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Ziwe on using humor, vulnerability and honesty to discuss race in America


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There's a rising voice in late night comedy.

Ziwe Fumudoh, who goes simply by Ziwe, debuted her no-holds-barred take on race and social issues in America to television on Sunday in a new self-titled sketch show.

Amna Nawaz caught up with Ziwe for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Ziwe: What bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?

Woman: That's a real question?

Amna Nawaz: Interviews you can't look away from.

Actor: Amazing. Love it.

Actor: Could we perhaps make it blacker?

Amna Nawaz: Skits with an unflinching eye and songs you won't soon forget.

Ziwe (singing): Let the wealth trickle down. Let the money hit the floor.

Amna Nawaz: All brought to you by:

Ziwe: Hi. I'm Ziwe.

Amna Nawaz: In her new self-titled comedy program on Showtime.

Ziwe: I have been doing this art for six or seven years. And to -- and no one cared. No one watched these videos. No one shared my clips.

It's honestly surreal to see these dreams sort of realized.

Amna Nawaz: Twenty-nine-year-old comedian Ziwe made a name for herself with a provocative interview style.

Ziwe: Under what circumstances would Black people look alike?

Man: They were wearing masks.

Ziwe: The answer is families. In families, Black people look alike. Don't you think Black people have families?

Man: Yes.

Ziwe: Yes, you don't think Black people have families?

Man: No.

Amna Nawaz: On her YouTube show, "Baited With Ziwe," she presented her fellow comedians with impossible-to-answer questions.

Ziwe: Are Indians the Black people of Asia?

Woman: You want a sound bite?

Ziwe: Yes, I want a sound bite.

Amna Nawaz: Last year, stuck at home in the pandemic, she took her craft to Instagram Live, interviewing pop culture voices like playwright Jeremy O. Harris and actor and activist Alyssa Milano.

Alyssa Milano: This is the first time I have gone live.

Amna Nawaz: Through a series of direct questions on race, Ziwe elicited some illuminating answers.

Ziwe: Huey Newton?

Alyssa Milano: I don't know who that is.

Ziwe: Stokely Carmichael?

Alyssa Milano: I don't know who that is.

Amna Nawaz: As America was gripped by nationwide calls for racial justice, Ziwe's work caught on. Hundreds of thousands tuned in.

Do you think that these conversations resonated in a certain way, caught on the way they did because of what we were going through as a country?

Ziwe: So, I think that the racial uprisings of 2020 really allowed discussing race to be at the forefront of American media. And so that opened people up to having these really intense conversations that ultimately are long overdue.

Amna Nawaz: What makes a good conversation, for you?

Ziwe: I think, ultimately, it has to be funny. I want people to laugh, because I'm a professional comedian.

But as far as the actual -- like, the depth of the conversation, all I'm looking for is vulnerability and honesty, and because there's nothing that we can manufacture that is as vital as just everyone putting their cards on the table.

Amna Nawaz: Among her guests, some who'd been publicly condemned for controversial comments.

Alison Roman: Honestly, I'm really nervous.

Amna Nawaz: Like food writer Alison Roman, formerly of "Bon Appetit" and The New York Times, who faced a massive backlash for insulting Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru, and Chrissy Teigen, former-model-turned-lifestyle mogul, both of whom are Asian.

Ziwe: Now, can you name five Asian people?

Alison Roman: Yes.

Ziwe: Alison Roman is not an anomaly. So I think, instead of villainizing her in particular, it's better to really talk about the society and the constructs in which -- that allow us to talk about race in this way.

Amna Nawaz: And one of the questions you ask her, which is something you ask a lot of your guests, is how many Black friends do you have?

Alison Roman: I have like, I would say, four to five Black friends that would pick me up at the airport.

Ziwe: Four to five? You are the third person to say they have four to five Black friends in the last week to me.

Amna Nawaz: Why is that a revealing question to you?

Ziwe: Ultimately, there is no right answer. And that's intentional, right? That sort of inability to win really sets the stage for a really compelling conversation about race, because, suddenly, any response that you give is not only wrong, but it just is more reflective of your inner ideas and inner monologue.

Amna Nawaz: I'm wondering why you think people want to talk to you. And why do you think they agree to come on your show?

Ziwe: Some of them are fans of my comedy. Some of them are interested in being part of the public discourse. And others are just searching for a thrill. So, it really just depends on the respective guests.

Amna Nawaz: Ziwe's own experiences with racism inform her work today.

Ziwe: I am a Black woman. I have had people confronting me about race since I was old enough to speak. I have definitely been at many a party where someone starts bring up their Black friend out of nowhere.

And you're looking around like, wait, sir, I just met you. Why are you talking about this? Why are you touching my hair? Why are you calling me chocolate? And so thinking about these conversations as people of color that we have all of our lives, I'm just bringing this life experience of absurdity around race to the screen.

Amna Nawaz: She cut her teeth in the comedy world with internships at "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," eventually landing a writing gig for "The Rundown With Robin Thede," one of the only Black hosts on late-night.

She went on to write for comedy duo Desus & Mero. Ziwe hopes her show will open doors for new voices in the industry.

Ziwe: I see comedy as a microcosm of the real world. A lot of spaces with any sort of power are dominated by white men.

A lot of the people I have on my show are first-time writers, first-time producers. And so I was really interested in employing and elevating those voices that maybe weren't -- have been looked aside or been looked over in history.

Amna Nawaz: After years of having her full name butchered by hosts at stand-up shows, Ziwe's keeping it simple.

Now, Ziwe, you have reached, single-name status, right? You're up there with Madonna and Cher, right?

Ziwe: I am the Madonna of comedy. That's what I always say.


Amna Nawaz: You can watch or stream Ziwe's show "Ziwe" on Showtime.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

Judy Woodruff: Provocative. Look forward to watching her.

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