Photo courtesy of HBO
Yvonne Orji On Her First-Ever HBO Comedy Special, Faith & Celebrating Black Joy
Like her first-ever HBO comedy special states, Yvonne Orji has made it. The Nigerian-American actress and comedian has been on the come-up for a few years now, securing her first major role—sans agent!—in 2015 playing Issa Rae's best friend Molly Carter on HBO's smash hit "Insecure," which recently wrapped its fourth season. But what many fans of the show might not realize is that Orji has been on the comedy circuit since the mid-'00s, starting with a stand-up stint while competing in the Miss Nigeria in America pageant in 2006. From there, Orji, who also has a master's in Public Health from George Washington University, did stand-up at clubs in New York and Los Angeles and, in 2018, nabbed an opening slot for comedy king and GRAMMY winner Chris Rock.
Now, Orji is enjoying a wave of praise for her very own televised special "Momma, I Made It!," which was released in June on HBO. Filmed at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and partially in Orji's native Lagos, Orji spends the majority of her hour dropping hilarious anecdotes about her Nigerian-American experience, telling her mother she wanted to be a comedian ("I said, 'Momma, I want to do comedy'... SHE heard, 'So, you want to prostitute youself all about the world!'") and sharing her shock and delight at being able to set her bills to autopay.
Even though her parents have long since gotten on board with her comedy career, Orji jokes a lot that they'd be even happier if she'd just get married already.
"It’s like, sure, they want me to be happy, but in the back of their mind they're also like, 'Can you be happy with a nice Nigerian man who's also possibly Ibo?' And I'm just like, 'I can't make any promises,'" Orji laughs over the phone.
Quarantining from her home in Los Angeles, Orji spoke to GRAMMY.com about the overwhelmingly positive response around "Momma, I Made It!," separating Yvonne the comedian from her very different "Insecure" character and why now—in the time of coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement—it's more important than ever to show and experience Black joy.
So, with the pandemic still going on, are you getting to spend lots of time in that house you talked about purchasing in "Momma, I Made It!"?
I am. And it's like the more time I spend in it, the more money I'm spending on it. It's so funny the things you notice when you're at home. You're like, "You know what? I should also... And I think I need to..."
So, I'm definitely sinking more money into it. I'm hoping that I get to enjoy it, but high-key I feel like whoever buys this house from me is going to enjoy it in a very interesting way.
It seems like kind of a natural fit that you’d do a comedy special on HBO, given how you more or less have one foot in the door with "Insecure." When did HBO originally approach you to do this?
So, HBO had come out to see me, I want to say early 2018. I was opening up at Caroline's as part of the New York City Comedy Festival in 2018. We'd kind of been having the conversations and they wanted to see my [comedy] hour, etc. And then I think we'd gotten busy with filming ["Insecure"], etc. And then at the end of 2018, I also had another run in New York and they came out again. And that's when we were just like, "All right, I feel like you've seen the beginning of it. You've seen it 12 months afterwards." And so, they were like, "Okay, let's make this happen."
Oh wow, that much lead up?
Well, we did the deal in December 2018. [Then] I took 2019 off to write my book. And then we started filming “Insecure.” And so, we already knew that in 2020 I would do a tour and then we would shoot the special for the special to be released in 2020.
I looked at my schedule and I was like, the only time I could actually do a tour is this sliver of time between January and February. And I was like, "It's a winter tour. Why do I do this to myself?" I had no clue Corona would be happening—I was more worried about snow. Who knew a global pandemic was on the rise? So, yeah. It actually all worked out because then I was able to do a 13-city tour, finish it up in D.C. when I shot the special. And then they gave the [air] date of June because they were like, "’Insecure’'s going to be going. You have a built-in audience. We think it'd be great to happen around the same time—a summertime special." So, I'm like, "Okay, great."
[I] did not know the world would be burning, Black lives still needed to be mattering in the way that they are, we still need to be having that messaging of like, "Hey, Black lives still matter," and also, "Wear your mask." So, it was like so many things happening when the special came out. And I was, "All right. Is this a good time? What?"
Yeah, you must be experiencing an odd combination of feelings—because on one hand, streaming services like HBO are doing all they can to showcase content to amplify Black voices. But on the other hand, getting to this place has been incredibly traumatic, societally speaking. Not to mention, you’ve lost the ability to promote the special in-person.
Yeah. I understood HBO's strategy when they picked the date. And I was like, "Oh, 6/6. Great, yes." And I was like, "You're absolutely right. We'll be towards the end of the season. And it's going to be a great season. Hahaha." And then it was like, "Okay, Corona."
Prentice Penny, our showrunner, had his movie premiere [for Uncorked]. And he couldn't do South by Southwest and it was a letdown. He'd been building up to his directorial debut as a feature filmmaker. And I remember that moment of just being like, "Hey man, listen, you're going to have a captive audience. Everyone will be at home. It's going to be fine."
