Dionne from Clueless. Brenda from Scary Movie. Lily from The Devil Wears Prada. Susie from Rugrats. Chastity from 10 Things I Hate About You. Chad and Taylor from High School Musical. What do all these fictional, yet undeniably influential, characters have in common? Across their multiple media franchises, they could all be categorised as a Black Friend. Yes, the Black Friend: that storytelling trope wherein a protagonist – usually caucasian – will have unfettered access to the wisdom, attitude, joie-de-vivre, cultural cachet, and fashion sense of a carefree Black companion. Often underdeveloped, the Black Friend is a bestie, a confidant, who by sheer proximity elevates the main character’s white experience from mundane to magical. It’s a stereotype that has rightfully been called into question in the last decade or so, with endless think-pieces and Twitter discourses dedicated to dissecting the role these beleaguered characters play in TV and film. Why, as a culture, are we fascinated with the idea of Black people as social currency? Is this a distorted reflection of our current need for racial representation in the media? And why has Ziwe, the mononymous comedian and writer who has single-handedly revolutionised the American talk-show format with her irreverent and whip-smart interview style, named her first book of essays Black Friend?
In an attempt to answer these questions and more, I talk to Ziwe one afternoon while she is relaxing at home just outside New York City. Black Friend, which I had ripped through the day before, contains at its core the very things that make Ziwe so watchable and compelling as a comedian – her style is direct, and she relays her personal experience so matter-of-factly, that the reader finds themselves not just agreeing with her views on race, or politics, or womanhood, or pop culture, but living them alongside her. Ziwe is incredible at making herself an audience proxy. With one mesmerising anecdote or a few barbed interview questions, she’s able to turn the Black Friend into the story’s protagonist.
“I really struggled with the title for this book,” she says. “How do you summarise a book of essays in a couple of quippy words? I found that the essays that I wrote sort of circled around friendship and my relationship to others. I’m so afraid of being the protagonist – even though I have main-character energy – and I am more of a listener than I am a sharer. So writing this book was actually really difficult for me because I was like, ‘What do I share about my life?’ I’m a private Nigerian woman, you are not going to catch me sharing details about my experience! So I found that in my reticence about centring my point of view, there was some alignment with the idea of the underdeveloped Black friend: who are they, and how can we see more of their world?”
Indeed, at first glance, many of the situations Ziwe describes in her essays might not seem universally relatable: for example, being mistaken for another Black comic (the equally funny Sam Jay) on the Jumbotron at a WNBA game in the chapter “Nobody Knows My Name”, or having to deal with creepy guys on the internet ranking pictures of her bare feet in “Wikifeet”. But as you dive deeper into Black Friend, its themes of introspection, self-awareness and alienation begin to take clearer form. In one story a young Ziwe is asked to draw a picture for Grandparents’ Day by a particularly overbearing teacher. She delivers a crayon drawing of her dead grandparents as angels pushing her on a swing. Hilarious? Yes. But also cuts to the quick of what it’s like to be othered, even when trying to complete a task as mundane as a grade school art assignment.
“This book is me,” says Ziwe of Black Friend’s more emotional aspects. “I can appreciate the distance that you create with characters – even in the interviews that I do, I’m a character. You’re not judging me. It allows a lot of freedom to express your best and your worst parts, and to curate them for entertainment’s sake. The book is funny and there are definitely satirical elements to it, but it’s like, no, you cannot hide behind a character when you’re writing 3000 words. Or at least not in this book, I can’t. Honestly, I should have,” she laughs. “It would have been an easier book to write.”
Throughout Black Friend, it feels like we’re gaining access to a side of Ziwe that had previously been obscured by her droll and direct on-camera persona. Her writing style doesn’t change; each essay is peppered with footnotes detailing pop culture references and anecdotal tangents, just like how her interviews constantly bounce from idea to idea with rapid-fire wit.
“I think it’s just how I was socialised,” she says about her somewhat surprising reticence to bare all. “Keep your cards to your chest, protect yourself by never letting them know your next move. I don’t know if you listen to Lil Wayne, but a wise man once said, ‘real Gs move in silence like lasagna’, and that’s something I heard as a child and really took to heart.” There is no pause before another reference bubbles forth. “I think I read recently that Raven-Symoné said that while casting That's So Raven, she was initially thought of as the side character, and she shone so brightly they realised she was the star. There is a version of these essays where I am merely a cog, but I’ve learned to intentionally centre my point of view.”
