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There’s just one problem with Ziwe’s first book of personal essays: She really hates getting personal. “I don’t want anyone to know anything about me,” she says with a laugh while Zooming from her home in New York. “I hate sharing.”
The comedian and writer became famous for her uncomfortable, nearly satirical interviews with stars about racial and gender politics. Starting on Instagram Live and eventually pivoting to an eponymous, two-season Showtime series, she’s not comfortable being on the receiving end of a personal line of questioning. But Ziwe — who spent years in the writers rooms of The Rundown With Robin Thede, Desus & Mero and Dickinson — realized she needed to “chip away at the wall” she’d put up. The resulting collection, Black Friend, due Oct. 17 from Abrams, reflects on her relationship to such topics as identity, body image and code-switching.
What was the hardest part about getting started in your career?
The biggest hurdle was poverty. I started as a freelancer for The Onion, and I want to say I got paid $25 per joke. You could get maybe enough to make $1,000 a month. On a creative level, the hardest part of being a young writer is you see all these other good writers doing well and you think, “If I just write like them, then all my problems will be solved.” Instead what happens is you become absolutely derivative. It’s the worst version of their work, and you lose yourself in the process.
At the time, did you romanticize the struggle?
I read this book called Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. It’s his biography. He was like, “I was poor for most of my life, and then I became rich one day and I never looked back.” It’s a very heartening book about his process from being a no-name guy in Chicago to becoming Steve Martin. I knew it was going to be very hard for me, and that I should have done something else. I have Nigerian parents. I remember my mother driving me back to college for my senior year and being like, “It’s not too late to become a doctor.” I was like, “It is absolutely too late.” My parents really had no faith in my pursuit of artistry, but I got my degree, so I knew that worst-case scenario, I could fall back on that.
I remember for myself, I had a lot of delusion about what the realities of the salary and the path to success were going to be, so I was either numb to it or completely shocked by it.
I was definitely delulu. I don’t know why I pursued a career in the arts, if I could redo things I’d probably go into private equity. That seems more stable than a double strike. But I do think you have to have a sense of whimsy, because otherwise art will be dominated by kids who have rich families and yachts. Who wants to read an essay about teakwood?
Did you have one moment where you felt you went from a struggling artist to a successful one?
Well, I read Amy Poehler’s book, and she talks about her life after SNL and Parks and Rec and how it feels like she still isn’t “successful” and has to work for what she gets. And this is Amy Poehler! I wish I could tell you that the day I had a TV show with my name on it was the day I knew I’d never turn back. But that’s not the case at all. Every joke I tell feels like the last joke. I don’t feel any stability. Do artists ever feel stable?
I hope so? But I don’t see much evidence of it.
I find that chaos drives a lot of my work. It keeps me hungry and thirsty. I’m lucky enough — I have a roof over my head, my bills are paid. I’m very fortunate. I don’t have to suffer. But I’m still always hustling.
Penn Badgley was on a podcast earlier this year talking about how the more famous he gets, the higher his monthly expenses are, and the more he has to take roles he wouldn’t want to take. It’s why people do dog movies.
I love his podcast. I listen to it on TikTok. I know other people have talked about that, too. For me, it’s not even an expense thing, but more, what’s my next job? What do I do next? I’m a control freak, so I plan out my year. And then I have a five-year plan and a 10-year plan. And a B-plan.
How close to the A-plan have the last five years been?
I would say pretty close, honestly. Except for the pandemic. I didn’t plan for that.
Is there anything in your upcoming plan that you’re willing to tell me about?
Honestly no, because I have no idea what the world will look like in three months. Hopefully, the writers and actors will get a fair deal and we can begin again.
Did you enjoy the process of writing this book?
No. Do you enjoy writing?
I remember I talked about this once with Seth Rogen and he was like, “I actually really love writing.” I felt so embarrassed. I love having written. I love rereading my work back and being like, “Oh my God, you freaked it, you didn’t have to go so hard!”
Do you have an essay that sticks out as either the most or the least enjoyable?
Well, the essay that comes to mind is the Airbnb essay.
About getting pulled over in the woods by people who didn’t believe you were renting the property nearby …
That really happened to me. I really was almost murdered in Upstate New York. So writing that was haunting. Because I was haunted.
You write about how that couple didn’t register that they were being racist. Do you think if they read this book, they would even realize that story is about them? Were they so delusional about how racist they are that their own behavior wouldn’t be familiar?
That’s a great question. I didn’t use the guy’s real name, but I remember it. But I don’t want to be murdered, so I’m not going to dox him.
How much interaction do you have with your fans? What do they ask you about the most?
I do get asked a lot how I thought of the idea to ask guests uncomfortable questions — and anyone who has spent time looking anything like me will tell you that these conversations happen all the time. I actually wish I wouldn’t be confronted about sociopolitical issues at Target. That’s hell. But that’s just what my identity triggers in people.
What is your current relationship to social media?
I mean, what’s a prisoner’s relationship to the warden? Deference, respect, resignation. I came up in a time when social media allowed me to skip a lot of the gatekeeping around who could be in entertainment. My power to anyone who has been able to use social media to skip over the barriers to entry. When social media gets in the way of things like democracy and the future of the free world, that’s of course where we get into problems. But I choose to pretend those things don’t exist.
What does your algorithm feed you?
On TikTok it feeds me news and history. There’s that guy who talks about like Alexander the Great and the last samurai. I get a lot of poetry quotes. Yesterday I was learning about this guy named Richard Parker, who was the cabin boy who was cannibalized on a sea trip from the Hamptons to Australia. I also get a lot of fashion. I’m normal. (Laughs.) I don’t only like murder. I get clothes and recipes.
Which reality shows are you watching?
RHOSLC [Real Housewives of Salt Lake City] is so problematic. I’ve never been to Utah, but it seems like an interesting place. I’m a Real Housewives girl, and I think I’m doing Watch What Happens Live! with a castmember, so who knows what will happen? I think it’s so compelling the way reality TV has shifted to a noir genre. We’re now investigating fraud. Jen Shaw is in prison with Elizabeth Theranos. What a collapse of the timelines.
At this moment, who or what are you intrigued by in the celebrity sphere?
Maybe this is weird, but Bethenny Frankel. Do you follow her on TikTok? I don’t, but the clips make it to me. And something’s not right. I would be happy to come on to her podcast and unpack what’s going on with her. I don’t understand why she offered her old makeup to a TJ Maxx cashier. I don’t get her feuds. I don’t understand the Raquel Leviss interview. As a fake journalist myself, I’m like, how can you sit there and say, “I’ve never seen your show, I don’t know who you are” — in an interview! — and have us, as the audience, be expected to take any question she asks seriously? What happened to lying? Just say “I know so much about you!”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Taraji P. Hensen