When Ziwe Fumudoh was a 14-year-old student at Phillips Academy in Andover, she learned about the power of satire. Her sophomore English teacher introduced the class to “The Colbert Report” and Jonathan Swift’s classic essay “A Modest Proposal” — two prime examples, three centuries apart, of unreliable narrators achieving comic effect.
“‘I can’t believe you can get away with saying things to people like that,’” she remembers her younger self thinking. (Stephen Colbert, of course, played a far-right blowhard on his Comedy Central show; “A Modest Proposal” suggested with a straight face a barbaric solution to Ireland’s poverty problem.) “It was so exciting, so fun, so honest.”
A few years later, while in college, Ziwe actually interned for Colbert. Now, another decade down the road, after honing her comedy chops writing for the Onion and “Desus and Mero,” among others, she’s putting herself in front of the camera. And it’s up to the audience to decide whether she’s being serious, or not.
The premiere of “Ziwe” — these days the star of the show goes by her mononym — aired last Sunday on Showtime. It’s a six-episode series, a faux talk-and-variety show featuring awkward interviews with celebrity guests, phony ads a la “SNL,” and one over-the-top musical segment each episode — performed, naturally, by Ziwe.
The show is the logical extension of the viral videos Ziwe, 29, has been making since 2017, first on YouTube, then Instagram Live. “Baited with Ziwe” featured interviews in which the host often got her guests — Rose McGowan, Alyssa Milano, and Instagram star Caroline Calloway among them — to stick their feet in their mouths, usually by talking about race.
“I’m not trying to get anyone canceled,” she insists. “The goal isn’t to get anyone in trouble. The goal is to have some lighthearted fun with conversations that are ultimately substantive about race.
“The goal is entertainment. Making people laugh.”
That she does, with the outrageous questions that have already become her trademark. “What bothers you more — slow walkers or racism?” she asks Fran Lebowitz during the first episode. Upcoming guests include Bowen Yang and Phoebe Bridgers.
The exchanges are enhanced with uncomfortably long reaction shots and farcical special effects. The host plays a magnified version of herself, a product of the reality-show era with an extravagant amount of self-absorption. (In real life, Ziwe seems genial and accommodating, almost to a fault.)
Her main model for her musical parodies is Britney Spears: “She’s a proletarian queen — so talented.” Like Britney, Ziwe’s other pop-star North Stars answer to one name: Arianna and Rihanna and Beyoncé. One upcoming episode will feature a tongue-in-cheek song about immigrants inspired by Madonna’s “Vogue” video.
The star of the show got the Oscar-nominated soundtrack composer Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) to write her theme song.
“I don’t even shut up about him,” she says. “His scores are the scores to my writing.” The plush stage is set in garish pink — a purposeful antithesis, she says, to the straight-white-male look of most talk show sets.
“I didn’t know I was going to be a professional artist until my junior or senior year in college [at Northwestern University],” says Ziwe, on the phone from New York City, where she lives. “But I’ve always been this sarcastic, acerbic, energetic person. I would have done that as a lawyer, or a dentist. Who’s to say?”
She grew up in Lawrence, the middle of three children born to Nigerian immigrants. Her parents were not too fond of her sarcasm, she recalls.
“When I was a kid, they’d say, ‘That isn’t a good way of communicating.’ In part, they’re right. People don’t know when I’m joking or when I’m being serious. You see it in my comedy. It’s deadpan, intentionally so.”
As a student, Ziwe “was somebody who would change the whole energy of the room,” says Kate McQuade, the Phillips Andover teacher who taught the art of satire. “She was very charming and funny, but also not afraid to push against the grain.
“Tone is such a hard thing to teach,” says McQuade, an accomplished fiction writer. “I admire her so much for her ability to not just write satire, but to perform it in a way that invites people in, even as she’s calling [them] out.”
Much of her humor, Ziwe thinks, comes from the stark contrast between her upbringing in the gateway city of Lawrence and the privilege of attending Phillips Andover, just a few miles away. She hears the “dry wit” of New England in her writing.
But New England also taught her the careful avoidance of any meaningful discussion of racism, she says. She jokes that the closest she got to real talk about race was “Martin Luther King — he’s fantastic!”
“I had so much to learn about the ways in which race permeates communities,” she says. As a comedy writer, she wants to get it all out there.
“People aren’t inherently good or bad. They just are constantly making mistakes. Sometimes they’re not even aware of it. In New England, there are a lot of quote-unquote well-intentioned people who just didn’t learn these things.
“I certainly didn’t,” she says. And she’s not kidding.
On Showtime. Sunday at 11 p.m.
E-mail James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.