Look, I get it. Ever since Mad Men came around, there’s been way too much television to sift through. A lot of it has been phenomenal, but thanks to the ever-popular binge model of television consumption, new shows have been appearing left and right — and disappearing just as fast. As Uproxx‘s own Alan Sepinwall recently opined, it’s a wonder that people still have time to watch these new shows, nurture them and give them the audience they need to become good. Sometimes, however, our modern era’s fascination with binge-watching lets a truly wonderful gem through the cracks.
Like Issa Rae’s comedy Insecure, the first season of which premiered on HBO to critical acclaim. Focusing on the “awkward experiences and racy tribulations of a modern-day African-American woman,” Rae managed to transform her otherwise niche experience on the west coast into a comedic, pop cultural phenomenon — thereby earning the program a well-deserved and unsurprising second season order from HBO. Which is fantastic, for not only will Insecure viewers get to catch up with Issa’s life following her riotous breakup, but they’ll also do the same with comedian Yvonne Orji‘s Molly Carter.
Every show has a scene stealer, and Molly is that character in Insecure. Orji was kind enough to chat with me about her experience filming season two and how it differed from her first time in front of the camera. An accomplished stand-up, she also told me about a recent Atlanta show she did with Chris Rock, who gave her some excellent advice.
Congratulations on the second season. The show sort of exploded last year. What’s the response been like on the set this time around?
We’re all very grateful. While we were doing it, we felt like we were doing something cool, but it’s like the moment you start making a dish. When you’re like, “I think this is so good, but I hope people eat it.” And then you present it and everyone is like, “This is great! Who made this?” At that point we knew they really liked the show. It was very exciting for all of us to experience. We’d found our audience, and we knew they got what we were trying to do.
It was so smart for Issa Rae to tell everyone this wasn’t a show for every black person. We’re not trying to be a catch-all. We’re not trying to be a one size fits all kind of show. What Insecure is about is exactly what it’s supposed to be, and if you liked the first season, hopefully you will like what’s in the second. It feels like the pressure of the first season is gone, though. This happens a lot, especially to shows about people of color. It’s like, “Guys, you have to watch this because if it isn’t good, the network won’t let us make another one. If we won’t have the ratings, we’ll never have another show like this. So please, everyone tune in!” There’s so much pressure, though I think Issa helped take a lot of that away during the first season.
You said it feels like that pressure isn’t there for the second season. Did playing Molly in this world feel easier the second time around, or did Issa and the writers give you a new set of challenges?
It’s like a sophomore album. You’ve got the first album that goes platinum, which is fantastic, but then you’re trying to figure out how to make the next one go platinum, too. Will it just be a one-album wonder? Then again, when you’re doing something like this, there aren’t really any expectations, right? Yes, the fans were familiar with Aqua Black Girl Club and the YouTube space, but then again, this is a different kind of show. This gave us the ability to create a little more and do things a little differently. It’s this beautiful space in which we were able to see what worked, and what didn’t, in the first season. Now that we know all that, there’s less pressure the second time around.
I think that’s what Issa, our show runner Prentice Penny, and all the writers were able to do this time around. They were really able to go deeper this season, instead of sticking to a formula. They cracked the realest ways to sell the arc of this story? Now we have a character who cheated, so how does she deal with knowing she’s the reason for her relationship’s demise? What does that look like after you have been in a relationship for so long? Now she’s single and dating, so what does her friend look like? Molly’s been the single one who’s been dating a lot, so maybe she needs to take a break since it hasn’t been working out for her.
It’s a great show. I don’t necessarily understand the rap/hip-hop elements, since I don’t always listen to those genres of music, but the comedy is wonderful. It’s almost universal, like Seinfeld or any number of classic shows.
I think that’s a testament to a lot of different things, right? It’s a testament to putting good stuff out there that anybody can get it. Think about it this way. Before you tried chocolate fondue, did you know you liked dipping things into warm chocolate coming out of a fountain? Probably not, but then you discovered fondue, I bet you were like, “Warm chocolate! That you melt on any food! I love this!” That’s what exposure does. You could say Seinfeld was a show with mostly white or Jewish characters who lived in in New York, but everyone knows who the Soup Nazi is. You mention the Soup Nazi anywhere, I guarantee someone will start quoting it.
And it’s all because of our writer’s room. Prentice said he did not want to duplicate any “types” in the room. We already had an awkward black girl (Issa), so he said that voice was covered. Having 10 awkward black girls in one room was unnecessary, he argued, even though we were making a show about an awkward black girl. So Prentice’s room also has a straight white male who just got married and became a father, a gay black man, a Latino and many other different comedic perspectives. It’s all these voices that are equally as important as the next, and each brings their sense of humor into the story. It only makes the show that much more relatable and complete.
