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I knew Ziwe Fumudoh had truly made it when she was both parodied and saluted on the latest season of Succession, an au courant satire ostensibly about the ouroboros that is media itself. The acid-tongued cringe comedian, who found an audience through YouTube and Instagram commenting on privilege politics before eventually landing a newsy late night Showtime talk show of her own in 2021, cameos on the caustic HBO dramedy as a fictionalized version of herself. She plays Sophie Iwobi, a take-no-prisoners millennial pundit who skewers Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) on her late night show, calling him a “jar of mayonnaise in a Prada suit” and “Wokestar Royco” as he flailingly virtue-signals his way through a public campaign to usurp his father as the head of a mass media conglomerate. Kendall, who pretends to slurp up ironic subversion, insists on appearing as a guest on the show, but this bluff naturally ends in his own humiliation.
Notorious for her real-life fang-bearing approach and hyper-amplified, self-reflexive comic persona, the mononymous Ziwe was the seamless choice to embody a side character who gleefully minces wealthy, white and advantaged subjects into sputtering glop. During the early part of the pandemic, she rocketed to fame with a polarizing Instagram Live segment, “Baited With Ziwe,” intended to serve as a squirm-inducing cultural litmus test for controversial guests — famously, she once asked ousted New York Times recipe writer Alison Roman to “name five Asian people.”
Ziwe is one among a new guard of joke-telling TV pundits who have not only brought more visible racial representation to late night television but have also deliberately framed their japes and critiques around questions of race, class, gender and sexuality. As these refreshing takes (in the form of monologues, interviews, sketches, games and more) continue to replicate and meme their way into our social feeds, it’s also important to remember that going viral isn’t the same thing as receiving a stamp of approval from establishment stalwarts. It’s finally time for the Television Academy to take notice of how these hosts are shifting not only demographics, but also the broader cultural conversations happening in late night entertainment.
For instance, the outstanding variety talk series category has been in play since 2015 and, as you might imagine, every winner so far has been a show primarily featuring a white male host: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart in 2015 and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver every year since. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee has been nominated four times, as has The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. With James Corden stepping down from The Late Late Show in 2023, I hope the field will open up for more shows, hosts and personas that don’t fit the quotidian hyuck-hyuck late night comedy mold.
Ziwe, age 30 and Nigerian American, is part of a recent wave of young comedians of color to acquire popularity first through social media and then leverage that newfound fame to land broadcasting deals. Effervescent elder millennial sketch comedian Amber Ruffin headlines the critically acclaimed Peacock late night series The Amber Ruffin Show, which relies on her childlike charisma to charm viewers while she dissects topics like white supremacy and systemic oppression. She is regarded as the first Black woman to host a late night comedy show, and her series is distinctly her own — she notably does not rely on guest interviews or musical interludes to fill the minutes.
Somewhat similarly, Bronx-native comics Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez, known for their down-to-earth warmth and thoughtful chemistry, debuted their late night talk show, Desus & Mero, on Showtime in 2019 after developing their style together on a weekly podcast and web series that eventually became the Viceland show that preceded their cable debut. Their off-the-cuff wit drives decussate conversations weaving among pop culture, politics and more.
These grassroots methods of gaining traction — essentially having to evince proof of a devoted fan base before they’re even on air — contrast wildly to the origins of the more seasoned kings and queens of late night, who found early success via more traditional means of making it in showbiz, such as starting off as actors and stand-ups. Few of the current late night royalty were household names in the U.S. before landing their own series, but networks were clearly willing to take a risk on them based on their talent and style. The late night vanguards, on the other hand, just got too big on their own to ignore. Of course, the pipelines are different now because of the democratizing nature of modern technology, but it’s also hard to imagine networks assuming the same kind of risk on “unproven” acts that tackle race head on.
Ziwe, Ruffin, Desus and Mero (alongside Lilly Singh, another 30-something YouTube veteran who hosted her own late night NBC series from 2019 through 2021) are no stranger to the awards circuit. Desus and Mero are finishing the fourth season of their Showtime series and have earned a Writers Guild of America Award and nominations from the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association. Ruffin has five Emmy nods already, four for writing on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, and her series earned a nomination for writing in 2021, as well as honors from the TCAs, the WGA and the CCA. (Ziwe was also a writer on Desus & Mero, so she’s another performer who has risen from writing to hosting.) The late night vanguard is ready to step into the mainstream. Are the Emmys ready to make room for them?
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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