The most exciting notification on my phone these days is: “ziwef started a live video.”
It’s a silent klaxon alerting me that something is about to pop off—something entertaining, informative, dangerous, and hilarious. It arrives every Thursday night, right around 8 p.m., letting me know to stop whatever the hell else I’m doing and find someplace comfortable to sit.
Ziwe Fumudoh’s Instagram Live show is about to start.
The comedian appears, wearing something mildly outrageous, playing one of her songs while the viewers trickle in. (Last week, nearly 20,000 of them showed up.) Gradually, the crowd of commenters becomes a who’s who of hot comedians—people such as Larry Owens, Liza Treyger, George Civeris, and Ayo Edibiri—lest there be any confusion whether this is the place to be. And once the guest of honor finally arrives, hoo boy, it’s showtime.
Fumudoh’s show is a bit like Between Two Ferns, if it had a racism fixation and the intensity of a Scientology audit. Fumudoh relentlessly needles her guests—a comedian and another higher-profile public figure—with lines of questioning that can easily go sideways. Guests had better be prepared to have an answer to “How many black friends do you have?,” which may arrive at any time, and they had better prepare for the facial expressions Fumudoh makes in response. She has a painter’s palette of excruciated incomprehension, 31 favors of schadenfreude-y joy, and an inscrutable poker face. If the guest says the “right thing,” she will offer a response such as “Congratulations for reading Twitter” or her one-word dismissal: “Performative.” And when she leans forward right into the camera, putting her hands on her face, that means the guest is really in trouble. (Tonight’s guest is Rose McGowan.)
Fumudoh, who currently writes for Showtime’s Desus and Mero, started the show as a YouTube series back in 2017. Working with the digital comedy studio Above Average, the comedian welcomed her friends onto the show ostensibly to trick them into saying something racist. The series mixed uncomfortable questioning with Tim & Eric-style trippy editing to produce amusing nuggets of provocation. But although guests such as Pat Regan seemed legitimately uncomfortable having to explain their own problematic tweets on camera, there was always the safety net of a second take on a show that wasn’t live.
During quarantine, Fumudoh reimagined her show as an Instagram affair and completely transformed it. Gone is the trippy editing—or any editing at all. There’s nowhere to run when the questions get too uncomfortable—say, one asking what the guest likes “qualitatively” about Black people. Now, the guest must either come up with an answer or withstand Fumudoh’s penetrating gaze, which can go on for days, all while viewers leave comments ranging from “get his ass” to “I will talk about this in therapy tomorrow and it will be a TIME.”
The show’s breakout moment came two weeks ago, when Caroline Calloway allowed herself to be interviewed. It was a sprawling, bananas exchange during which the infamous influencer alternately appeared to luxuriate in the possibility of being canceled and present as the most woke white woman in existence. (At one point, in a gonzo attempt at ironic distance, she requested an “allyship cookie.”) It was the most riveting cringe available, truly must-see TV.
The following Thursday, Allison Roman came on the show, breaking news that Chrissy Teigen never was attached to produce Roman’s TV show, as was widely reported during Roman’s recent PR flap. Roman was notably lass chatty than Calloway but still couldn’t help embarrassing herself a little. When Fumudoh asked her to name five Asian people, the chef and author faltered a little under the pressure.
Despite the struggle, though, she came off well overall. Although it may not seem like it sometimes, this is a show about education, not getting white people in trouble.
“Why did you say yes to the invite to this show?” Fumudoh asked her at the very end.
“I think that one of the best ways to talk about the things you talk about is to do it very directly, even if it’s uncomfortable,” Roman responded. “And I think a lot of the conversations that need to happen are going to be really uncomfortable and that’s okay. And hopefully people can see that it’s okay to put yourself in a vulnerable position, and if you don’t know the answers you can look up the answers . . . It’s gonna suck and be weird and uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s when the good shit happens.”
Fumudoh originally started the series as a funny way to talk openly about race. Now, the national conversation has caught up with her, making her Thursday night interviews the defining show of the moment.
The host barely betrayed that she was legit impressed with Roman’s answer to her question about why she agreed to come on. Then she promised to appropriate the answer and use it in her pitch deck when she attempts to sell the show.