Speaking of comedy and writing, are you still able to do stand-up these days, or does Insecure dominate your schedule?
I recently opened for Chris Rock in Atlanta on Memorial Day Weekend, and I just love seeing all the tweets about it. “The girl from Insecure is funny! The girl from Insecure tells jokes!” I love it because, for the last 10 years or so, I’ve been struggling and broke while trying pursue a career in stand-up and make people laugh. And now it’s like, “I didn’t know this girl did this other thing.” Which is hilarious since it’s what helped me get the show.
But yes, I still do stand-up whenever I can. It’s my first love. I told Chris I considered comedy my gateway drug, because it’s the thing that opened the door to all the other things I wanted to do, and he checked me so hard. He’s like, “Comedy’s not a gateway drug. It’s heroin. It doesn’t go away. It’s addictive and it’s here to stay.” And you know what? He’s got a point. Clearly I took D.A.R.E.’s “say no to drugs” motto to heart, because I missed the part about heroin.
Drug humor notwithstanding, this dovetails into something else I wanted to ask you. I know you’re friends with Gina Yashere, one of The Daily Show‘s recent additions.
Yes! I love Gina.
She told me stand-up was her “first love,” and that despite great opportunities like The Daily Show, she’d always go back to it. Insecure is obviously a wonderful thing, but consider Rock’s advice, how do you feel about comedy now?
What’s interesting is when Rock said that, it checked me because I have this love/fear relationship with stand-up. It wasn’t so much love/hate. I was definitely afraid of doing stand-up. It wasn’t a thing I thought out. I never intended to become a comedian. Most people who do stand-up are the ones who want to do it forever and ever. I was just doing it as a gig. I entered a beauty pageant in 2006, I think, and I didn’t have anything for the talent portion. So I prayed about it and I’m like, “God, I bought a dress. I don’t want to lose this pageant because I’m wack. Help me.” All I heard back from God was, “Do comedy.” I’m like, “Do you know who I am? No, I will not do that because the first thing that happens when you’re not funny is you get rejected. You know what I just got back from being? Rejected.” So I ran from it.
I gave God lip! And I fought doing stand-up for so long because I was afraid of being bad at it, and looking bad doing it. What I didn’t realize was this gift was already dormant in me. I love being able to disarm people through humor. I love being able to find common ground based on similarities we may or may not share openly. Yet all of that would’ve been lost if I hadn’t faced my fear full-throttle. So I faced my fear and conquered it, which was cool. I figured I wouldn’t have to do it ever again.
But, of course, you did.
I did, and I think that’s what Chris was getting to. I looked at him, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle, who all did stand-up before getting into acting. For me, acting is more of a playground because you learn your lines, you get a few takes to deliver them a certain number of ways, and if you mess up, guess what? You get to take 33 and finally get it right. That comforts me because I did the hard part of sucking it up and facing my fears and putting myself in the lion’s den on stage. Now it’s much easier. I get to rest and eat ice cream between takes.
But Chris told me I should never stop doing stand-up. He’s like, “You don’t want to lose the thing that separates you from what everyone else is doing. There are so many comedic actresses. There are so many dramatic actresses. But they’re not a lot of successful black female comedians who do all that, too. So why would you want to take the thing that makes you different out of the equation?” He told me athletes compete, but we’re not athletes. We’re not supposed to be competing. We’re performers. We’re artists. We don’t compete. We create.
I told Mr. Rock I knew I was there just to open for him, but what he was saying felt more like a lesson beyond that opportunity. And to Gina’s point, what Chris reinstated in me was the idea that just because you face your fear doesn’t mean you should immediately jump ship. You keep facing that fear and others, and then you’re no longer afraid of it.
So I guess the “gateway drug” explanation no longer applies, then.
Part of my decision to call comedy my gateway drug has to do with my very African parents. Early on, when I first started doing stand-up, my father asked me, “That is what you want to be, a comedian? Okay, let me ask you this. When you’re 40 years old, will you be performing comedy with a baby on your back?” He was saying it as a joke, but what my dad was asking me was if I had a strategy. I didn’t know fully what comedy looked like, and I realized I didn’t want to be 40 years old, on stage and with a baby on my back, because that’s not a sexy visual. If I could use stand-up to one day create my own content, own a club, or start a comedy troupe, however, then I’m all for it.
Right on. I love the idea of you addressing Chris Rock as “Mr. Rock.”
“Mr. Rock, I will say thank you. Thank you! Thank you very much.”
The second season of Insecure premieres Sunday, July 23rd at 10:30 pm ET/PT on HBO.