Slowly but surely, it was like, "Well, we can't do the talk shows. We can't do the press." I was like, "Oh my gosh. Okay. All right. Well, I can't be encouraging in this crisis and then be mad that I also got caught up in the whirlwind of things that couldn't happen in Corona." And so, I was like, "Okay, well, same thing applies." Penny’s movie became number one on Netflix because literally, everybody had finished watching everything else on Netflix. So, it was just like, "Well, at least the ratings will be good. People will be at home to see it."
And then the week of [my premiere], all the protests happened. George Floyd was murdered. The country was in a upheaval. And I was just like, "Yeah, no, this is very much different than “We can't go outside.” I don't know how to say, 'Hey guys, I know things look bleak. You just want to support me and watch my special?'" I was like, "No, there's no way to say that and not seem tone deaf and not seem... " And I was prepared. I was like, "This might just be a casualty of what it is."
And I saw “Insecure” come out in episode eight, which is the episode where Issa and Jay kind of melt all of our hearts and fall in love all over again. And just the response of that, people were like, "Man, we needed this 30 minutes. We needed to see Black love. We needed to laugh. We needed to see Black joy." And I was just like, "You know what? Rather than looking at it as a negative, we need levity." Trust me, America does not want Black people angry all the time because it's not going to end well for somebody, and it's not going to be Black people. And so, it's like in the midst of the process, in the midst of the fighting for justice, we need to take off the cape for just a second and laugh.
Black joy has been something that was always celebrated, was always necessary. And I think that's just the way that I chose to look at it. And leading up to it, I went through my phone and it was just very nostalgic for me really just to look at trips I had taken, things that made me laugh. I found this Instagram page that was just slides of Black people laughing. And I was like, "What are they doing?" and I just started laughing. So, I posted. I took three hours just posting a moment for Black joy. And I just was like, "From my moments of Black joy, from other people's moments of Black joy."
And then I talked to HBO and I was like, "Yo, we need to tell the world that Black joy is a form of activism as well." And so, we created that video of just all the things that Black joy is.
Speaking of “Insecure,” was it tricky to get the general public to separate you—Yvonne the comedian—from self-serious Molly?
It was so funny because this was definitely a very difficult season for Molly in terms of the fans' acceptance of her. They were not accepting. They were not here for me or my character. And so, it's funny because the trailer dropped about a month before and people were like, "Are we going to watch this?" or, "We going to support Yvonne because I can't not see her as Molly?" And I'm like, "Guys." And then you had this Twitter battle of people being like, "We have to learn to separate the actors from the roles they play." I was like, "Thank you." I was kind of letting the interwebs do their thing. And I think overall, I think the excitement of like, "Well, let's see what she gon' talk about." And there was that, "We didn't know the girl from ‘Insecure’ did comedy." And once people had the screeners, their response was like, "Wait. No, guys, you for real have to watch this." Questlove from The Roots was like, "I love this." And all the different outlets that we went out to saying, "No, this is a worthy watch," I think that also really helped.
And then when people did watch it, it was just kind of like, "Wait, we feel like we were transported to Nigeria. Yvonne's mom is the true star of the show. Can we get that whole entire outfit?" I think people were just discovering me in a way that they didn't even know they missed. They were just like, "I didn't even know that I needed this, but I'm glad I got it." [When people said] "I've watched this three to five times already," I'm like, "You have?" I was like, "Are you editing it? Because that's how many times I watched it while I was in the editing process."
Yeah, how did you feel watching yourself back that many times?
I was trying to make it the best it could be. I'm very Nigerian. I was like, "I got to get an A-plus on this." I told HBO, "I'm giving you a comedy special/documentary/music video." And they were like, "What?" I was like, "Just don't believe me. Just watch." So, I had my own theme song created. I had Chris Robinson, who does all of the music videos, direct it. It came out exactly how I wanted it.
Then when I was watching it the day of with people on Twitter, it was like, "Oh my god! They laughed! They got it! Yes! They're retweeting." But it was definitely different to watch it with an audience than by myself in a dark hole in my room.
I love how your comedy explores what parents expect of their children and how those expectations can be such a moving target. For instance, you’ve experienced a ton of career success over the last few years, and yet your family is constantly questioning you about when you’ll meet a man and get married.
It's like, "I'm trying my best. It's not on me, guys. It's not on me." It’s like, sure, they want me to be happy, but in the back of their mind they're also like, "Can you be happy with a nice Nigerian man who's also possibly Ebo?" And I'm just like, "I can't make any promises."
The special hops back and forth between you performing onstage and then spending quality time in Nigeria with your family. With the pandemic still going on, do you have any idea when you'd be able to see your parent in-person again?
