For the past four years, we’ve gotten to know Yvonne Orji mainly through her role as Molly Carter in HBO’s Insecure. But Orji has been hustling on the standup circuit for years, selling out shows at New York City’s Carolines and opening for Chris Rock.
Now she’s entering the hallowed halls of comedians with an HBO comedy special, with Momma, I Made It!, which debuts Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Part documentary, part comedy show, Orji weaves in conversations with her parents and friends in Lagos and Ihiala, Nigeria, with her on stage at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. Orji hits on everything from her childhood to dating—and, of course, being Nigerian-American.
Growing up in Louisiana to first-generation Nigerian parents, I know well how cultures can collide in comedic and sometimes low-key traumatic ways. Like when your dad slaughters a whole goat in your garage and you try to drown out its desperate bleating with your new keyboard. Or when you slowly shrink in your seat during roll call as your teacher stumbles over the collection of vowels and consonants she’s never seen assembled in such a manner. Yes, I’ve (partially) recovered from the murder scene in my garage. For the record, my name is “Kaine” (ki-neh) “Ifeanyi” (e-fine-e). Ask me later where “Kc” comes from—it’s a whole story in itself.
Suffice it to say, I needed Orji’s Momma, I Made It! now more than ever. Finding any reason to laugh during a time like this is appreciated. But when those laughs come from my specific community, it means even more.
I chatted with Orji on the eve of her special’s debut about her comedy, her Insecure character, all the ways her Nigerian family has influenced her and this special—and a whole lot more.
Fast Company: I’m so glad I got a chance to talk to you. When I tell you I was cackling during this special—I needed this.
Yvonne Orji: I so appreciate that. With everything going on, I had a moment of like, this is probably coming out like at the worst time. But this is actually the best time, because people need levity and they need a moment of collective laughter. I think it’s one of those things where laughter is medicine. I wasn’t a doctor, but maybe this is God’s joke to me like, “Ha-ha! You about to be a pharmacist and give all these people their medicine!”
FC: God is the ultimate Nigerian parent! He tricked you into becoming a doctor anyway.
YO: Exactly! Bamboozled by Jesus. “I know you said you didn’t want to do medicine, but I’m gonna give you healing powers.”
FC: I felt healed. That opening scene with you coming home to your parents and they had your face printed out on a pillow? So Nigerian.
YO: Listen, I was like, how did this get here? But it’s their way of being proud. My favorite part was when I gave my mom that very expensive purse [and all she kept asking for was her lettuce from the grocery store.]
FC: Oh my God, yes. Was that scripted?
YO: No. No, that was real life.
FC: My sister gave my mom diamond earrings for Christmas one year, and she was like, “Oh, that’s nice . . . .” But the next year when she gave her just framed pictures of us as kids, my mom fully wept.
YO: For some of our parents, it’s not even a monetary thing. It’s about the emotional connection. Clearly, I underestimated how much my mother loves salads.
FC: I’m getting ahead of myself. How did Momma, I Made It! even come about?
YO: I’ve been doing standup since 2006. So before I was Molly on Insecure, I was this black girl trying to do comedy. HBO executives would come at different moments and see me perform. So it just became the right time. They are such a good network in that they give you the liberty to be your creative self. They don’t like to impede on your vision. I high-key pitched them a documentary, music video, comedy show. Have you met me? I’m Nigerian—we’re extra. When I came out [in the special], I did a whole one and a half music video.
FC: And I loved that! You have this kinetic energy in your performance. Have you always had that style? How would you describe your evolution as a standup comedian?
YO: Well, you know, our houses were always noisy . . . .
FC: I’m the youngest of four total, so I get it.
YO: So you really are my brother! I’m the youngest of four and the only girl. I actually respect the comedians that can reel you in with silence and those pregnant pauses. Zainab Johnson is somebody that does it perfectly. But that’s not me. We [Nigerians] tell stories with our whole bodies. And so my standup was like a continuation of culture. There’s nothing quiet about Nigerians. And I actually was afraid of silence, if I can be honest. You want people laughing at you. So I always felt like I needed to come in like a hurricane.
