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NPR Arts & Life

Comedian Ziwe Fumudoh Brings The Laughs In Her Frank Conversations About Race

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The year 2020 has been a year full of confrontations over race, and most of these confrontations are no laughing matter. But the comedian and TV writer Ziwe Fumidoh has found a way to make them funny and also deeply uncomfortable. On her Instagram Live show, she asks celebrities really awkward questions about race. But behind the humor, she is challenging her audience to grow. NPR's Sam Sanders has more.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: There's no way to adequately describe Ziwe's show. You just have to hear it for yourself. Here she is interviewing popular food writer Alison Roman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZIWE FUMIDOH: How many Black friends do you have, Alison Roman?

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

FUMIDOH: Four to five - you are the third person to say they have four to five Black friends.

SANDERS: Here she is with award-winning Black playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUMIDOH: So my first question to you is, Jeremy O. Harris, why do you hate Black women?

JEREMY O HARRIS: I don't hate Black women.

SANDERS: And here she is with actress and #MeToo activist Rose McGowan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUMIDOH: Now, here's a question for you. Have you ever called the police on a Black person before?

ROSE MCGOWAN: No.

FUMIDOH: We're in an alleyway, and I stab you repeatedly, OK? And you have a phone, and it's right within reach. Now, who would you call? Would you call 911?

MCGOWAN: If you stabbed me?

SANDERS: This show has made Ziwe Fumidoh - she goes by Ziwe professionally - a star. And the last few weeks, she's been profiled by Vanity Fair and The New York Times. Critics are already calling her show on Instagram some of the best TV of the year.

FUMIDOH: So I did not expect that this is how everything would unfold. But I'm not surprised, no.

SANDERS: Ziwe says her interview style comes from her experience. She has to live race every day as a Black woman, and that is often tough and awkward for her.

FUMIDOH: Every single day of my life, I've experienced racism since I was pulled out of my mother's womb. It's the worst. I hate it. But it's, like, if I'm going to be marginalized every day of my life, then, hell - then I'll be damned if you don't feel the same way (laughter).

SANDERS: And Ziwe has lived a life that's made her very aware of racial difference. She grew up in a community made up of Latinos and immigrants, and then she went to a very, very elite prep school full of rich white kids, Andover.

FUMIDOH: And having the experience of going from, like, Lawrence, Mass., which is, like, this lower-income, like, inner city to going to this, like, radically affluent town, I think really just, like, illuminated cultural differences and, like, the polarity of American experiences.

SANDERS: And Ziwe says she didn't just sit there quietly looking at all that difference.

FUMIDOH: I kind of just embraced that experience of being - feeling like an other all of a sudden, you know, at 14 years old. And I kind of went headfirst into it and said, hey, you know what? I'm going to make people's lives hell.

SANDERS: But for all of her brutal honesty, Ziwe says she is not trying to get her guests cancelled. And sometimes, she'll save her guests from themselves, like when she asked Alison Roman what she likes about Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMAN: Their food almost always tastes better than mine.

FUMIDOH: OK, we're going to stop you right there.

ROMAN: They're way better dancers.

FUMIDOH: ...Stop you right there.

ROMAN: OK.

SANDERS: Ziwe says the point is always growth - helping people understand the ways we all participate in racism or say things that are casually racist without even knowing it.

FUMIDOH: I'm the most happy when I have audience members message me in my DM saying, hey, like, I watched your show, and I saw the way that the guest answered questions, and now I'm thinking about the way I would answer those questions. And I realized, like, hey, I'm not perfect, and I have a lot to learn.

SANDERS: Learning and laughing a lot along the way.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABZI'S "CITY JEWELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.