"Insecure" star Yvonne Orji is rewriting the immigrant narrative "one joke at a time"

The "Insecure" star appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss female comics, Zoom dating, and her new HBO special

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 6, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It! (HBO/Warner Media)
Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It! (HBO/Warner Media)

Yvonne Orji, who is best known as Molly from the hit HBO show "Insecure" is releasing her first hour-long HBO comedy special, "Momma I Made It!," premiering on Saturday, June 6. Orji, who is Nigerian-American, offers fresh stories and perspective on the pressures many immigrant families put on their children to be doctors and lawyers, the balance between holding onto her family roots and digesting American culture, and most importantly, kicking down doors for other women in comedy.

Orji joined me for an episode of "Salon Talks" to discuss the heart of the special, including how she didn't only have to deal with a family who didn't understand why she choose comedy as a profession–– but also a sexist industry where success stories for women are far and few between compared to their male counterparts'. 

Watch my "Salon Talks" with Orji here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below, to see her name the female comics who inspired her and to hear more about her early life as a young stand-up comedian. Plus, she discusses her connection to her character Molly on "Insecure" and why she thinks single people looking for love should be flourishing during the pandemic. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You've just dropped your brand new stand-up special on HBO. How did it feel to deliver it to the crowd in D.C.?

First of all, I felt like a hometown hero. I felt like I was coming back with that S on my chest, like "We did it, though!" I felt so much love coming back home, to my two homes, actually, because we shot a little bit in Nigeria and then we shot a little bit in D.C. And both audiences were live because I did the comedy set in Lagos and I did one in at the Howard Theater. D.C. They were like, "Tell us more; we out here." I think for a lot of people that was probably one of the last big outings before quarantine hit. Two weeks after I shot the special, everything shut down.

Just looking at the audience, everyone looks so happy, and it was a beautiful moment. I'm from Baltimore and I live in Baltimore, and even though Baltimore is not officially part of the DMV stuff, but we got love for the DMV.

We spread love all down I-95. 

There's really, really good West African food in D.C.

D.C. is, I think, the second biggest hub for Nigerians. There's New York, there's Houston, and D.C. So yeah, we out there for sure.

I like the stew from Zion. They know what they doing up there. Every time I'm in D.C. I'm punching that.

Listen, you just put me on. I'm coming through.

I've been to Abuja, Nigeria. I was supposed to be there for a week and ended up staying for a month.

It does that. I know people that was like, "Hey, we just going to go and go from Ghana to Lagos, but, it's only going to be a weekend or two. Yo son, we stayed." And it's like, "What do you mean you stayed?" Because it's not cheap.

It was love — the energy, the vibe. I met so many amazing people. And it made me think about that when I was watching just the bits and pieces of you in Lagos. What is the comedy scene like in Nigeria?

There's a huge comedy scene. I basically got a lot of my start in comedy by doing mostly Nigerian weddings, Nigerian churches, Nigerian fashion shows. Any event that happens in West Africa has to have an emcee. When I couldn't get put on major stages, I was like, "I'll be emcee because it's all practice." It's me and my mic trying to make a group of people laugh, that's practice.

The thing about it is there are not a lot of female comedians. Even when you see a poster or a flyer for African comedians, it's like 20 dudes. And I'm like, "Where's the girl? Oh, I think that's her." I think, okay, if I squint and jump on one leg, it's like, dang. I'm hoping that through "Momma, I Made It!" that there will be other young ladies who are like, "Oh, I have jokes too. And I know how to split it both ways." I know we're out there, so this is your chance to be seen.

I think everybody should go to Nigeria, especially if you're a Black person from America.

People underestimate how much fun [it is]. We love having a good time. We ain't have nothing else to do, but to have a good time. This is like, "Okay, well, just everybody, just come, just come. You don't need an invitation, just come. We're all there."

With everything that you're doing right now — from this comedy special, to "Insecure," to films — you're opening up so many doors. One thing that I really enjoyed about the stand-up was this whole idea of the immigrant experience in America. Everybody wants to move to America and for their kids to be doctors, right? Nobody wants a kid that does anything else. But everybody has their story. And I feel like you especially are changing that. You're rewriting that narrative.

