Ziwe review – patchy TV series struggles to adapt viral comedy fame

·4 min read

Ziwe, the professional mononym for 29-year-old Nigerian-American comic Ziwe Fumudoh, became one of the hottest stars in comedy last summer with a series of grippingly sly, confrontational Instagram Live interviews. The live show zinged with needling, direct questions about racism and white people’s attempts to escape complicity with interpersonal niceness, at a time when many people, particularly white Americans, performed (however sincerely) anti-racism in Instagram slide shows, black squares and hollow slogans.

Related: 'People say I hate white people': comedian Ziwe on her provocative new show

Ziwe’s comedy, at its best, plumbed discomfort in speaking frankly about race and trolled white people’s fear of appearing racist with questions such as “qualitatively, what do you like about black people?” or “how many black friends do you have?” The most successful moments, depending on your capacity for secondhand cringe – the embattled cookbook author Alison Roman’s face reddening as she struggled to name five Asian people, or Ziwe scolding the influencer Caroline Calloway that “there are no [ally] cookies in this game” – blew up on Twitter, schadenfreude proof positive that Instagram Live comedy could work.

Like Sarah Cooper, the comedian known for tightly calibrated videos lip-syncing the former president’s words who, in the span of six red-hot months, went from TikTok virality to her own Netflix comedy special, Everything is Fine (directed by Natasha Lyonne, who executive-produced with Maya Rudolph), Ziwe zipped quickly into the virality-to-TV pipeline. By October, Showtime signed Ziwe, whose writing credits include the same network’s Desus & Mero and Apple TV+’s Dickinson and who has been working in New York standup circles for several years, to a straight-to-series, six-episode variety show.

The question facing Ziwe, the show, was that stared down by Everything is Fine – can the creator adapt the ephemeral zing of internet virality to the pace and scope of a television production? It’s a difficult if not impossible ask, and like Cooper’s Netflix hour, the show Ziwe fizzles outside the freewheeling, casual Instagram live format, struggling to adapt either its bite or cathartic provocation.

Showtime’s Ziwe is more in line with Baited, the comedian’s pre-quarantine YouTube series in which she archly prodded comedian friends to “make them feel uncomfortable about race” with games like “Enslave, Appropriate, Silence,” a take on “Fuck, Marry, Kill”. The show and its host take an Elle Woods approach to discomfort – hyper-feminine looks, a magenta set adorned with posters of Oprah and Michelle Obama, and caustic, awkward questioning punctured with fits of enthusiastic rapid clapping.

The 20-minute episodes splice in-studio interviews with musical numbers, sketches and Daily Show-type field segments along broad episodic themes – in the three episodes of which were made available for critics, white women, wealth hoarding and beauty standards, ideas treated more as billboard advertisements for attention than fodder for subversion.

The interviews – pinballing from awkward to endearing with hairpin confrontational questioning – remain the show’s strength, although the guest list will disappoint those looking for the rush of Instagram Live exposure. Like the YouTube show, the interviews work when the guests are in on the bit, such as SNL’s Bowen Yang and comedian Patti Harrison – two performers inherently fun to watch – or with a friendly figure such as the TV personality Eboni K Williams. The opening guest, Fran Lebowitz, was assumedly invited as a kind of half-skewer, half-expert on the theme of white women, but her cool bemusement is a poor fit for Ziwe’s style of baiting (“what bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?”)

It’s when the show expands from one-on-ones that Ziwe, as a comedy project, flounders, with jokes relying too heavily on racism as a neon-lit punchline. The sultry jazz number Lisa Called the Cops on Black People falls flat, great outfits aside, when the bit doesn’t move beyond its chorus that a racist white woman called the cops on black people, a la Amy Cooper. A plastic surgeon Ziwe visits for a consultation is baited into the dead-end discomfort of marketing plastic surgery. A stunt with a group of white women named Karen – it’s unclear if they’re real people or actors – does nothing more than demonstrate the known fact that white women can be racist while thinking they’re being fair, as Ziwe mugs conspiratorially to the camera. Baited, but the comedy of discomfort sours when the punchline doesn’t prod further than the obvious.

Moments where Ziwe, the comic and writer, peek through the spiky stage persona – discussing her wealth in a ranking game with Harrison and Yang, or when genuine curiosity slips through in her chat with Lebowitz – are promising for future episodes, which could bring badly needed zing, and the perspective of a black woman, to a late-night/variety comedy field heavily overrepresented by white men and Trump jokes (still). An ideal world would see a host like Ziwe given time to recalibrate to a new format, rather than straining to replicate the impossible hook of current-moment virality, for popular persona alone isn’t enough to expand lightning on the smallest screens into something bigger than a flash in the pan.

  • Ziwe starts on Showtime on 9 May