothing at a moment's notice? Ziwe seems to be betting on the former, and I'm rooting for her.