Nigerian-American comedian/writer/host Ziwe Fumudoh’s devoted fanbase relishes the masterful ways she wields satire, pop culture, and political commentary. Through her Showtime series “Ziwe,” which recently wrapped its second season, Ziwe’s content creates viral moments that also uphold American satirist traditions like those of her influence Stephen Colbert.
From her comedic writing chops to her illustrious connection to many of the innovative leaders of late night (Desus & Mero, Robin Thede), Ziwe is a verified comedy it-girl. The unique hyper-feminine pop culture seeped perspective she brings to late-night is profoundly American. By contextualizing Ziwe with an understanding of Nigerian satirical traditions, as part of a first-generation comedian subculture, and her “high status” positioning, what she brings to late night can be fully appreciated.
Nigerian Comedic Traditions
Ziwe doesn’t directly reference Nigerian comedians as her influences, but in Nigerian humor traditions, you can see much of the slick, witty, and combative style she is known for. Comedy is a product of its environment, and in Nigeria, that environment is often rife with social dissatisfaction and political frustration. Satire and comedy have been interwoven in Nigerian politics since its birth as a nation. Many of Nigeria’s literary legends are known for their biting political satire and comedy. Nigerian humor is brazen and delivered unabashedly to audiences that wouldn’t settle anything less. Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe are two of the voices who’ve shaped how Nigerian satirists speak to power.
A Noble Prize Laureate-winning Playwright and Essayist, Soyinka expertly wields parody, invectives, and irony within his plays to challenge the ills of Nigerian society in ways that invoke deep belly laughs. Wale Lawal said, “the best of Nigerian humor is derived at the intersection of acute dissatisfaction and an equally intense willingness to endure.” The kind Nigerian audiences need to push through in their daily lives.ii
Wole Soyinka translated that dissatisfaction in plays like “The Trials of Brother Jero.”
Literary icon Chinua Achebe also used humor to articulate that dissatisfaction within his works like in “A Man of the People,” which toes the line between humor and seriousness. “Achebe’s humor was very Nigerian,” Lawal adds. “Not least in how it flirted with and never succumbed to frustration.” iii Nigerians use humor to reassert their agency in political landscapes that seem anything but in their control. It is medicine for everything from corruption to insurgency.
Today, satirists continue to utilize parody, irony, and invective, similar to Soyinka and Achebe. Self-written and produced shows like Adeola Fayehun’s “The Adeola’s Show” and Okey Bakassi’s “The Other News” fuse news with a damning critique of Nigerian politicians that follows “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’s” format with less diplomacy and sensitivity. They juxtapose Nigerian politicians with international politicians to paint the picture of their incompetence. They boldly critique politics and culture in a nation ranked 129 (out of 180) on the World Press Freedom Index. But unlike Trevor Noah, Nigerian comedians will not be invited to a White House Correspondents Dinner to jest politicians. They pull no punches while knowing it may even cost them their lives.
Ziwe’s Interpolations of Nigerian Comedic Traditions
Like the satirists back home, Ziwe doesn’t hold back in the face of immense power and influence. In her self-titled program, she applies pressure in slick, witty, combative interviews with influential figures in American pop culture. She dives into her guests’ most controversial comments, unrelenting in her delivery, cruel even, and presents a pathway for public redemption.
In season 2, episode 1 of “Ziwe,” she interviewed Charlamagne Tha God and confronted him with a list of public beef he’s had with Black women entertainers and, point blank, asked him, why he hates black women (a clip that went viral). His ability to withstand her interrogation, not get flustered, and explain the context of the controversies allowed viewers to observe his self-awareness and accountability.
If Charlamagne’s interview was a masterclass in how to survive Ziwe’s interrogation with a PR facelift, Caroline Conway’s interview (on the YouTube show “Baited with Ziwe,” which preceded her Showtime series) exemplifies how unrelenting the host can be even in the face of a guest’s breakdown. Conway confessed she’d only read four of the nine books Ziwe suggested on her black author reading list. She then stated that she deserved an “ally cookie” for buying the rest of the books from Black-owned bookstores, to which Ziwe responded, “there’s no cookies in this game.”
In season 1, episode 1 of “Ziwe,” titled “55%,” she demonstrated her ability to weave complex, intersectional analysis of gender, race, and colonization, much like the plays of Soyinka. “The American Girl: Imperial Wives Collection” skit played on American Girl dolls (a cultural reference point) and had them represent honest depictions of white women’s social roles over different eras: for example, wives of historical colonizers (i.e. wife of a robber baron in the Congo).
