Far From Insecure, Nigerian-American Comic Yvonne Orji is Thriving

Yvonne Orji doesn't know the meaning of the word "Hiatus" - she's working year-round!
Yvonne Orji doesn't know the meaning of the word "Hiatus" - she's working year-round! Photo by Tom Newton

It all started with stand-up for Yvonne Orji. And it all comes back to stand-up, as she makes a pit stop in Houston on January 16 as part of her Lagos to Laurel tour.

But in the middle, the Nigerian-born comic has found success in every medium under the sun: Orji returns to play fan-favorite Molly on the fourth season of the Issa Rae-HBO comedy Insecure, Orji co-starred alongside Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart in the sleeper summer hit Night School and the comic is currently writing her first book: Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams. (How’d she get that title? Orji says: “You stick around with him long enough, you’ll ask: Is he playing tricks on me?”)

How does she do it all and keep her head above water? She jokes, "I got my floatation devices on!"

Stand-up comedy seemed to open doors for the first generation immigrant. “Stand-up was me, and these jokes,” she recalls, warmly. “I moved from DC to New York, and then from New York I got to LA, and doing the stand-up thing got me into a writer’s room, and into acting. But then you feel like coming back to that first thing that I know, because you don’t want to lose that muscle, you know?”

Flash forward to 2018, and she’s touring alongside one of the art form’s greatest masters: Chris Rock. “I [worked with] Chris Rock in Atlanta, at Madison Square Garden and in LA, I did a lot of big shows with him and it was amazing. It was like a whirlwind. And a lot of people still don’t know me as a stand-up, even though that’s how I got my start, and that how Issa would see me performing or hosting different things. That’s how we got to be friendly before we getting booked on the show. So just to be able to be introduced to people as a stand-up comic who may have only been familiar with me as Molly on Insecure, it was great to have that platform.”

Unlike her work behind the camera, stand-up offers Orji the chance to hear the laugh she earns immediately. “I love interacting with my audience,” says the comic, who will be headlining her own night at the White Oak Music Hall on January 16. “I love kind of telling the truth that we all either say privately, and then I’m able to stand on stage and tell that truth. You know when you get that biggest laugh, you’ve told a truth that resonates beyond just that circle of friends... Its like you have instant friends because you share a bond in this experience.

"Or when I talk about driving and the Uber experience, we all been there, right? And that reliability you have right away. And then also when you put things on their heads, because as a comic you look at things from a very different point of view, and when you’re able to expose people to a very different point of view… that’s what I love about comedy. You take people to a place, and then suddenly, they’re laughing because they remember is a moment a place they were once taken to.”

While her quick wit onstage may seem effortless, it’s clear from how Orji speaks that there’s a method behind the madness – and that method starts with the jokes. “It happens off-stage,” she says. “I’m very observational. A lot of my best writing happens in the shower. I will literally get out soaking wet and try to grab my phone to make a voice note, and I’m so old school I have to write things down because I have a photographic memory, but I gotta write it down because I don’t want to forget it. So I need to write them down and come to them, and then I play it over in my mind. If that’s funny, what can I add to it? And I like to drop jokes in conversation without letting people know they’re jokes to see what kind of response they when they don’t think it’s a set-up and punchline – and if enough people laugh at it in different ways, I’ll think maybe I have something there. That’s how I test it. Because if you go to someone and say you’re testing a new joke, they’ll be like all right, and they’ll be like, they gotta prepare their mind for the joke and opposed to just saying something funny in passing.”

Though the stand-up tour is front of mind, Orji is aware so many of her fans are on the edge of their seats for Molly’s return on Insecure, after the show took 2019 off.  Sounds like fans should prepare for a roller coaster.

“It’s funny because literally all of us looked at each other and asked, can you believe we’ve been doing this since like 2015? We’ve all grown individually and personally, and that’s very true of our respective characters as well. From the first time we see Molly and Issa, they’re these young girls trying to navigate and they’re on the cusp of turning 30, and all of that. Now you see them in their work place, trying to make decisions financially, and then you see them making mistakes with one another. This season is a really interesting season, we’re talking about the growing pains of growing up. This season, a lot of things are being challenged. Our notions of relationships are being challenged, our notions of friendships are being challenged, and what is the glue that really keeps people together?”

“There so much we touch upon, and for me, I’m going to call it the therapy season, because if you’ve ever gotten therapy and peeled back all the layers, you think you’re coming in for one thing and you end up
addressing this other thing. People grow up, and think different things, and people are able to finally have difficult situations. I think this season does a real good job showing real life people, going through real life situations and finding ways to attack it! Like I said, when I’m onstage, and you take people to a place, and maybe it’s comical. This is a little too real and I don’t know if I can address it on the show, because I don’t know if I can address it in my real life! I think it was a really intimate season, if I can say that.”

 But it looks like the HBO series may soon not be the only place for Orji’s brand of fast-paced and relatable comic voice, as she says she’s currently developing a new series, First Gen – and she’s currently got Oprah Winfrey behind her, as an executive producer.

“[I have] my own show that I’m developing,” Orji says, “a different show about the African experience and that first generation immigrant experience. That’s something I feel like is so universal, and with immigration being such a hot button topic and there’s so much to talk about what immigrants do and how they contribute, and like, most of my family and friends are immigrants and we contribute a lot of goodness! Our experience is very relatable because half of America is a melting pot of people who were once immigrants! So being able to tell stories that are so relevant and funny, but are pertinent today because it's what makes us so well rounded. It’s about different experiences that come together to have a universal experience. David Oyelowo and Oprah were initial supporters of the story I wanted to tell, and that’s such a big blessing.”

Orji's performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 16 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 North Main. For information, call 713-237-0370 or visit $35.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, or trying to hustle up a few laughs himself!
Contact: Vic Shuttee