‘Insecure’ star Yvonne Orji returns to stand-up in 'Momma, I Made It'
Most people know Yvonne Orji as Molly Carter, the driven but self-sabotaging sidekick to Issa Rae’s protagonist on “Insecure,” HBO’s breakout show about black millennial friends in Los Angeles.
But as that series nears the end of another season of hookups, breakups and growing pains (the Season 4 finale is June 14), HBO viewers will get the chance to know Orji as herself, or at least the version she plays on the stand-up stage.
“Momma, I Made It!,” debuted on Saturday in the US, is the 36-year-old comedian’s first televised special.
Taped at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the hour-long performance finds Orji riffing on life, love and finances through the prism of her Nigerian background and is interspersed with clips of Orji during a return trip to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.
“Insecure” has become her calling card, but it was comedy, not acting, that served as Orji’s entry into show business. Her path, however, was hardly conventional. Born in Port Harcourt in southeastern Nigeria, Orji and her family arrived in the United States in 1989, eventually settling in Laurel, Maryland. She went on to earn degrees at The George Washington University before giving stand-up a shot as a contestant in the Miss Nigeria in America pageant in 2006. She went on to perform in clubs in New York and Los Angeles and to open for the likes of Chris Rock.
“You don’t get to be Nigerian and tell your parents you want to do comedy without getting a couple of degrees under your belt first,” Orji said recently.
In a phone interview last month, she discussed the special, growing up Nigerian American, the influence her faith has on her life, and career advice from Rock. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You got a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in public health. That’s not the usual route to standup comedy.
A: You’ve got to give your parents what they want, then you go and do the things you want to do. Those are the rules. After I got my master’s degree, I knew I didn’t want to go to med school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do either. Really, it was God who told me to do comedy, and I was like, “OK, I hear you.”
Q: You cover a lot of topics in your stand-up — dating, finances, how your life has changed since “Insecure” — but your parents seem to be the theme you keep going back to. We even get to meet them in the special. Why are they so central to your act?
A: Growing up as a child of immigrants, you’re raised to be community focused; you never forget home. It’s a never-ending quest to make your family proud. And while I’ve achieved a level of success at this point, I still want to buy my parents a house, or show up to the village with a car.
I include my parents in my humor because they are the foundation of my perspective on a lot of things. And no matter how old I get, I still find them to be really funny.
I also wanted to have my parents have their say in a way I don’t think a lot of parents get to. Comics talk about their parents onstage and in interviews, but when do we say: “OK, Mom and Dad, here’s your moment. Here is your mic”?
Q: You mention in the special that Africans are having their moment in the spotlight now, but you recall that during your childhood in the States, being African wasn’t cool. I remember that too; it wasn’t all that long ago.
A: The first thing to know is that Nigerians are very prideful. We always knew we were dope; y’all made us feel like we weren’t dope, and now we’re dope again?
It’s also understanding that the things that make you different are the things that make you special. For me, there was never a time I thought I didn’t want to be Nigerian. I mean, I didn’t want to be bullied anymore. (Laughs.) But there was never a time I didn’t want to be what I was.
It’s all about timing and a shift of pride. Last year, thousands of Americans went to Ghana for the Year of the Return (an initiative by African nations commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Jamestown, Virginia). People loved “Black Panther.” You hear Afrobeats on the radio now. You love to see it.
Q: Talk to me about your comedic inspirations. Who did you learn from?
A: So many: Wanda Sykes, Kevin Hart, Tiffany (Haddish) and Dave Chappelle, my God. I also grew up watching Sommore. She showed you could be this chick that’s confident and hilarious. I love her.
Q: Speaking of influences, you opened for Chris Rock during his “Tamborine” tour in 2018. Did he give you any advice about how to navigate your career?
A: When I landed “Insecure,” I wondered whether I should pivot professionally and be an actor. It’s what I had seen him and Eddie (Murphy) do. And Chris said: “What? You don’t ever let go of comedy. You use it for other opportunities, but comedy is the art that sticks closer than a brother. You hold on to comedy.” And he’s right: Comedy is the thing that allows you to create your own lane. You are your instrument. It’s just you and a microphone.
Q: You say in the special that as a Nigerian, you’ll always have multiple jobs. What’s next for you?
A: My book, “Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams,” comes out next year and is about the various tidbits of my life that got me here.
I titled the book that because there’s no me without my faith, to be honest. You don’t get to be talking to me if my faith didn’t sustain me during those periods when I questioned whether I wanted to be in entertainment. Where I am today, and being able to say, “Momma, I made it,” was me saying yes to God. This is bigger than anything that I or my family could have anticipated, and my mind is almost blown when I think about what’s next.
The New York Times