Yvonne Orji first came to our attention as Molly, Issa’s best friend on Issa Rae’s HBO series, Insecure.
The Nigerian-born actress and comedian hasn’t let the end of Insecure keep her down, though. Since the series wrapped at the end of 2021, Orji has put out her first book, Bamboozled by Jesus, hosted the Yearly Departed comedy special for Amazon Prime Video, hosted the International Emmy Awards, and hosted a reality dating show for HBO Max, My Mom, Your Dad. Orji sat down with Decider to talk about her second HBO stand-up comedy special, Yvonne Orji: A Whole Me, what’s changed in her life in the two years since her first special, Momma, I Made It!, how she’s able to separate her work from her worth, and how casting other actresses in her special is good for everyone.
DECIDER: .How old were you when you first tried therapy?
YVONNE ORJI: 2019
Oh, so recently.
Recently! I tried. I did talk therapy until the beginning of this year when I switched over to EMDR.
You talk about therapy in your special, and there are therapy sketches — I wanted to think that was your roommate (TV writer Ester Lou Weithers) playing the therapist, but that’s not Ester, right?
That’s Dinora Walcott, who is phenomenal as the therapist. My manager was like, “Is that really your therapist?” She is really good at her job. I was actually trying to get my real therapist to play the therapist but she was not available.
For both of your HBO specials, you’ve added sketch and documentary elements to them. Why is that so important for you to add those extra elements to your stand-up?
So we’re not calling them sketches. They’re vignettes, because there’s rules to sketches. Some are a little bit more reflective, and others are like, oh, OK that was funny. But for me, I’m always looking for how to do something differently than what’s already been done, right? People have comedy specials and like, yes, you can do this traditional stand-up, one hour, microphone, boom, bam, boom and go. But I was like, alright, well, what else can I do? And I’m always looking, I’m always asking: What else? For this one, what I actually sold to HBO was: I want to do African In Living Color. That’s what I told them I wanted to do. So we have dancers, those are my Afrobeat Fly Girls, and so the skits were just kind of in my mind like, oh, yeah, I’m gonna be able to put some of my friends on. I was like, I know so many talented artists who just need a platform to shine. Some people I met on Instagram and TikTok, they’re just giving their talent away for free. Let them come on. Come on this show so I can help them shine even more. And HBO was like, yeah, that’s great. We love that idea. Also, stand-up.
You’re like, No, there needs to be more Shady Shola.
Exactly! I thought I sold it properly. As we were writing and finalizing what the vignettes would be, I had a moment of: What would I talk about? And then I watched Rothaniel like three times the week it came out. And I think just being able to see Jerrod (Carmichael) sit in such a vulnerable state and seeing him open up, but also embrace the silence. Embrace the uncertainty. Embrace the very Black church experience of call-and-response. And I was just like, Yeah, I’m not gonna do this if I don’t have anything to say that’s of worth. And it wasn’t that I’m gonna set out to be deep like Jerrod. What am I really gonna be talking about? Cuz a lot has happened since the first special. I wrote my special in a weekend, because I had one phone call with a friend. And I was like, “Yo, what have we been talking about the last two years?” Because sometimes as a comic, I still forget stuff. If I don’t write it down, it don’t exist. And he was able to just jog my my mind about deep conversations we’ve had or things that were hard, like breakups that we both had. And I literally sat down and just have my notes section out and it’s like, just a five-hour writing session. And then from there, I was just like, alright, this is too much to try to figure out how to make it into a joke, or this part isn’t funny at all. Just piecemealed it and then by the time I was done, some of the themes we were already working on with the vignettes made its way into the stand-up portion and for me, it was like, yo, I changed a lot. And you know my roommate Ester, we saw Chappelle’s documentary when it came out at the Hollywood Bowl. And in it he was talking to Michelle Wolf about when she’s really ready to talk about the stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about — that’s when she is going to really tap into a new part of her comedy. And Ester turned to me and she was like, “That’s gonna be you, too.” I was like OK, everybody relax. I’m OK, I’m OK here. And so unbeknownst to me, that’s what I was. I was subconsciously doing so. When Ester actually saw the special in New York. She was like, “I mean, I told you to go personal but I didn’t think that you were going to get that personal.” I was like, “Ho, this is all your fault!” This was hysterical. She said “I didn’t think you had it in you.” I said, “Why would you challenge me? You know, I’m so Nigerian, who likes competition and you challenged me to go deep, I got deep and that was too deep for you?” But yeah, I think she knew what the healing journey was like for me in a lot of these different thing, like she saw the frustrations. She saw how the friendship breakup, like almost broke me. She saw the relationships ending, and so I think me being healed enough to talk about them in a way that doesn’t set me back but actually frees me and hopefully frees other people think that was when she was like, OK, you’re about this. Yeah, I am.