FC: Momma, I Made It! is the first time many people are seeing you as Yvonne and not Molly from Insecure, which is great because people clearly have a hard time separating you from that character. Which, side note: I have an essay brewing in me, “In Defense of Molly Carter,” because she’s been getting dragged on Twitter this whole season.
YO: When you write this essay, in fact, dissertation—because I know you’re Nigerian and you’re getting your PhD—please send it to me on PDF, because I need to put this out. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, if I defend the character, people think, “Yo, you real defensive.” I’m like, Molly is not me. I’m just a black girl who gets to play her.
FC: I’m telling you! I have the receipts. Before this new season, I rewatched everything. And I can’t understand where the hate is coming from. I’m #TeamMolly over here.
YO: Listen, all it took was one episode for people to forget three years. The show is pretty even keeled in never giving anybody an out. Issa’s not perfect. There’s no blood on her hands. Just like there’s no blood on Molly’s hands. But the audience is like, “Nah! We don’t want it.” We’re literally trying to tell you it’s on both people, and they’re like, “Nah! Can’t be.”
FC: Sorry for that tangent. I just needed to get that out of my system. Back to my original question: Being that Momma, I Made It! is the first time a lot of people are seeing you as Yvonne, what did you want to make sure you got across?
YO: I approached this special like this the only one I get to do. I’ve got leave it all on the court. This is Jordan’s The Last Dance. It was important for me because to know me, you’ve got to know me. And so I’m giving you an opportunity to do just that. And it was more a kiss to my parents because when I told them that I was moving to New York to do comedy? “A-heh? Abomination! A-BOM-IN-A-TION!” It was so unpredictable and uncertain in terms of what my future would look like. With Nigerian parents, you can’t be like, “Trust me! Everything you instilled in me is going to help me make it in life. That only applies to very predictable careers: doctor, lawyer, engineer, whatever. So this was basically my way of being like, “I apologize for all the heartache and trauma that you probably went through in those years that it took me to get here. But also I want you to know that I see you. I understand you. I love and respect you.”
FC: Trust me, I get it. My brother’s a doctor. My sister’s a doctor. My other brother is an engineer. And I’m a journalist. When I switched my major to journalism in college, my dad said, and I quote, “Son, you are wasting your intelligence.” He doesn’t think that now, obviously. But I feel like there’s a particular kind of pressure children of immigrants face when they veer from those “acceptable” careers.
YO: It’s easy to have pressure from a loved one. When you have pressure from the community of a country? When it’s like, “The village is expecting for you to do better.” You’re like, the village? The entire village?! But I don’t know them hoes! Because the reality is you are a reflection of your parents. For the longest time my parents would be like, “She’s in public health!” I’m like, “Ma I ain’t done public health in how many years?'” “Yvonne, shut up! You’re in public health as far as I’m concerned.” But it was the last thing of note that I did, getting my degree in public health degree, until I made it.
The turning point was when Lupita [Nyong’o] won the Oscar in 2014. I was nowhere near Insecure. And my mom called me like, “Your friend has won the Oscar!” And I was like, my friend? She don’t know me! I wish she was my friend. I’d be like, yo, Pita—put me on, son. But that moment was shift for my parents like, “Okay, so there’s another African girl that’s actually succeeded.”
FC: They just need one.
YO: They just need one! I feel like Momma, I Made It! is for me because I’m the one who’s actively doing it and it affects my career. But any dream you have that’s only for you is not big enough. More than anything, I see this for the whole continent. I see Nigerians saying, “Wow, she actually came and brought HBO to Nigeria and the village?” Why wouldn’t I? It frees people to see themselves in a different way, to see the things that make them different as their superpower.
FC: How does this point of view of wanting to represent Nigeria affect where you want to take your career?
YO: I would love to tell stories that are poignant from the continent, not just Nigeria. Even in the special, I made it a point to wear clothing from African designers and creatives. It was a very strategic choice. We have great designers as well. We have young entrepreneurs. I know the power we have as creatives. Some people are meant to be bridges. Because I’m equally Nigerian as I am American, I’m able to see content in a different light. And I’m also Christian. I also want to tell wholesome, feel good stories. I want to tell stories that really inspire, but also educate without being on the nose.
Momma, I Made It! premieres on HBO June 6.