Yvonne Orji, co-star of the acclaimed HBO series “Insecure,” has seen her popularity rise steadily since the show premiered in 2016. Many know Orji best for playing Molly in that show, but her roots are actually in stand-up, a craft she spent years honing prior to an acting career. And as “Insecure” wraps up its fourth season in June, Orji debuts her first-ever comedy special, an HBO showcase titled “Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!” in which she both celebrates and pokes fun at her Nigerian-American upbringing with razor-sharp wit and confidence.
Filmed before a live audience at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., the rip-roaring hour-long performance finds Orji waxing comedic on family, fame, love, financial security, and more, as seen through the experiences of a Nigerian-American woman. The performance is occasionally interrupted by funny and moving video clips of Orji visiting her family and friends in Lagos, Nigeria.
While “Insecure” is what she’s now most famous for, Orji’s entry into show business was actually as a stand-up comedian. “I feel like I’m introducing — or maybe I should say reintroducing — myself to fans who only know me from ‘Insecure,’ who will now get to see me in a totally new light, because this is what I was doing before the series, so I’m excited and ready to see how they respond to what ultimately helped me get the series that they do know me for,” Orji said.
Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Orji was six years old when her family moved to the U.S., settling in Maryland. In her early 20s, she decided to give stand-up comedy a try, but not without first graduating from George Washington University with multiple degrees. “As Nigerians, or Africans generally, getting an education was and still is maybe the most important thing that your parents will impress on you, before you decide that you’re going to wander off to do anything in the arts, or become a comedian of all things,” Orji said.
Still, mom and dad weren’t immediately enthusiastic about her decision to follow her love of comedy and acting to New York City, and then on to Los Angeles. But success has a way of changing sentiment. From the early- to mid- 2000s, Orji worked the club scenes on the east and west coasts, eventually meeting her “Insecure” co-star and the show’s co-creator, Issa Rae, which would become a life-changing experience.
In her autobiographical special, while speaks of her parents with pride, she also often mines her early meager years for material, especially riffing on her mother’s anxieties about finances and Orji’s marriage prospects.
“I had to have my parents in the special because I knew that a lot of my comedy is inspired by my relationship with them, and out of respect, I knew that they had speak for themselves as almost like their responses to my jokes,” Orji said. “I couldn’t just get onstage and say the things I was going to say about them with them having their say, while also speaking for other immigrant parents with children like myself who have been Americanized and in some ways, strayed from their career wishes for us — wishes that they likely had since we were born.”
The moments Orji spends in Lagos with her parents and friends are particularly lovely and touching, although the special is about more than family and friends. Orji also incorporates woman-on-the-street segments with perfect strangers on a variety of subjects, most often played for laughs.
She also engages with fellow Nigerian artists of various stripes in reflective dialogue on big questions like what it means to be African. The ultimate objective is to normalize African realities. “African stories are just as universal as any other, it’s just that the images that travel are very limited in what they portray of the continent, and so I just wanted to show Nigeria as it is, in all its diversity,” Orji said. “And by adding these extra layers and ideas that challenge popular images of what Africa is, expanding the conversation, I think that’s how we advance. At the end of the day, we all want the same things, and my job is to find the humor in all of that.”
Orji was quick to mention Chris Rock, who she opened for on his “Total Blackout” tour in 2017, and fellow Nigerian comedian Gina Yashere, as favorites. She also made the point that Nigerian female comedians are still quite rare, especially those that are well-known with successful careers. “That’s why I feel it necessary for me to highlight Nigerian women comedians whenever I can, as one way for me to kind of pay it forward,” Orji said. “But I have many favorites: Dave Chappelle, Tiffany Haddish, and Kevin Hart to name a few.”
As for how she feels about where she is in terms of her career at 36 years old, Orji is not necessarily chasing Hart status, but she’s undoubtedly ambitious. “I want to own a comedy club, because as Nigerians we believe in owning property and we’re never satisfied,” she said. “Legacy is so important. I want to tell stories from the continent because we have to see value in ourselves. So the next Nigerian girl who tells her mom and dad that she wants to be a comedian, they would be more open to the idea because they’ve seen someone like me do it and be successful.”
That success means a fanbase that is widely diverse, drawn to not only her role as Molly on “Insecure,” but also a popular podcast titled “Jesus and Jollof,” which she hosts with Luvvie Ajayi, and now an HBO comedy special, which she hopes will simply make audiences laugh, especially during a time of crisis.
“These are challenging times given everything that’s going on right now, and so if I can, even just for an hour, bring some healing humor, and help people escape for a little while, then I’m more than happy to do that,” said the actor-comedian.
“Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!” is written, performed, and executive produced by Orji; directed by Chris Robinson; executive produced by Michelle Caputo, Shannon Hartman, and DC Wade. The special premiered on June 6 on HBO; it’s now available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, and HBO On Demand.