A Whole Me does share a similar aesthetic with Rothaniel, in having that Black church call-and-response interaction with the audience. So that was intentional. You were hoping for that.
I think Black people in general will have a call-and-response even when you don’t want it. I think it surprised me. Because even in the special, I’m like, Are y’all good? I was talking about myself. I didn’t know I was taking you to a place (emotionally). But when we were on tour, we found that that was happening a lot. I would say something, “I had to separate my work from my worth,” and I’m not ready to go into the bit, and the whole crowd is like hm-mmm. What the hell? I need y’all to come with me, because there’s some jokes that still have to happen. But then I learned after that happened a couple of times. I was like, you know what, let them have their moment. Let them have their moment with this because it is clear that you’re not the only one that struggling with this, young lady. I don’t know if someone has given them language to know that that’s what is necessary. So it’s catching them off-guard right now.
Speaking of separating your work from your worth, what was it like for you and Ester before you got Insecure. I mean, I suppose you were insecure before you actually booked the gig?
What it was like for us as up-and-coming artists?
Yes. The struggling artist part, before you got Insecure, and before she started writing for Star, Good Girls and now Run The World.
It was definitely rough. When you are experiencing something in real time with somebody, I won’t say the burden is lifted. But I’m so glad that we popped at the same time because one thing I didn’t say in the special is, literally weeks from me booking Insecure she booked her first staff writing job. So, no jealousy. This is what we’ve been working for. This is what we’ve been praying for, like we’re talking about sharing salad. She was a PA in a writers room, and she would call me. “Ordered lunch for a writer. He didn’t show up. If you’re hungry, you’ve got to walk the Mendocino Farms though, and collect it. Your new name is David.” Oh, OK, great! I literally walked a mile and a half to get to the Mendocino Farms to get the sandwich and then walked a mile and a half back home, but I was like, I’m gonna have food. And that was what it was like. We were both struggling but we were little pops. We looked out for each other. And, you know, she would come to my shows and she’d be like, I think that joke needs a little bit more work. She’s a writer. She’s a drama writer, but she still understands comedy, and so we just supported each other. And it’s so good to see us elevate in the way we have, and in different lanes and we’re not trying to step on each other’s toes. But more than the work, we have both been on similar healing journeys, because this would be really rough to try and like, become a whole me and then I’m like living with an old her. So it’s great because like I said (in the special), in the pandemic, she was coloring. She was tapping into her inner child and I was like, What matter of foolery is this? Why do you get to love coloring? I don’t know what I like! Do I have time with you to find out what I like? She was just like, “Yeah, you do, and I think you should. It’ll help you be better all around.” So we were able to sharpen each other, beyond work and even in our growth.
When Insecure finally wrapped, how did you then separate your work from your worth?
