I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Sanaa Lathan interview here.
Yvonne Orji is inviting us to therapy with her. Her new HBO comedy special, “A Whole Me,” can be summed up with one of the most quoted lines from her TV series “Insecure,” courtesy of Natasha Rothwell’s character, Kelli: “You know what that is? Growth.”
The Nigerian comedian gets personal about how the COVID-19 pandemic shifted her world and mindset in the one-hour program, which premieres Saturday, as it moves back and forth between stand-up and vignettes in conversation with each other.
The follow-up to her debut special, “Momma, I Made It!” puts her perfectionism, her idea of identity and her connection to self-worth on trial. Through stories of her career, dating and familial relationships, an audience watches Orji become undone and put herself back together as a form of healing.
“When I talk about undoing perfectionism, undoing hustling and flowing within the special, those are the moments where I’m like, oh, it won’t happen right away, but … after you’re like, ‘I’m so glad I took the time to not be stressed out,’” she said.
“I’m so glad I took the time to become a whole me so I can appreciate this moment because if not, this moment would’ve still come, but I wouldn’t be the me that I am now to see it.”
A good example of Orji’s shift in perspective is how she has adopted her agent’s view of her comedy. In both “A Whole Me” and her conversation with HuffPost, Orji said that her Nigerian upbringing made the prospect of failure uncomfortable. That applied to her stand-up, too — which is quite ironic, considering that comedians are often prone to facing failure in real time. But Orji’s agent, Heidi, pushed her to do a show in Atlanta that required an hour’s worth of material. When Orji was concerned that she only had half that, Heidi told her, “Let’s just see.”
“She was so calm and was just like: ’Girl, what pressure? If it works out, then we can now go to HBO and say, “Would you do Yvonne Orji?” And if it doesn’t then you keep going back on the road until you get an hour,’” Orji recalled.
“Then the whole time I’m like: ‘Chill, girl. These are Black people in Atlanta. You can’t waste their money.’ But if I come out and it’s not funny, it’s like, it’s not her [Heidi] that’s going to get the heat; it’s going to be me. And they never going to forget it. Black Twitter is real. So I had all the anxiety.”
Not only did Orji end up having an hour’s worth of material, but she sold out the show.
“It was just so wild because once I settled into the ‘let’s just see, let’s just have fun,’ everything that was already inside of me, that was already purposed inside of me, came out,” she said.
Speaking to HuffPost, Orji discusses her journey to unlearning perfection, getting over fear in comedy and why watching comic Jerrod Carmichael in “Rothaniel” motivated her even more to “make my special special.”
Congrats on your new special. I love that the title is a play on a bit from “Momma, I Made It!” It feels very double entendre-y, especially because you go into more personal things and your healing journey through therapy. Why did you name it “A Whole Me”?
That was really it. … The thing of the “Whole Me” was a callback. In the first one, it was more like how Nigerians have the saying “a whole me.” So this time I was like, “No, [I] actually really did become a whole better version of myself.”
And one day it just happened. HBO is like, “What’s the title that you’re thinking?” … I remember I was on tour with Chinedu [Unaka, the comedian, who is] … also in one of the vignettes, and he opens up for me and I’m just like, “What if I call it ‘A Whole Me’”?
I explained to him exactly what you just said. He was like, “I love that.” It’s like when you have those moments where it just feels right, and then everybody got it. So I think people who really did love that callback from the first special, they’re going to see: “Oh, OK. That’s what she meant.”
You decide to take a more personal approach with this one. I’m wondering why that is and what part the pandemic had to play in that.
The pandemic had a whole part to play, literally — especially having a lot of “aha” moments. I had to undo certain things. I had to separate my work from my worth. It’s like, you’re not your job. But then in practice, you’re like, what’s that mean though? And what does that look like?
And in the pandemic, literally, we had to separate from everything. We had to separate from family, from friends, from going outside. We had to separate how we hugged people, how we flew, how we traveled. And so having to separate my work from my worth was probably the hardest thing because as a Nigerian, we pride ourselves on just being excellent in everything.