If you’ve paid any attention whatsoever to American comedy in the last few years, you’ve surely come into contact with Ziwe’s uniquely engrossing point of view. She began her career in the trenches of cable TV as an intern at Comedy Central, where she worked on institutions like The Daily Show and even got a joke on The Colbert Report. She also honed her writing skills at satirical publications like The Onion and Reductress. After graduating college, Ziwe got a job as a screenwriter on BET’s late-night variety show The Rundown with Robin Thede, which then led to a spot in the writers’ room on cult Showtime talk show Desus & Mero. That show’s trademark boisterous New York attitude was a perfect vehicle for Ziwe’s biting, irreverent and youthful style.
Alongside her steady rise in the late-night TV world in 2017, Ziwe began posting her hilariously acerbic interviews on her YouTube channel with a show called Baited with Ziwe, a series where she would use a talk-show format to goad her friends into making social faux pas by hitting them with brutally direct questions about race and politics (sample questions: “Are Indians the Black people of Asians?” and “How many Black people live on Long Island?”). There’s a perverse pleasure, especially as a person of colour, in watching her subjects squirm, or hold stilted smiles as they frantically search for the least offensive way to get out of the ethical conundrum Ziwe has thrust them in. During the Covid pandemic, she pivoted the format to Instagram Live, where she began to pull bigger names like Rose McGowan, Alison Roman, and Caroline Calloway. She had a knack for identifying the perfect Baited guest: well-meaning liberals who view themselves as part of the solution, yet whose knees start to buckle at the slightest bit of sustained pressure.
All those hours spent roasting celebrities to within an inch of their lives paid off in 2021, when Showtime plucked her from Desus & Mero, and debuted her eponymous talk show to rave reviews and an immediate cult fanbase. Now, the budgets were bigger, the guests were more famous, and it seemed like Ziwe had landed in a place where her talents could really take off – and they did. While the show was cancelled, and many would say unjustly, in early 2023, it launched Ziwe not only as a comedic force to be reckoned with, but as an artists’ artist who has carved out her own niche while refusing to maintain decorum.
“Often when I do interviews, journalists will open by saying ‘I’m terrified of you’, or ‘Why are people so terrified of you?’ I find this deeply offensive and off-putting. As a Pisces I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be scary, I’m lovely!’” But much like her own interview style, she’s quick to whack that ping-pong ball right back across the table. “It makes me think, ‘Well your fear of me has nothing to do with me. Whatever I conjure up for you are your own emotions.’ I find that people are sort of surprised by my countenance because my character is slightly different from how I carry myself as a regular human being who moves through the world and watches Real Housewives. But in that same sense, I don’t share pieces of my life to take up space – I’m just sharing to connect. And if you can connect to the idea that that’s empowering, that’s great. I want to connect with you and I want to empower you to connect with others.”
One of the most iconic moments on Ziwe (a show jam-packed with iconic moments: take your pick from Bob the Drag Queen impersonating Harriet Tubman fighting Spider-Man, Wayne Brady debating a child about celebrating Juneteenth, Phoebe Bridgers smashing a ukulele, Drew Barrymore being forced to identify as “stupid thicc”) is an excruciating interview with Chet Hanks, Tom Hanks’s problematic son who has sometimes adopted a Jamaican accent into a dubious music career. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe the interaction – Chet comes off as ridiculous, but also almost menacing at times, like a 200-pound Great Dane that doesn’t realise its own strength. He imitates patois, compliments (?) Ziwe’s “nice lips”, and generally acts in a way that begs the question, “Why is this man saying these things on camera?”
“Oh, I’m obsessed with his accents, like his patois,” Ziwe says, recalling the vibe in the room as the interview was going down. “I was absolutely gobsmacked. His energy was really, really bombastic, but that’s exactly my favourite kind of interview. I think where I shine as an interviewer is that, we’re in this new era where it's like, ‘Oh you don’t want to interview this person because they’re not perfect.’ Well, they’re human. I think my show allowed me to interview anyone of any political persuasion. So a Bob the Drag Queen interview is really compelling. A Caroline Calloway interview is really compelling, Chet. Alison Roman, whatever. All of them are really compelling for different reasons, and I think letting people be honest is really my success.”
