Ziwe Fumudoh ’14 has re-created appointment TV in the streaming era. Her Thursday night Instagram Live show has become must-see social media TV. On the show, an offshoot of her longstanding YouTube series Baited with Ziwe, Fumudoh interviews celebrity guests to get at their implicit biases and start conversations about race and racism. Sharply funny, confrontational and often wildly uncomfortable, the show is not intended as an attack on her guests, who include cook and author Alison Roman and playwright Jeremy O. Harris, among others.
Rather, Fumudoh’s goal is to get us all talking about racism and examining our own beliefs and behaviors in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.
“The thing that makes me really happy is when I get messages that say, ‘Seeing you do this inspired me to talk to my family about race,’” Fumudoh says.
Growing up in Lawrence, Mass., Fumudoh didn’t expect to become a writer, let alone a comedian.
“I was raised by Nigerians, so I didn't really have a concept of being anything other than a professional lawyer or doctor,” says Fumudoh, who came to Northwestern majoring in math and eventually fell in love with African American studies and writing. Fumudoh considered becoming a civil rights lawyer, thinking that being a writer wasn’t financially feasible.
“Ziwe was the kind of student I always want in a class — the kind who helps everyone to be more present and alive in the moment,” says English professor Rachel Jamison Webster, who Fumudoh credits as one of her best teachers. “She was absolutely unafraid to question the whole construct of the course, though at the same time she was an eager learner and very smart, deep thinker. She would ask questions that were not only about the texts, but about why we were reading a particular text.”
Late in her junior year, Fumudoh found a summer internship opportunity with Comedy Central and applied. She was one of eight students across the U.S. accepted into the program, which had interns spend one week at a time on shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
“I got a joke on The Colbert Report, and that really expanded my mind that I could work in the arts, and that it was totally a feasible, real career,” Fumudoh says.
From there, Fumudoh dove deeper into writing and comedy. She interned at The Onion during her senior year. She began taking improv classes at The iO Theatre in Chicago and started her own publication. Northwestern, Fumudoh says, laid the foundation for all of it.
“Because of Northwestern’s access in Chicago, I was able to explore the career options of being a professional comedian and a professional artist,” Fumudoh says. “And that would not have been the case if I had gone to any other school in the U.S.”
After graduation, Fumudoh earned a screenwriting role on The Rundown with Robin Thede, a late-night talk show hosted by Thede, a Northwestern alumna, who, along with Stephen Colbert ’86 ’11 H, Fumudoh cites as her biggest sources of creative inspiration.
A MULTI-HYPHENATE STAR
In addition to her Instagram Live show and her Baited with Ziwe web series, Fumudoh is now a writer on Showtime’s Desus & Mero. She released a musical album called Generation Ziwe this year and is the voice of Kamala Harris on Showtime’s animated show Our Cartoon President. Fumudoh also signed a deal to write a humorous essay collection called The Book of Ziwe, and she will soon star in and executive produce a new Showtime variety series.
No day is the same as the last for Fumudoh, and that’s how she likes it.
“I think it really goes back to Northwestern, where you're a student doing nine different things at any given moment,” she says. “I like to juggle multiple projects at a time because each project informs [the others]. For me as an artist, I like to be challenged. I just want to push the boundaries of my art at all times, and I think to do that successfully, I have to dabble in as many things as possible.”
NEVER A STRAIGHT LINE
Despite her jam-packed calendar and myriad projects on her plate, Fumudoh understands her path is unconventional.
“Every single day as a professional artist I think a career in this field is not going to happen for me,” Fumudoh says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with this pursuit. It’s high risk, high reward.”
Fumudoh’s ability to work through roadblocks and redirect where necessary has been key to her success. As a Northwestern student, she was “firmly rejected” by comedy clubs and arts clubs on campus. “I really didn’t let that determine my fate,” Fumudoh says. “I just committed to creating and working in my own silo.”
When The Rundown was cancelled, Fumudoh freelanced and even considered a short stint in the tech industry before she was offered a role at Desus and Mero. Her stand-up work has been sidelined by COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, but she has signed book and TV deals in the meantime. But even now, as her star is undeniably rising, Fumudoh knows there are no guarantees, and she’s ok with that.
“There's no promise that in five years, 10 years, I won’t be pushed out to sea,” Fumudoh says. “But that's why you have to make art that is fulfilling to yourself. You can't follow trends. You have to set your own path.”