Well, that was when I really had to, right? That was when it was like, girl. If I didn’t, I probably would have been depressed. So while we were shooting the fifth season of Insecure. I was also promoting my book. And I’d been writing the book while I was going on vacation, while working on season four, and then promoting it, while I’m finishing this really big chapter in my life, and realizing like I’m on set for 14 hours. I can only do so much promotion, but we all know that how you promote a book helps a book succeed. And so I was like, oh my God, did I ruin this? I worked so hard for this. And now it’s gonna come out, I can’t promote it. It’s gonna be a failure! My friends were like, you put pen to paper. It’s a success because it’s done. So many people start something and don’t finish it. So many people, no shade whatsoever, but they outsource it to somebody else to write. You actually did it yourself. You knew what you wanted to say. You weren’t selfish with the words that you were putting out there because you want other people who were on the come-up themselves to tap into what it means to be bamboozled but know that it’s gonna work out. This is a success. I don’t know if I believe it yet. And I did it. That was a great pep talk. But I was like, oh no, I don’t trust it. I still wanted to make all the lists. I wanted to sell a million copies. I had therapy sessions, and I realized you know what, they’re right. They’re right. There’s nothing else I can do. I have to accept that this was purpose-led and purposeful. Whatever will come from, I need to sit with this and be OK with it. And it was a struggle. Because if it “fails,” what does that say about me? Well, what is a failure? And I had to have a new relationship with some of these words that we just say: What’s a failure? What’s a success? So the book came out in May 2021. February 2022, I got an email from my editors. They’re like, Are you all tracking the growth of Yvonne’s book? So often books just go straight up and then goes down, But hers kind of started down and it’s going up through word-of-mouth. And so it’s a success now. I’m like: What? But if I didn’t sit in the whatever will happen will happen, I don’t know if I would have appreciated that moment.
I suppose it has helped that you’ve continued to book work in front of the camera, whether it was hosting Yearly Departed or My Mom, Your Dad. People have still been able to see you onscreen and go “Oh, yeah, I want to find out more about what this woman is talking about.”
And the thing about it is, all of those things are on brand, right? So My Mom, Your Dad came because they were like, We want somebody who, I don’t want to say wholesome, but who appreciates family-friendly content. And I was like: Me! And again, things that I talked about in the book. The things that I talked about on interviews, and it just all is me. So is it a success? Absolutely. Because it leads to the next thing. And then the next thing leads to the next thing. So you can’t look at things in a silo. And I think, as a child of immigrants, that’s all we look at. What is this one thing doing? And it’s like, ah, I don’t know! But if you look at the whole, it actually did a lot. It did a lot.
How do your parents feel about being portrayed by actors?
They haven’t seen that part of the special yet.
Can you just briefly talk about what you got out of being around the other women for Yearly Departed?
That was just phenomenal, because there’s something about being around all women. Female comics, female director, female writers, female camera operators. It was just like, Oh, wait, there are legions of us. And it was the thing of, hey, Hollywood, if you’re trying to figure out where are these women that we can hire? They’re right here! They actually already here. Come into this room. Knock on the door. “Come and Knock on our door.” (she sings as in the Three’s Company theme) And I love that. I love that they weren’t afraid. Rachel (Brosnahan) and the whole team, they were not afraid to say, we are women. Here we are. We’re funny. We’re smart. Beautiful. Yeah.
You’ve also been able to do that with A Black Lady Sketch Show.
I did season one, and now, oh my god, season three, with all the Emmy wins, they’re thriving. Robin (Thede) and Issa, they’re knocking it out of the park.
You gave a TEDx speech in 2017 about abstaining from sex before marriage. So have you already pitched HBO and Warner Bros. on a reboot of The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
I have not. Because I’m not going to get there. That’s not going to be be my testimony. That’s not going to be my life. sorry. Nuh-uh. That’s not not at all what I signed up for, but African In Living Color, yes.
With your special, you’re almost already there. I know Shady Shola is in.
Shady Shola is her own character. She’s her own situation. There’s Debbie Downer, and now there’s Shady Shola.
Well, don’t don’t let her steal the whole special from you.
Listen, the whole point of the special was to put other people on. Working with Issa, she’s very comfortable with putting people around her. She’s like, they’re great and I just want them to be great and knowing, it’s still her show. You can’t steal it it from her. But at the same time, I want people to think you’re great because what is the point of putting people on that make people go: I want to see more of Yvonne? That’s not it. Chioma “Chigul” Ijeoma, who plays Shady Shola, I’m enthralled. I was like, you gotta leave Lagos. She flew in from Nigeria to be a part of the special and I was like, you’re going to be a star. Pack your bags because when the special comes out, this is going to happen for you. And she was like, “What?” Why wouldn’t it? And I can produce the Shady Shola spin-off! We’re all making money. You’re wondering if she’ll steal it from me. I hope people love her, because I think that needs to be a bigger show. And I believe that much in her that I put her in my special. You can’t steal what’s mine, baby. It’s already mine.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.