The Chet Hanks interview is featured in Black Friend a few times, most prominently in the essay titled “Mask Off”, about code-switching. During an audition process for a TV show featuring rappers, Ziwe interacts with a white man who, when addressing her, uses his normal speaking voice, but when talking with the rappers, adopts a cringeworthy Blaccent. In that moment, she has to reckon with the fact that for whatever reason, this man didn’t feel the need to perform this stereotype for her, and that often, not being subjected to a white person’s racialised duplicity can be just as weird and disturbing as being subjected to it. The chapter made me think of another one of her greatest hits, her interview with reality-TV-star-turned-self-help-guru Alexis Haines (née Neiers). You might remember Alexis as a member of the teenage petty crime syndicate the Bling Ring, and when she appeared on Ziwe’s Instagram Live show, she answered the question “Have you ever done blackface?” in the affirmative, with surprising candour.
“Okay, this is going to sound like I am a conservative but I am actually not,” Ziwe says drolly. “But it’s like, with cancel culture, people are so afraid to say what they think and what they feel, so instead they offer these strange platitudes that they don’t even believe and that no one is satisfied by. I hate that. Say it with your chest! Speak from the heart. I find that to be the most interesting thing about humanity. Show us who you are, imperfections and all. I think an interview like the Alexis Neiers one is really interesting because it’s like, well, why wouldn’t you just lie? And if she had lied, it would have been just as compelling, but for a different reason. So, say what you think, whatever it is, good, bad, or ugly. Let’s get it poppin’, in the words of Larsa Pippen.”
This idea correlates to one of the most thought-provoking essays in Black Friend, one simply titled “Just Because You Are Racist Does Not Mean You Are a Bad Person.” This is a statement most people who consider themselves anti-racist would baulk at: after all, isn’t racism one of our society’s most insidious and pervasive sins?
Yes, sure. But what the essay posits is, if we are scared of the racism, if we do not challenge the Chet Hanks’ and the Alexis Neiers’ of the world, then we are weaponless. We just let all these social woes fester and multiply while we pat ourselves on the back for not engaging with them with quite as much vigour as our ideological foes. Because think about it, if someone like Chet Hanks is willing to fully imitate a Jamaican man and have it live on YouTube forever, what exactly would he be doing behind closed doors?
“I don’t think that being racist makes you a bad person. It just makes you a racist,” says Ziwe matter-of-factly. “If we’ve learned anything from the 2020 reckoning movement, it is that a lot of people just didn’t know what they didn’t know. So the premise of my art is that it offers people an opportunity to hear the words coming out of their mouths, like Adam and Eve realising they’re naked. Like, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea that these idiosyncrasies were steeped in history.’
“I have come a long way in my journey about where I stand on my politics, honestly,” she says. “In college I felt like life was so black and white, and the older I get the more I realise that to end a conversation before it even begins is folly, at least for me. I am open to the idea that I don’t know everything and I am imperfect, and the person I am talking to doesn’t know everything, and they are imperfect, and neither of us knows the ways in which we are imperfect. We can connect by saying, ‘Hey, this is a place for us to just listen,’ rather than having the judgment of good versus evil, which I find to be too macro to latch on to; I like the micro of just like, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting choice of words. Let’s unpack that.’ Then you can really get to the root, or to a resolution. I respect people who are more radical than that, but that’s just where I am right now. There are bad people; like murderers are bad, you know? Thieves are bad, but what if the thief is stealing bread for his family? Then is he bad or is he good? The older I get the more I realise that the world is really complex.”
Whether it’s on social media, or on TV, or in a book of essays, Ziwe is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine of the post-woke culture war we find ourselves in. She’s exploring where no one else dares to go, to hear things that other people don’t want to hear. Everyone goes on about how divided America is right now, as if it wasn’t literally built on a genocidal caste system – but Ziwe is committed to debunking that myth, and showing that, as much as we like to think of ourselves as diametrically opposed, many of us are more similar than we think. Truly, a Black Friend to us all.