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 on 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!,” debuting Saturday, is the 36-year-old comedian’s first televised special. Taped at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the hourlong 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.
While “Insecure” has become her calling card, 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 arrived with her family to the United States in 1989, eventually settling in Laurel, Md. She went on to earn multiple degrees at the George Washington University before giving standup 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 receiving career advice from Rock. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You got a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in public health. That’s not the usual route to standup comedy.
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.”
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?
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”?
Parts of the special are also shot in Lagos. As a child, I visited every couple of years, and it always felt too overwhelming. I like to describe the city as life on steroids, for good and bad. What were you hoping people would see?
I wanted to include Nigeria in the show because there’s no way I could tell my story without showing you where I came from. People try to compare Lagos to New York City, and I’m like, Lagos is New York multiplied by 25, bruh. It’s like Times Square, filled with brown people hustling — entrepreneurs, movers and shakers, traffic. Plus 20 million more people.
But Lagos is also beautiful. Nigeria is that place where anything can happen and all things are possible. There’s red tape in a lot of areas and then there’s no tape in a lot of areas. But that’s what makes Nigerians so successful and uninhibited. Who’s going to tell us no? And if someone does tell us no, we find a resourceful way around the no.
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.
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 400 anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Va.]. People loved “Black Panther.” You hear Afrobeats on the radio now. You love to see it.
In the special, you utilize a Nigerian accent throughout. Given the sometimes contentious relationship between African-Americans and Africans, do you ever fear that your audience will be laughing at the culture and not with you?
I’m not a caricature. So I’m not using the accent as a schtick. When I go to Nigeria, I don’t [in an American accent] talk like this. For me it’s not, “Let me use the accent and get these laughs.” So how people receive that is how they receive that.
But I don’t necessarily delve into the relationship between Africans and African-Americans. I recognize it exists. I do think: How can we be more unified? I’m not a history teacher giving a lesson. I’m on a comedy stage to give my perspective, and hopefully, that can create a bit more understanding between us.
Talk to me about your comedic inspirations. Who did you learn from?
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.
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?
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.
Have you thought about what stand-up looks like post-Covid?
We’re all trying to figure out what our new normal is. We are at a place where we know we need laughter; it’s important, especially now. We need the levity and the sense of familiarity of what once was. Gathering will look different, for sure. The need for humor? That’s never going to change.
Comedy is such a distinct art form. Standup needs an atmosphere for it to work optimally and requires feedback. Like many of us, I’m looking forward to seeing what innovation comes from this new normal.
You say in the special that as a Nigerian, you’ll always have multiple jobs. What’s next for you?
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.