Ziwe not only exercises creative control over her show; she also stars as her own musical guest on each episode. Her music is part social commentary, part catchy pop performance where she equates her character’s self-importance and narcissism to that of a pop star. Her musical stylings lean into the darkest of subjects that underpin much of Nigerian humor. “Stop Being Poor” ft. Patti Harrison is a tongue-in-cheek take on class warfare and the housing crisis in the U.S. It juxtaposes the song with a music video that looks like a mood board for the late nineties, early aughts pop-heavy era, and showcases her acapella background, love for Disney musicals, and pop stars like Brandy, Rihanna, and Britney Spears.
Ziwe’s Use of High Status
Ziwe is also part of an emerging class of first generation comedians that treat elements of their cultural heritage as the thing/person/idea of high status. This is an essential element that underpins her performance. In improv, the power dynamic between two characters is referred to as status, which is indicated in demeanor, actions, tone, and body language. High-status characters have dominance over low-status characters. They give the cues that are accommodated.
Ziwe is unapologetic about giving traditionally marginalized communities and people high status in the dynamic of her shows. She created Ziwe, the character, a self-professed, self-important narcissist that delivers “absolutely satirical, bombastic, and offensive comedy that gets right up to the line but doesn’t cross it, hopefully,” as a press statement describing the show states.
In a cultural landscape where media personalities fear cancellation, Ziwe creates an environment that lends itself to faux pas scenarios with guests, becoming viral moments. She uses her self-prescribed high-status dominance to bait guests into commenting on controversial, “politically incorrect” takes on hot-button issues like race, gender, class, and politics. Her guests play along, accommodating her cue, while attempting to be as evasive as possible, even trying to corner Ziwe into a politically incorrect take of her own; albeit rarely successfully.
Ziwe does occasionally assume a low-status position, typically whenas she did in an episode of “Baited,” titled “Black Women,” with guest comedian Sydnee Washington, also a Black woman. Here, Sydnee takes the high-status role of the interviewer asking low-status Ziwe questions Ziwe prepared herself — blunt inquiries into interracial dating, attending PWIs (predominantly white institutions), and intracommunity conflict. Ziwe subjects herself to the same level of accountability she demands of her guests.
Ziwe’s high-status positioning also extends to how she responds to guests engaging with her Nigerian heritage. During those moments, Nigerian culture is the de facto dominant culture that sets the tone, shapes the conversation, and power dynamics. Ziwe doesn’t trade in impersonations that punch down on foreign accents, nor does she feel compelled to explain cultural nuances that would make the material more accessible for Westerners.
Like other first-generation, multi-hyphenate American comedians, including Ayo Edebiri (Nigerian-Bajan), Desus Nice (Jamaican), Tha Kid Mero (Dominican), and Issa Rae (Senegalese), whose writing, storytelling, and overall vantage point are certainly influenced by their respective “foreign” cultures, and without dilution, Ziwe’s comedic material is broad. Their multicultural experiences reinforce a connection with diverse audiences.
It’s commentary wrapped up in humor that, although often harsh, represents a true embodiment of Nigerian humor that feels culturally relevant and also entertains.
The character “Ziwe” resonates so well because of her talent to astutely process a multitude of relevant topics through humor. Like Nigerian satirists, her commitment to truth-telling has no limits. Like Stephen Colbert, she gets American pop culture, even what may seem trivial or vapid to others, and is able to process and create legitimate discourse around seemingly anything, although mostly provocative issues, however uncomfortable, using interviews, skits, and music; like riffing on the “Real Housewives” franchise and class consciousness.
Ziwe is an amalgamation of influences, traditions, and vantage points that make her work stand out in a sea of mostly white male late-night voices. She is part of a subculture of comedians who avoid tokenization of their parent’s culture. On her various platforms, dominant culture and power are automatically associated with the marginalized. She adroitly wades through discomfort and awkwardness to get to the truth at the center of issues that exasperate and confound us most. And she does so with biting humor that makes it all go down rather soothingly.
Kathleen Anaza is a freelance multigenre writer, storyteller, and educator. Her work handles the stories of Africa and its diaspora with the TLC it deserves. She has written in Vogue, Shadow & Act, and Zora Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @kathleenanaza.