Meet the New Queen of Comedy: First Gen’s Yvonne Orji
First Gen is a new sitcom pilot written by actress and comedian Yvonne Orji. Like the main character Joanna, Orji opted out of a career in medicine to become a comedian. In this coming of age story, Orji tackles the highs and lows of immigrant life with good humor. While the story focuses on a Nigerian family, viewers will find that the hilarious escapades of Joanna and her family will hit close to home. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Orji about her own “first gen” experience and what’s next for the series.
When did you first come to the States? What was that like for you?
Yvonne: I was born in Nigeria and moved to America when I was six with my parents and three older brothers. If you want to get really technical about it, I suppose that makes me generation zero vs. first generation, although for all intents and purposes, I was raised here. My parents still tried to make Nigerian culture a part of our lives so we would go home to Nigeria every year. They wanted us to know America, but to never forget Nigeria.
When I came to America as a six-year-old, I had a nice, thick accent, which didn’t go over very well with elementary school kids. For years, I got teased, picked on, and bullied.
What kind of things would the kids say?
Yvonne: You know, they called me “African booty scratcher” and things like that.
Sadly, that isn’t the first time I’ve heard that…
Yvonne: I had big lips then. You know, Botox wasn’t around, so they called me “soup coolers.” But of course, with immigrant parents, my mom and dad would tell me things like “they’re just jealous of you!” They weren’t concerned with whether I had friends. They were more concerned with whether I got into Harvard or Yale. They’d tell me, “they might be mean to you now, but you’ll be their boss!” But as a kid, it was still hard.
For the longest time, I would just read and get amazing grades. I graduated second in my class. I would talk to myself in the mirror. I didn’t know then that that would prepare me for the arts industry and the process of auditioning. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to so I figured I would just talk to myself and make up stories. As a writer, that’s what you do ⎯ you make up stories. As a comic, you’re telling stories to audiences.
My parents sent us all to boarding school in the States. I went to an all-girl’s boarding school in Pennsylvania and it was great. It was an opportunity to start over. It was an international boarding school with kids with Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia. It was a place where accents weren’t a big problem. By this time, I had dropped my accent, but it felt like an opportunity to just be the person I always was and to finally be accepted for that.
Did you always know that you were interested in writing?
Yvonne: When I went to college, I majored in sociology and double-minored in biology and public health. The plan going in was to go to med school. I’m sure that everyone who went to my boarding school is surprised to see what I’m doing now. When there were plays, as an African, I always thought they were wasting their time. The concept of the arts wasn’t something I was familiar with because it often isn’t stressed in an immigrant household.
I felt I needed to major in something related to health, but I should have known that my strengths were in anything other than medicine. Even when I majored in sociology, I loved the writing and reading. I opted in to write a fifty-page thesis. Who volunteers for that? [Laughs.] So it’s no surprise I do what I do now, but then the paths weren’t connected but they were just beginning to line up.
How did you get into comedy?
Yvonne: In 2006, when I was gearing up to start my grad program in public health, I participated in the Miss Nigeria in America. Two weeks before the pageant, they sent me a form asking, “what’s your talent?” I didn’t have one. I stopped playing the piano when I was a kid. I prayed and all I heard back was “comedy.” I was skeptical, thinking back to the feelings of rejection during elementary and middle school. Comedy felt like a surefire way to end up in that same place again after years of healing my self-esteem. But then I remembered sneaking into my parents’ room when we were kids and watching Def Comedy Jam and seeing all the setups and punch lines. So I decided to make a five-minute routine about being Nigerian in America.
When you first got into comedy, what was your family’s reaction?
Yvonne: My mom came to the pageant where she was surrounded by younger and older Nigerian generations who were actually laughing at my jokes. I didn’t do comedy again until a couple of months later when I participated in DC’s Funniest College Students ⎯ and won for my school. Part of winning entailed me going on to compete at DC Improv. My parents came to that as well. It was a very different environment. They didn’t know who was sitting next to them. The audience was made up of people from different cultures, but they still thought I was funny. My parents asked me “why are you airing our dirty laundry?” so that part was not well-received, but doing something on a mainstream platform made them actually see that I maybe had a talent.