I hope so. One joke at a time, right? I think it's so funny because coming up, there weren't a lot of people, especially Nigerians, that I could point to that was like, "Mom, look, they're doing it, too." And I'll never forget, it was 2013 when Lupita [Nyong'o] won the Oscar for "12 Years a Slave." My mom called and was like, "Your friend has won the Oscar." I was like, "Mom, I don't know her." "Insecure" hadn't come out, like "Mom, we're not friends." It was just this idea that somebody from the continent did something big, so that my mom could be like, "Ok, I think I understand what my daughter is doing now." At the time it was like David Oyelowo, Chiwetel [Ejiofor], Idris [Elba], in terms of recognizable Africans. And then Lupita, she's from Kenya, by way of Mexico.

I remember somebody had a meeting with someone and they were talking about how the trailer for "FirstGen," which is the thing I released five years ago, that her father sent it to her and was like, "So is this what you want to do?" Sometimes parents need a visual. They know what they know: doctor, lawyer, engineer. They don't know, "You want to. . . [be a] TV writer, sportscaster?" Even if you say, "I want to be a celebrity makeup artist." "So you want to just paint people's faces for a living?" You're like, "No, but it's necessary." "So you come to America to paint faces?"

It's funny. But then the checks come in, and then it gets real.

And then the checks come in and you're like, "She paints faces for a living, but not just any faces, celebrity faces, yes."

I love it. I love it. There are so many brilliant women who are doing stand-up all over the country and a lot of them don't get the credit they deserve. We try to play progressive, but we could be a lot more progressive.

There's no reason Sommore shouldn't be bigger than she is already. Sommore, she had everything, she had the style, she had the grace, she had the swag, she had the jokes. She's had specials, but I'm just like, "Where's her TV show?" You know what I'm saying? Where is her opportunity beyond where she is right now? There are a lot of them, if you watch BET, if you watch "ComicView." It's like, you grew up on Miss Laura, you grew up on a lot of folks. And I'm like, "Okay, we coming out of the woodworks now."

I think what Tiffany Haddish is doing is amazing in terms of putting the other female comedians on, to be like, "You ain't got to question, you ain't got to look where they at?" They are right here, they all right here. So it's time out for people not knowing. Because we're it's like "Hi, all right, we're here."

That's the beauty of it, though. Just being able to get into these spaces and then opening up the door and sharing those opportunities with other people. I wish we had that more in the writing world, where I am. People write their little books and then they do well and they just hide. We have to create that foundation.


One of the other topics you take on in your stand-up that I really enjoyed was the piece on dating. When I talked to my single friends about dating, I always hear stories about how these married men love dating apps.

That's hysterical. Meanwhile, we out here trying to build a bear.

Can you talk about that? What is it like out there?

I feel like more relationships should have happened in quarantine because this is your moment to shoot your shot, bro. You know where she at? Okay. There should have been a lot more DM slotted and not going for slide in and safe. I'm not talking about f***boys. I'm talking about people, who normally would have gone out to a happy hour to meet a nice young lady or a nice young man. And were they stuck at home? I'm like every dude that reads books and is trying to get married, they should've gotten all the other boys, who also read books and are trying to get married, and formulated like an ill Zoom party or whatever, like a Zoom game night. And just invite— it's 20 of you, each one bring one—and then they all got 40 people. It can be real classy. Everybody's name shows up at the bottom, like Xavier, oh my God, and then you can send private messages. We should have been in relationships by now, what I'm trying to tell you. But nobody's showered. Okay, that's the problem. Nobody's showering.

There's a good side to what you said, but then there's the flip side. The good side is even people who never really have nothing to talk about because they don't study or read, and pick apart what's happening in the world like that, this is the first time they have something to talk about.

You got all the conversation starters in the world. "What are you doing to find your Zen?" . . . "Where's the first place you would go once they let outside back up?" I feel like we are missing a very captive audience to bring single people together.

The bad part about it is some people might feel like they have too many options. Like, "I met this amazing woman on Zoom. And then all of a sudden, I met about 47 women on Zoom. I'm the Zoom man."

That person's not serious.

That person never had options.

But he still don't. Just because they're available, don't mean that they're an option. Just because you see them don't mean they see you back. The dude that mad thirsty – "I got to have sex" – like, "Do you, do you?"

Yeah, a lot of f***boys on Zoom. They out there.

They going to stay there. Outside is going to open back up and they going to be like, "Where did everybody go?"