The pandemic was the end of “Insecure” as well. We finished the fifth and final season. And so then it’s just like: “Well, this is the show that gave me the platform that I currently have and now that’s going away. And so without it, girl, you better learn quickly to be good.” If not, depression could have definitely easily been knocking on my door.
We don’t know what’s next. We don’t even know if we’re going to be here tomorrow. And so I think I started the work of being like, you just have to do stuff, trust in it, be proud of it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Because as a recovering perfectionist, I had to tell myself [to be] proud, not perfect. “Can you be proud of the work you put out? Even if it doesn’t win the awards, even if it doesn’t get on the lists, can you be proud of it?” Because that’s when you come from separating your work from your worth.
And, baby, it’s not easy, because you’re just like, “But I put so much work and I put so much effort and I believe in it. What don’t you see?” But it fulfilled its purpose. And you go on and do other things. It doesn’t define you.
You’re preaching right now. We put all these things on our plates and we end up really trying to stretch ourselves to make everything perfect without sitting back and celebrating what’s already good enough. How were you able to reach that point in understanding that you don’t have to necessarily be excellent all the time and there’s room to just be?
My book, “Bamboozled by Jesus,” came out while we were filming the final season of “Insecure.” So I couldn’t really do that much press work because I’m on set. But you have to do press in order for people to know that you have a book coming out. And the Nigerian thing of it is just, “Did you make The New York Times’ bestseller list?”
So then I was just like, “You got to take the pressure off of you.” But it was so hard for me. So I’m like, “Yes, God, I wrote it because you told me to.” But also I really like all the accoutrements that come with being an author.
And I’ll never forget, I had friends who were just like: “Yeah girl, you did the hard thing. The hard thing was writing.” And it was just like, “Oh wait, what?” And just even that shift reminding myself of how many people get book deals, how many people write their own books while filming a movie — because I was working on it while I was filming “Vacation Friends” and “Insecure.”
So then it was just like: “Girl, you had no breaks, and you’re pouring out your life story into this thing. And then on top of that, you want to add the pressure of ‘it has to sell a million copies.’ Girl, what are we doing?” … And it took so much work to rewire my mind to believe it first, because it’s like, when you grow up in a house I did where it’s like, “What is a B-plus?” — nobody is checking my transcript at my big age.
And so, I think for me, if you’re asking a process of “how do you really shift that?” it is the thing of, OK, I achieved purpose. I’m proud of it. Whatever perfection looks like for other people doesn’t have to look like to me.
Your parents were in the audience for this show. How was it performing in front of them?
Well, it was nerve-wracking, I ain’t going to lie to you. I just was like, “I can’t see them. I don’t want to see them.”
Was this their first time?
This was their first time seeing me live since 2006. They weren’t really too happy with the first bits of material [back then] because I was talking about them a lot and I hadn’t achieved success. So it felt like I was arbitrarily just talking about them and I was like, “I promise there’s a method.” So I was nervous. I talk about estate planning with them. I talk a lot of stuff about the family and I said, “This not going to end well.”
But they were there [for “A Whole Me”] and they were good sports. And the audience was beating them up. So I think, too, it was good for them to see what success looks like for me in real time because sometimes too, it’s like, “Oh, you’re just here.” You see things being passed in the WhatsApp group chat or you read about it online. But I think [it’s different] for them to be in the building and be like, “Oh, so all of these people are here because our daughter has something to say.”
I love that so much. When did you realize that comedy specifically and stand-up were what you wanted to do? How did you find your voice and get comfortable in your vulnerability on stage?
It was stages. Comedy still scares the heck out of me. And I feel like I need to have that thorn in my side because if I get too comfortable, I feel like then you just phone it in or it just won’t be the same.
There are some shows I have to take deep breaths, and then there’s some shows that’s like, “We about to murder it.” I performed in London; it’s like, “We about to take the U.K.” That’s hard. And then I perform in Miami, and I’m like, “Well, I’m really so nervous.” So I think it keeps me on my toes, but you know what I do love? The immediacy of comedy. Some jokes, I’m like, yo, that hit.
