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Tracy Oliver’s recipe for comedy gold: Big, brash, and Black

The writer of ‘Girls Trip’ and creator of Prime Video’s ‘Harlem’ explains how she’s pushing the boundaries of how we see Black women.

Tracy Oliver’s recipe for comedy gold: Big, brash, and Black
[Photos: Elisabeth Caren; courtesy of Amazon Studios]

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Tracy Oliver has made it a point in her career as producer and writer for TV and film to center her work around Black women—but, most importantly, Black women who are allowed to be more than savior figures or martyrs of Black trauma. “I don’t think people realize the impact that it has on women of color to see themselves in an aspirational light, just winning and thriving and succeeding,” Oliver says in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “You can mess up and make mistakes. I’m not saying we can’t have messy characters. But I just wanted to lean into aspiration and joy.”

In that aspiration and joy, Oliver also wants to stretch the parameters of comedy for Black women. “I really like a silly, dumb joke. I do. And every now and then you need those silly—we call them set pieces—a silly set piece that just elicits a huge guttural laugh,” Oliver says. “With Girls Trip, that, to me, was the first time that I was allowed to be broad.”

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Apart from having four Black women starring in a major motion picture, Girls Trip was also praised for its raunchy and ridiculous humor. See the zipline, grapefruit, and absinthe scenes, just to name a few.

“This sounds weird, but people associate broad comedy with white humor,” Oliver says. “Even with Girls Trip, when I was trying to describe the tone of it, I was like, ‘I guess it’s like Hangover or Bridesmaids?’ I couldn’t think of a Black thing that was as silly, but also heartfelt at the end. I couldn’t figure it out. And so now I’m seeing people actually pitch with Girls Trip as a tone.”

Oliver is carrying over that broad comedic energy to her latest show Harlem that follows four best friends as they figure out life, love, and careers in their thirties.

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“There was this idea that Insecure explored and Girls explored and Twenties explored that your twenties are where you make mistakes and then suddenly you figure it out in your thirties,” Oliver says. “When I got in my thirties, I was like, ‘I’m such a baby still and figuring it out.'”

Check out highlights of Oliver’s conversation below where she explains her vision for Harlem, her overall deal with Apple, and how working on The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl alongside Issa Rae taught her the importance of creating what you want to see.

Hyper-stylized Harlem

‘The Harlem that I saw in my head was beautiful and colorful. That’s what I saw. It’s not gritty. It’s not sad. It’s bold and colorful and pretty and aspirational. That was what I was going for. I like really inspiring, hopeful, joyful stuff, and I think people will appreciate that. There’s a lot of shows that do that version of Harlem or do that version of city life and I was like, ‘I’m not doing that.'”

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Know (and manifest) your worth

‘The reason that I wanted to get a deal and work exclusively for a company was because with Black content, often you don’t get the same budgets and you don’t get the same respect or paychecks as content that’s non-Black. So I felt like, for the amount of hours that I was putting in—I was working 24/7. I was going home at night and writing movies, because that was the only time I had. I [felt] like, ‘I need to start making the amount of money that justifies the work. For the amount of work that I’m doing, I want this amount of money to come in.’ And that was something that I manifested. I truly wrote this intention down and put it under candles and everything. I’m not even kidding. I really did do this.”

[Comissioned poster: Jade Purple Brown/Amazon Studios]

Create what you want to see

“[Issa Rae and I] were publicly figuring it out [The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl]. And I think the newer group of people have the luxury of a template. They can look at what we did, they can look at what other people have done and really study it. And I think the steps—the accidental steps, because we didn’t know what we were doing—the accidental steps that we took were making content that was specifically for an underserved audience. That was really important. I always tell people: Don’t look at what’s on the air to figure out what you want to do. Do the thing that’s missing because that’s what people are clamoring for. They may not know they’re clamoring for it. With Awkward Black Girl, no one knew they wanted it or needed it, but the audience let people know in Hollywood that there was interest in something like that.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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