tv review

Welcome to Ziwe’s House. Make Yourself Uncomfortable.

Ziwe may depend on its guests, but it proudly proclaims its allegiance to Ziwe the person. Photo: Showtime

Ziwe Fumudoh practices the art of discomfort. The comedian is most effective as an interviewer and best known for her Instagram Live series, in which she hosted intense one-on-one interviews with other comedians and internet personalities. While guests like Alison Roman and Caroline Calloway often held themselves at a slight remove from their cameras, Fumudoh leaned close enough to hers to fill the entire frame, making her presence superficially pleasant but inescapable. Rather than ask guests about their areas of expertise, Fumudoh asked them about things they may not have examined about themselves, things that make them uncomfortable — usually involving race. She loves to reveal her guests, setting traps for them, then shooting a knowing look at the camera as they blithely waltz right in. She claims not to see it that way, though. “I don’t really think I need to trap anyone into saying anything racist,” she said in a conversation with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung last year. “They volunteer that information — for better or worse!”

Fumudoh’s new Showtime series, Ziwe, debuting this Sunday, is an adaptation of her Instagram show that adopts that same premise, while putting more emphasis on something that was visible but less explicit in the original format. Her interviews have always been about putting her guests at unease; the Showtime iteration makes it clear they are equally about holding up these people as foils for Fumudoh. Ziwe is an interview show, a sketch-comedy series, a musical, a cultural commentary. The series builds Fumudoh’s selfhood as a space, something that guests may enter and feature in but that is ultimately intended to solidify and further define Fumudoh, her style, her worldview, her interests, her brand. Fumudoh has a high threshold for awkwardness, an ability to destabilize her guests and allow that feeling to transfer to her audience. Ziwe is just as much about what comes immediately after an interview subject’s flub — the part when Fumudoh turns to the camera, twitching an eyebrow in amusement and victory. The gesture says, “Look at them!” It also says, “Look at me!”

On Instagram, that “look at me” element had to be created through Fumudoh’s extreme close-up framing, her glam makeup, and occasional glimpses of dramatic wardrobe pieces like shoulderless tops or glossy, full-length gloves. Ziwe has the same aesthetic, exploded on a grander scale. Her studio set is all fur and hot pink and prominent book props, her wardrobe somewhere between Barbie and wealthy high-society widow. Most interview shows are built to feel neutral-comfortable, an inviting, easy space with a subtle TV sheen. Ziwe’s incredible pinkness evokes an exclusive female club. It’s as pink as the inside of a mouth, and you can feel the teeth closing in.

Fumudoh’s signature is the sharp, puncturing question, often delivered with a conversational casualness that masks the treacherous waters underneath. By the time the guest tries to answer, they have already been eviscerated. “What bothers you more: slow walkers or racism?” she asks Fran Lebowitz, who retorts, “That’s a real question?” before explaining that on a day-to-day basis she encounters more slow walkers.

“Thank you for being here!” Fumudoh greets comedian and SNL cast member Bowen Yang. “How much money do you make?”

“You have a book called Pretty Powerful. Why do you think ugly people can’t be powerful?” she asks Real Housewives of New York City star Eboni K. Williams.

These interviews are both pointy and pointed, mixed in with interstitial sketches designed to lay out Fumudoh’s larger project. Her first episode is about white women and their failure to side with equality over self-interest, the second is about wealth inequality, the third about beauty standards. Most guests are aware of the trap being put in front of them. Some, like the plastic surgeons Fumudoh consults with for the beauty episode, seem barely aware that the jaws are closing around them. “Does my nose bother you?” she asks Dr. Stephen Greenberg, whom she visits on the pretext of wanting a cosmetic-surgery consultation. “Does it bother you?” he asks. They ping-pong for a bit before he admits that her nose could look “more refined.” “Refined,” she says. He goes on to describe a nose that is thinner, narrower — and, his description implies, less Black. Fumudoh shoots a look at the camera like a glowing, neon “Can you believe this?!” Dr. Greenberg is behaving as though his office is still his domain. Fumudoh’s eye contact with the camera underscores what the audience already knows: The moment she started asking questions, it became her space, not his.

Ziwe may depend on its guests, but it proudly proclaims its allegiance to Ziwe the person. Like in interviews on The Colbert Report, a guest’s answers on Ziwe are held up for display, often in hilarious, out-of-context chyrons (“White Woman Has Opinion on Obama”) that appear suddenly onscreen. The primary purpose of the chyrons and the interviews’ intrusive editing is to reflect brilliance back on Fumudoh — her confidence in asking the question, her wit in responding, and her magnanimity when she chooses not to jump on someone’s inept answer. None of this is a secret. The host’s high-glam look, the camera angles that have her looming over her underlings, the lengthy, jokey musical numbers that largely exist to show off Fumudoh’s charisma — all of it is part and parcel of the larger project. Her Instagram tagline has been co-opted for this show: “You’d be an iconic guest,” she says to the person she is luring in. But the icon has always been, and still is, Fumudoh.

That is its own form of performative commentary. It is very different for Fumudoh, a Black woman, to demonstrate a Colbertian balloon of self-love. When someone like Colbert forced guests to play along with his antics, it was only a reification of the cultural power he already held. When Fumudoh does the same thing, it is a radical reversal. “I have gotten through life as a Black woman in white spaces by being extremely controlled,” Fumudoh told Jung last year. “My comedy is about power. It’s having to listen to a Black woman and not being able to make me stop.” She is the all-knowing arbiter, the ultimate arched eyebrow of amused critique, and her assumption of that persona is as much a part of Ziwe’s politics as asking Fran Lebowitz about white women’s failures or singing an elaborate song about how pop-music aesthetics infantilize women.

That doesn’t mean the series is always a convincing platform for those politics. For all of Fumudoh’s skill as a performer, the show’s songs tend to be long and thematically repetitive. The sketches often feel like emptier, less complex explorations of the same ideas that come up in her interviews. Even the interviews, the show’s strongest feature, are so heavily edited that they feel mediated with music cues and unsubtle signaling that let the audience off the hook in a way that her early interviews never did. “See, this is funny!” the show says. “You can handle this!” Ziwe, so much bigger and glossier than Fumudoh’s Instagram show, is best when it recaptures the original videos’ feeling of live, uneasy, intimate, and intense conversation — when it’s riding on friction and interpersonal messiness.

Welcome to Ziwe’s House. Make Yourself Uncomfortable.