Comedy is a notoriously hard industry to break into, and for women and people of color, it’s often even more difficult. So, what exactly does it take to smash through, produce excellent work, and earn recognition?
As for most comedians, for Brooklyn, New York-based Ziwe Fumudoh, the answer isn’t sexy: It takes time, a great deal of laboring behind the scenes, and making a lot of bad art until it becomes good.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into being successful,” she said. “I find that now people ask, ‘You’re blowing up, are you surprised?’ And I’m like, I’ve been doing this in shame for several years, with no attention whatsoever. I’m not surprised; I’m thankful. But this has all been by design.”
As 28-year-old Fumudoh takes a short break from her popular Instagram Live show to write a book, she chatted with Business Insider to offer advice on making a name for yourself in the world of comedy.
Lesson 1: Make the art you want to see, and continuously refine it
Fumudoh’s recent visibility as a performer and comedian is due in large part to her weekly Instagram Live comedy show, which she began in June, where she asks interviewees questions meant to expose their racial biases. She’s had high-profile guests including actress and activist Rose McGowan, cook Alison Roman, and actress Alyssa Milano; former reality TV stars; comedic up-and-comers; and even controversial social media influencers like Caroline Calloway.
Throughout the show, she asks loaded questions like, “Can you name five Black people?” “What do you qualitatively like about Black people?” and “How have you recently decolonized your mind?” The conversations are timely and relevant, given the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the divisive anti-racism politics surrounding the upcoming election, but the show’s concept isn’t groundbreaking — mainly because Fumudoh has been building upon it for the last four years.
In 2017, while working at entertainment company Above Average, she created a web series called “Baited With Ziwe,” in which she interviewed her white coworkers about race to make them uncomfortable.
“Why?” she asks in episode one. “Because we all feel uncomfortable already, so let’s just laugh about it.”
She went on to produce her own iteration of the show out of pocket on her YouTube channel, expanding her interviews to include Black people and people of color, such as writer Gary Richardson and comedian Aparna Nancherla. When the pandemic hit, Fumudoh saw her peers creating their own versions of recurring shows via Instagram Live and was inspired to adapt her own concept to fit a platform she enjoyed — one that also required little production effort.
“This is an ever-evolving idea that strays away from the initial concept; the similarity is that I’m the host of all of them,” Fumudoh said. “As a performer, artist, and comedian, you’re always evolving, so the things I created right after Hillary Clinton lost the election in 2016 are totally, radically different than four years after the fact, because I’ve grown as a human being, and my worldview has changed and, thus, my art has changed.”
Lesson 2: Make bad art until it becomes good
The evolution of Fumudoh’s comedy is evident in her career itself. She was born in Massachusetts to Nigerian immigrant parents, then moved to Illinois for college. After studying poetry, film, and African-American studies at Northwestern University (where she started her own comedic publication, Purp Magazine), Fumudoh landed an internship at Comedy Central, writing jokes for shows like “The Colbert Report.”
But even landing the coveted position — and getting a joke used on air during her second week at the job — didn’t guarantee success.
“What people don’t tell you about pursuing a career in the arts is that everything they do for a long time is terrible,” she said. “It’s through being consistently bad over several years, half a decade, a decade, that you become very good. But you have to spend a lot of time with your bad art before you write anything of value.”
She advises holding down a side job (or three) to stay afloat while you sharpen your skills, putting yourself out there without holding back, and pushing through rejection.
“I had a restaurant job I hated, and while I was there, I would tweet — and I blew up on Twitter as a result of having a lot of free time at a barbecue hut in Union Square,” Fumudoh said. “If you want a career in the arts, you have to prepare for a very long time of eating crow. But the positive side is that, then, you have a career in the arts, and you get to spend your life creating and getting paid for that, which I think is the ultimate grift.”
Lesson 3: Don’t get comfortable
The hustle never stops in entertainment, and neither can you, Fumudoh says.
“You’ve never got this in the bag,” she said. “There’s always more work to be done. That’s why you pick a field you’re actually passionate about.”
“If you’re an American and you aren’t born with a debilitating amount of generational wealth, you’re going to be working yourself into a grave, so it’s best to find a project or something you can do that’s a life’s passion.”
So if and when you do land a choice comedy gig, it’s not permission to coast. To help guide her vision and purpose, Fumudoh says she constantly asks herself, “What’s next? How can I continue growing and expanding my art in the universe I’m trying to create?”
Since those early Comedy Central and barbecue hut days, Fumudoh’s creative pursuits have been multifaceted, to say the least. She’s written for BET late-night show “The Rundown with Robin Thede” and Showtime series “Desus & Mero,” as well as penned articles for outlets like The Cut, Reductress, The Onion, and Vulture. Pre-pandemic, she hosted “Pop Show,” a live show at Union Hall where she invited New York comedians to perform original pop songs. She’s done voiceover for animation; she co-hosts the Crooked Media podcast “Hysteria”; and this year, she put out Generation Ziwe, a musical comedy album featuring tracks like “Make it Clap for Democracy,” “AOC Bamba,” and “Universal Healthcare.”
“Hopefully I sell a variety show that features these interview components [of my YouTube videos and Instagram Lives],” she said. “Time will tell, but ultimately, I’m trying to push each facet of my art forward and just trying to create. I’m one of those people who works on nine different projects at a time, because that’s how I feel most stimulated. So whatever version of that exists as we head into 2021, that’s what I’ll be doing.”
Lesson 4: Don’t alter yourself to fit whatever comedy is successful at the time
Key to making it in comedy is by being you, Fumudoh says. You have to find your voice, your values, and your particular brand, then prioritize honing that. Fumudoh says that when she started out, she found she was “constantly trying to sound like a white dude.”
“But there is no version of Ziwe that is a successful white male,” she said. “What I’ve found over time is that I’m able to perform comedy that is radical and bombastic because I’m more self-assured in my own personal voice. You’re never going to be good at pretending to be someone else; all you can do is be yourself.”
“Do the thing, put yourself out there, be vulnerable, accept that you might be bad, but know that this is part of your journey. Find a good network of people who enjoy doing what you do and enjoy creating like you create, and collaborate with them.”
Lesson 5: Invest the money from your paid jobs into your passion projects
Fumudoh says the most important lesson she learned from her Comedy Central internship was to consistently work on her own pursuits. After all, the goal is to make your passion projects a full-time career.
“I’ve always been writing comedy professionally for other people in conjunction with working on my own stuff,” Fumudoh said. “I work for hire as a writer and actor so that I can invest in myself; I’m investing in my creative properties knowing I’ll eventually get a big payoff. That’s the way to feel the most fulfilled — when you have complete and total creative control.”
Other than viewers “tipping” her via Venmo, Fumudoh doesn’t make money from her Instagram Live show, just as she didn’t make money off her self-produced “Baited” videos. She produced her music album entirely with money she made working on “Desus & Mero,” she says.
And if the past is any indication of her future, she’ll probably use the income from her upcoming book to produce a new iteration of her Instagram Live show. Whatever’s to come for Fumudoh, though, what’s most important to her is the process of creating.
“None of this was really popping off one, two, or three years ago. I was like, ‘I’m just going to do whatever makes me feel fulfilled.’ So I’m trying to keep that same energy as I move forward in my career,” she said. “All I want to do on this earth is self-actualize as an artist and feel like I left my soul on the table with everything I’ve created.”
Michelle Juergen is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, editor, copywriter, copyeditor, and ghostwriter. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.