Shout out to "Insecure" for being renewed for another season. I love the drama that Molly and Issa is having this season. I'm into it. I'm Team Molly and I'm even Team Condola. I love Issa, but I just feel like when I'm watching the show, I'm like, nobody helped Molly be a lawyer. Nobody told Molly to switch firms. Molly does what Molly has to do. Issa needs help, a handout, a conversation, somebody to talk to. Molly just moves. Me riding for Molly, I take a lot of abuse.

I appreciate you. You got to be real confident in who you are to be a Molly. You know what I'm saying? You got to own your stuff and be like, "I'm going to fix it. I'm working on me." I appreciate you riding for Molly. I think people underestimate the kind of friend that she is. I mean, hey, who doesn't make a bad decision every once in a while, but who also gets pushed to the edge to make said bad decisions? So it takes two to tango.

Was it difficult making that transition from stand-up to acting? Or was it just a natural?

Well, because every time you're on a stage, you're performing, right? You know your set, but you got to reel people in. You got to be believable enough for that people to hang onto your words so that you don't give away the punchline. So it's you training an audience, in a way. Acting is very similar. It's less of a stage, but it's like, you imagine that everybody at home is going to be watching this moment. You have to make it believable. You have to find the truth and the honesty in this moment. Which is comedy, you find truth and honesty in pain and in observation. And that's what makes things funny.

Would Yvonne be friends with Molly?

I think she would rock with Molly. I think Molly is a little bit different than me. I think she would. I think I would definitely enjoy having a Molly around me, but I wouldn't be the friend Issa is to Molly. Yvonne is that friend that would be like, she'd be tripping, like "What are you doing?" I'm definitely the, "Hey girl, you got about two more times to make the same mistakes. Because I'm calling the therapist for you." And if not, then, what kind of friend am I? Because my friend circle, we all want to grow. And at the point at which someone is acting, it's where it's like, somebody is not trying to be a better version than they were yesterday. It's like you gradually hone her out. I need people around me to constantly make me better, checks and balances. And if you're like, "I'm going to just be me." Who is me? Who is me?

Friendships should be give and take. It shouldn't be one-sided.

For sure. I keep all different types of people around me.

Issa is one-sided.

How so?

You got inside information because you've read all the scripts so you know what's going to happen. But just for me just watching the show, Issa is one-sided. Living on a one guy's couch, you know what I'm saying? That's taken. She might've gave him some advice like open yourself up to selling beats to people who you wouldn't sell beats to. Everybody say that. That's not.

I know, I think you got beat. There was an Issa in your life and she made you mad.

I love Issa Rae though. Speaking of the show, what happened to Molly's dog. Where's Flavor Flav at?

Flavor Flav, he's bougie. She drops him off at the doggy daycare. Just kind of like when dudes come over and you have a child, it's like, "Oh baby's at grandma's house." Flavor Flav is at my parent's house sometimes. I have dog sitters. And Molly be like, Andy's coming over.

When quarantine is over should we be looking for you on tour?

Listen, man, I have so many things. I'm going to be going on a book tour, that's doggone sure. After this, I had a movie that was supposed to be shooting in Atlanta, that got shut down. So I'm sure I'm going to have to finish that. Then "Insecure" Season 5 and then 2021, I'll be doing my book tour.

You have a book coming out?

I have a book coming out, "Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me into the Life of My Dreams." I'm telling the first part of my journey, because I'm still going. I parallel kind of my struggles and my successes with different people in the Bible. Sometimes people, especially young people would be like, "Oh, heck, outdated. It doesn't factor into my life today." And I'm just like, "You think you're the only one that got told to do something crazy and you didn't know what to do? Exhibit A: Joseph."

It's just kind of paralleling the different lessons I've learned per se from different people in the Bible, making it current, making it attainable and being like, "Listen, we are all on a journey."

Not even trying to be funny, but I know people that got shot like 12 times and lived. That's kind of like something Biblical.

Wait? They got shot 12 times?

Yes, they got shot 12 times and lived. He got a little bit of cheek meat got knocked off. But I just think so many amazing things happen and a lot of us are spiritual people. We believe in whoever we believe in, and we study whatever we study. But there's so many amazing things happen. And I think they should be documented in a way that not only connects with the Bible, like what you're doing, but it just also to inspire. I'll be looking forward to that.

I can't wait. Now is the time to write and to journal and to get all of these things out because you never know who may find it and say "Let's tell that story."

"Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!" premieres on June 6 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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