Years from now, when we look back on the history of pop-political interviewing, we may find it quaint that Sacha Baron Cohen had to disguise himself as Borat and Ali G in order to get public figures into uncomfortable situations.
Turns out all you have to do is ask.
At least that was the case with the New York mayoral candidate and media omnipresence Andrew Yang, who accepted a dangerous offer from the comedian Ziwe to appear on her self-named Showtime program.
The invitation (announced in a tweet that appeared to include a still from an already completed interview) would give many political handlers heartburn. The three-week old “Ziwe,” based on the comedian’s online show “Baited With Ziwe,” is a crucible of cringe.
But cringe, in many ways, has been what the Yang campaign runs on.
In her interviews, Ziwe uses the persona of an extremely online interviewer fond of influencer-speak (everything, and everyone, is “iconic”) to set up productively uncomfortable questions about politics and culture. Her signature is to take a softball-question template (“Your favorite ____”), soak it in acid and surround it with mousetraps. She asked the author and celebrated New York grouch Fran Lebowitz, “What bothers you more: slow walkers or racism?”
Sunday’s interview delivered. After a cheerful introduction by teleconference — Mr. Yang was, of course, an “icon” — Ziwe asked the candidate to name his four favorite billionaires. (His answer included Michael Bloomberg, whom the Democratic base considers less than iconic; Oprah; Michael Jordan; and a tie for fourth between the possible/potential billionaires LeBron James and the Rock.) His favorite subway stop? The punitive Times Square station.
“What are your favorite racial stereotypes?” elicited a nervous laugh. “What can I say about Asians?” Mr. Yang said, one of the “MATH” caps made famous in his presidential campaign visible behind him. And when Mr. Yang said he was a fan of hip-hop, Ziwe asked his favorite Jay-Z song, a loaded question about a New York rapper for a candidate whose local cred has repeatedly been challenged.
There was a pause. Finally, Mr. Yang offered up “Numb/Encore” (with the rock band Linkin Park), as well as the Kanye West “Watch the Throne” collaboration that he referred to as “Word in Paris.”
And yet! There was reason for critics to think Mr. Yang had embarrassed himself and for supporters to think he had helped himself. You could watch the interview and see a naïve glad-hander in over his head or a gutsy good sport. And you might be right either way.
This has been the pattern of the Yang campaign in the media, an endless cycle of gaffes and self-owns that have left him at or near the top of the polls despite a paucity of government experience and electoral wins. The Ziwe interview may not have even been the most mortifying Yang clip of the week, which also saw a video of him tossing brick after brick on a city basketball court.
He tweeted his love of New York “bodegas” with a video of what looked like a capacious supermarket. He reminisced about waiting “in,” not “on,” line at a “NY restaurant,” Shake Shack. More seriously, he offended a gay Democratic club while seeking an endorsement and walked back an initial response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that didn’t acknowledge violence against Palestinians.
After every incident, he may or may not have gotten more formidable. But after every incident, he got more famous. Fame got him to the front of the pack and — despite repeated pronouncements that the latest immolation would end him — fame has kept him there.
No American needs to be told that celebrity is a path to politics. We’ve had Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump; we may have Caitlyn Jenner and Matthew McConaughey. But Mr. Yang represents another advance in the celebritization of politics: He became a celebrity by running for president.
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The 2020 Democratic debates were a kind of TV serial, with passions and breakout characters (the quotable spiritual guide from the early episodes, the sweeps-month arc about the last-minute billionaire candidate) and a ravenous partisan audience. (To a lesser extent, cable-news exposure also helps candidates like Maya Wiley, whose assets include mediagenic appearances on MSNBC as much as her government and civil-rights work.)
His business record was questionable. His political record was sparse. But as Alex Pareene put it in The New Republic, he became “a television character that people have not only heard of but actually like.” On the debate stage, on outlets like the Joe Rogan podcast and as a CNN commentator, he found a following for his advocacy of a universal basic income and his one-liners, like “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
Mr. Yang has plenty of differences from the reality-TV star he ran to replace. But as a mayoral candidate, he is also testing the theory that in today’s politics, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign was a series of detonations that, as a seminal tweet put it, people were confident “ol Donny Trump” would never wriggle his way out of — all of which cemented his place as the lead of the antihero drama.
If Mr. Yang’s New York run is more cringe sitcom in genre, we can’t rule out that pattern’s repeating. More than once, people have compared him with Michael Scott of “The Office,” the clueless enthusiast and tourist who praised his favorite authentic New York pizza slice, from Sbarro.
But here’s the thing: Michael Scott somehow managed to get and keep that managerial job at Dunder Mifflin. And people happily watched his character for years. Would you want him to be mayor of Scranton, much less the largest city in America? Maybe not. But beyond the vicarious laughs over his embarrassments, viewers responded to his indomitable, unshameable optimism. (Mr. Yang’s own campaign even embraced the comparison last week, tweeting a video of him sinking a basket, with the quote, “‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. – Wayne Gretzky’ – Michael Scott.”)
And so the character arc of Andrew Yang continues, moment after meme, through one surefire-campaign-killer after another. (The Ziwe offer last week delighted anti-Yang Twitter, which imagined her ending him.) Maybe those incidents will, cumulatively, leave him coming up short.
But for now, they are generating him outsized media attention (of which this piece is an example) and putting his name at the top of the credits. It is the sort of feeding frenzy in which it is not always clear who is being eaten and who is doing the eating. One person’s bait, these days, is another person’s meal.