No, for sure. So many things happened. They were supposed to come in May and then their flight in Nigeria got canceled. And then it was like, "Oh, well, I guess they won't be here for the special." So, then it was like, "Let's go in July." And then it just got worse. Their flight also got canceled. So, I'm like, "Father in heaven, when am I going to see them?" Because they don't like being in America when it's cold. And there's a very short window because they spend time in Maryland. Obviously, if they came to L.A. it'd be a little bit warmer. But still, their home base is Maryland. I don't even know what it's looking like in terms of them coming to America this year. Obviously, I miss them, but I also want them to be healthy. And they need to get their checkups. And it's all the real things that you're dealing with in real time.
How do you keep in touch when they're overseas?
We WhatsApp. We have a family group chat to make sure that everyone is okay and protected, etc. But the special airs in Nigeria on July 1. So, that's going to be very exciting for all of their friends to be able to get to see. They've seen it, but now it's like everyone else is going to see it. So, they send me messages of like, "Mrs. So-and-so saw it and this is what she said." I'm like, "Okay. All right. Okay." So, I'm not in a lot of trouble, but my mom did see it and say, "You are talking about me a lot." I'm like, "Yeah! It's called 'Momma, I Made It.' I'm going to talk about you." And she's just like, "Well, you know, I'm just saying."
The special hones in on Nigerian parent-child dynamics, but I bet lots of other children of immigrants could relate to everything you described. Did you find that to be the case?
It's so funny. A lot of the messages have been like, "I am Latin American and I know that story," or, "I am Asian American and I know that story," or, "My parents are from X, Y and Z." And it's just like, "Wow, we really are all similar in our own specific kind of ways."
I’m so excited to see what you do next. What can you tell us about the memoir you’ve written, coming out next year?
It's called Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me into the Life of My Dreams. I feel like, especially with the special, I've come to a beautiful bookend for the end of a chapter in my life. And I'm not so far removed from the beginning stages of having a dream to seeing it through that I can't look back and help the next generation who have an improbable dream. I’m like, "Hey, if there's anything at all you see in my life, I'm not only showing you how I did it, but obviously my faith is an anchor to my success and so many things in my life."
I'm actually paralleling my journey with journeys of other people from the Bible who also had a battle of integrity. I'll tell a story about when I had to lean into integrity and why that's so much more important than just getting success. Success without integrity: [that’s] not going to be sustainable. It's like, "Here's my journey on an integrity moment that was in question. And then here's somebody else in the Bible who also was challenged. And look at how it turned out for both of us."
A lot of times people find things when they're 85 and on their death bed or after they get a family and it's like, "Well, I guess, God can come into my life now." But for me, I got saved when I was 17 and I developed a really cool friendship with him. And I'm 36 now. I'm like, "Yo, I don't want to wait until 50 to be like, 'Hey God.'" I want to enjoy what that looks like now. And I'm kind of battling against [people saying] "The Bible is outdated," or, ""God or religion is not pertinent or relevant to our lives today.” And I'm like, "I beg to differ."
Yeah, I was aware that you value your faith very deeply. I’ve always wondered—comedian culture as we know it can often be a cynical, non-believing sort of place. It makes me think about what the dynamic is like when you travel in comedian circles. Does it matter?
I think when you meet me, you know three things about me. I say it all the time. I love to laugh and smile. I love God. And I love a good body roll. And I lead with like, "Yo, God is my homeboy." But it's not in a way that's off-putting. It's not in a way that's like, "I can't hang out with you.”
Actually, people have messed up the purity of Christianity. Jesus walked with people that [didn’t believe in him]. I'm very confident in who I am. So, obviously you have to kind of protect your space, like who gets in the inner court, but it's not to be like, "Hey, I'm Christian so thus, you go over there and I can't hang out with you or learn anything new from you or enjoy your company." I think, for me, that's what I like to show. It’s just like, "Yo, faith is actually really inclusive. It's people who mess it up. It's people who shun other people in the name of faith." And I'm like, "That's called the division."
Looking into the future, are you more interested in leaning into comedy or acting, or balancing a combination of both?
Well, it's funny because after the special, everyone was like, "When's the next one?" I'm like, "Everybody calm down." I was like, "This was not built in five seconds. This took time to curate." It's funny because it's like the thing you enjoy about something, you enjoy it because there was attention to detail that was paid.
I think we're also in a place where I don't know what comedy looks like or acting, for that matter, looks like right now because, when are we going to be allowed to act again? Are we going to be able to gather again in groups of 300 to 3,000?
I don't know what either one of these mediums look like, but comedy is definitely one of those things that you don't dispose of because it allows people to get to know the you that you are. A character is a character. And some characters are amazing. And I'm grateful to play one that I enjoy and also learn from. But I'm so grateful, after the special, that people really got to know a little bit more about the person I am, the person behind the character. So, I think it's a two-hander. You work both of them.