I had two endings for the special. And down to the last minute, we’re in the edit van and I’m like, “I think I’m going to go with this one.” And my agent and my opener, they were like, “We like this other one.” I’m like, “No, I’m going to go with this one.” And that’s the beauty of comedy. It’s like, yo, I got a reaction here, but this means this here. And this is a bigger callback. It’s a mad science, but you see if the science project works. If the volcano erupted, you’d know right away. I like that about comedy.
But I also just like the fact that you find your people. [Comedian] Roy Wood Jr. came on the road with me, and he was like, “You got a Beyoncé audience.” I was like, “What you mean?” He was like, “Your audience lays out their clothes the night before.” He’s like, “They make it an event.” He’s like: “You have a gainfully employed audience. These hoes got degrees. They went to school.”
That’s right. I was like, “Yeah, my audience is smart.” But it’s just so interesting how, with all the people on the planet, different comedians can draw and pull off different people. So some people might have come because they loved “Insecure,” but then you have people who are like, “I didn’t even know she was on the show.”
What was your process in getting ready and making sure that all the material that you wanted for this show was just right?
So this was actually a labor because we actually wrote the vignettes before I had my stand-up. So we were in the writers room trying to figure it out. I had themes. I was like,“Here are some things that I went through in the pandemic, and here’s some things that just happened in Nigerian culture. I would love to see that on screen in some ways, in an acted-out way.”
And then I watched [the HBO special] “Rothaniel” when it first came out, then I was like, “Yeah, I only want to do comedy that’s saying something in this season in my life.” And I love that Jerrod Carmichael wasn’t afraid to go deep. Talking about it [his story] was deep in general, but it was like he gave himself permission to get that introspective and get quiet.
It almost gets so uncomfortable. His body language was uncomfortable. The audience was now asking him questions because, again, we don’t like sitting in discomfort. So it became a church service. It was call and response.
And I watched it three times when it came out, and I remember telling myself, I’m like, “Yeah, I got to make my special special, because if not, what are we doing this for?” I’m not that person to take jobs just for the bag. And if I don’t have anything to say, then I won’t do it.
And I initially wanted to do the special because I was like, “It’s going to be African ‘In Living Color.’” And I just wanted to do African sketches and put people on because I know people in Nigeria. The girl who plays Shady Shola in my special, she’s this huge comedian in Nigeria, but they don’t really know her over here. I want to give her that opportunity.
The guy who plays my father, I’ve been hosting weddings with him for years. And I was like: “I think he’s funny. I think he’s a great voice-over voice.” The girl who played my mom, I met her on Instagram. And I was like: “She’s hysterical. If I ever do something, I would love to just put people on.”
So for me I was like: “Well, my next special is going to be — I’m going to just produce it and just give people a platform. That’s my only desire.” And then I was like: “Wait, I actually do have some things I want to say, though. All right. So how do we blend this?”
Man, it was like Tetris. We finished the writers room, I went off to tour, worked on the material, came back, and then we had to reedit some of the vignettes because I didn’t want it to feel like this is two different specials. I’m like, “The vignette and the stand-up have to work nearly seamlessly and they have to flow into one another.”
I know you have dreams that span acting, hosting, comedy and all the things. I’m wondering, where are you in your plans for the future now, especially when it comes to hosting your own show?
Listen, that has to be the right opportunity. It has to make sense. And I think I still have some things that I want to get out before that happens. So, for me, producing has been fun. I just directed my first short, called “Jamal.” And so I’m like, oh, it was great finding the cast. You’re looking at taping, and then you see the chemistry between people and you’re like: “That’s it. Those are my leads.” There’s just something that clicks.
Directing is a thing that I’m enjoying a little bit more now with this season [of my life] and really finding … I don’t like the reinvented world. I feel like there are people who are already doing stuff and maybe people don’t know that they’re doing stuff. So I’m like, how do I find them? And let’s just do stuff they are already doing together because now that I have a platform, everything don’t have to come from my brain. Everything doesn’t have to go from my past.
There are people who have written books on the [African] continent that I’m like, this is a beautiful idea. Let’s mine the beautiful minds that exist in countries that people aren’t necessarily checking for right now. So that’s what I’m really tapping into and enjoying this season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.