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Lithium “Ziwe” brings extremely online humor to TV

Dec. 1, 2021
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In the third episode of Ziwe, entitled “Wealth Hoarders,” the eponymous host, exasperated, asks her guests, “Can’t a Black woman compliment two people?! Gosh.” The pair sitting across from her, actor-comedians Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison, cock their heads; Yang fires back, “Does this have anything to do with us being queer and Asian?”

This kind of exaggerated, humorous political correctness and fake sincerity is at the core of internet comedian Ziwe Fumudoh’s new television series on Showtime. Throughout the four episodes already available for streaming, Ziwe tackles the subjects of white women, beauty standards, wealth hoarding, and allyship. In each one, she addresses these politically trending topics with an irony that can only be described as extremely online. 

A series of American Girl dolls, dubbed the “Imperial Wives” collection, encompass various types of 21st-century millennial women—there’s Andrea, who reads White Fragility in the condo her conservative parents pay for, and Tina, a Black woman working in marketing who “uses social justice language for profit.” These sketches might resonate with particular accuracy if you’ve scrolled through Instagram just a little too much over the past few years. The proliferation of anti-racist reading lists and progressive startups has become so performative and oversaturated that reposted political content by white people on social media often teeters on the brink of meaninglessness; Ziwe’s sketches in “55%,” the episode about white women, address this with cutting, dismissive interrogation. 

Though her interviews with white women about race and gender are the backbone of Ziwe’s brand, the episodes about other subjects offer equally sharp highlights. In “Wealth Hoarders,” she begs the question of what “praxis” even means after seeing people use the term on Twitter, redefines her own wealth-hoarding as reparations, and features a 73 Questions sketch in which an essential worker snaps, “My stimulus check didn’t come. But everyone clapping out their window makes it all worth it.” Dripping with sarcasm, these kinds of lines showcase the consequences of the internet’s descent into a political simulation. At its best, Ziwe is an examination of the contemporary internet landscape, in which representations of reality are prioritized over reality itself, narcissism is the norm, and the materiality of politics and selfhood are collapsed beyond repair.

It makes sense that Ziwe’s show would be so attuned to the rhythms of the internet. She rose to fame interviewing online personas like Caroline Calloway and Alison Roman on Instagram Live sessions, poking fun at white women by asking questions like, “How many Black friends do you have?” This kind of quick humor fits easily into the rapid scrolling of social media, and it made Ziwe a viral sensation. Thus, from both a business and entertainment standpoint, the argument for the creation of Ziwe was that her popularity online should expand to larger content and production opportunities. The series is often described as a new kind of late-night talk show and an extended version of Ziwe’s popular interviews on social media. But unlike traditional late-night hosts, she isn’t talking about the latest developments in politics or this week’s pop culture moments. Instead, the fact that each episode centers on a particular theme means that the show often feels less akin to talk-show humor and more like curated hot takes on issues that are relevant to Twitter users. This makes for easy entertainment, but it comes with a flattening of the humor landscape. Joking about the proletariat or interviewing Andrew Yang, for instance, often feels poised to land well in screenshots promoted on social media.

When it comes to the actual show, however, the punchlines can struggle to amount to a larger project of meaning about politics and race in America. Instead, it becomes a collection of clips ready to post, palatable for rapid-fire Twitter discourse and ready for virality. Several amusing moments throughout the series make it a mildly entertaining watch, but it’s far from a cultural masterpiece. It’s hard to argue why Ziwe needed to become an entire show if not from a purely views and profit-driven standpoint. Sure, it might make money, and people might watch it, but is that enough to truly translate Ziwe’s personality-first internet comedy into a television format?

On one hand, the blurring of lines between social and traditional media is nothing new as the entertainment industry becomes increasingly dominated by the vague production of “content.” Across platforms and personal brands, distinctions between television, film, social media, and comedy are already nearing extinction. On the other hand, Ziwe’s project of exaggerated self-aware humor succeeded on Instagram––why mess with that? Ziwe as a cultural product is social media, and the definitions of content, streaming, television, and media are only as blurred as we allow them to be.

As humor and pop culture become increasingly driven by the disseminated virality of social media, personality-first content like Ziwe is likely to multiply. And while it may be tempting to try enlarging internet humor to fit the scale of the entire entertainment industry, sometimes there’s no need to elaborate on a punchline.