At the same time, they saw it as a hobby. They questioned whether or not I could make a living out of it. Having their thoughts at the back of my mind made me hesitate for a while. I had been the good kid for so long ⎯ the one who was supposed to be a doctor.
Shortly after those competitions, I went to Liberia for a few months to work, but I knew my contract was going to expire and that my job wasn’t guaranteed. When I came back to the States, there was a recession. No one had a job, which made a perfect segue. So I told them I was going to go to New York to explore this comedy thing.
When did the idea for First Gen start?
Yvonne: When I moved to New York, there was a group that was calling for women performers from first-generation backgrounds. They were forming an all-female play called the First Generation Project. We each wrote our stories and performed them. I did comedic pieces, but there was a girl who talked about being a lesbian. There was a girl who was half-white, half-African but never met her Nigerian father. Different people had different stories. There was good, bad, and in the middle. It was interesting to see the relationships people had with their visceral culture.
In 2011, after I moved to LA and started working on TV One’s Love That Girl, the germination process for First Gen finally started. But after Love That Girl ended and I was staring being broke and depression in the face, I asked God, “what is in my hands?” And I saw “First Gen” in my hands. I started talking to friends who were writers, who gave me suggestions and that just changed everything. I decided to have a table read ⎯ and it went well. I decided I had to shoot something in 2015. I wasn’t going to wait for people to give me the opportunity. I was going to make it.
How did you go about securing funding to film the trailer?
Yvonne: I never wanted to do a social media campaign, because I felt like we could tap our own resources and networks. At this point, I had two producers on hand. But it didn’t pan out how we thought it would. So we decided to regroup. We had been strategically been putting out videos for the docu-series to show people what we had been working on. Eventually around 85% of the funding came from two donors ⎯ my neighbor and a Nigerian family friend. Then twenty or thirty family friends donated on PayPal and helped us fill the budget gap. We contacted a production company to film the trailer using industry standard cameras.
How closely is Joanna’s life based on your own experiences?
Yvonne: I am Joanna. Joanna is me. Some things may be a bit fabricated, of course, but they say write what you know. A lot of the things Joana has experienced, I have experienced. My mom has never put a sign of me on a tree in the neighborhood, but she has tried to set me up more times than I can count. My dad definitely does come through with the proverbs, but maybe not as often as the dad on First Gen.
What do you hope viewers get out of First Gen?
Yvonne: This is not one person’s story. These experiences don’t only resonate with Africans. The comments that I’ve received show that ⎯ from Indians, Saudis, you name it.
The immigrant experience is truly universal.
Yvonne: I really learned that during that first DC Improv show when an Asian guy came up to me and said, “you’re just like my mom except with a different accent.” To me, that was crazy. I always thought, “people don’t know Africa ⎯ they don’t know me.” But they do know me. I just look different.
For the first time, Africans today are seeing that their voices can be elevated. The viral nature of it all, the fact that this could maybe be on American TV shows that our voices are heard. We matter. When you’re used to being ignored on primetime TV for so long, you’re used to the idea that you’re not going to be represented.
When Issa Rae first created “Awkward Black Girl,” I think it created a space for an alternative conversation about black women’s experiences. I think that this show does this to a similar degree for immigrants, a population that’s increasing a lot.
Yvonne: In Western film and television, the only African representation we’ve really had has been Coming to America, images of corruption and lots of caricatures. But that’s not a whole picture. We get into eight eight Ivy League schools. We are your doctors, your lawyers, your engineers, and your next-door neighbors. We’re your cab drivers. We’re at every echelon of society. You’re rich? There’s an African there. You’re poor? There’s an African there. And half of that time those Africans are Nigerian. We’re here. We’re at every level.
How do you hope to see First Gen evolve in the next few months and years?
Yvonne: At first we thought, “if the gold standard is a TV network, then we’re going to go for the gold standard.” Then the trailer went viral and we thought, “TV is going to take a long time.” They have to decide they want you, and then the deal has to go through. But people want this now.
It felt really good not to have to ask permission for the story we wanted to tell. For example, everyone involved in the project gasped when Agatha, Joanna’s mother, said, “What about your daughter with the cross eyes?” But in a network setting, it might be harder to understand why that’s a joke or why Agatha would say something like that. It’s nice to be unfiltered and uninhibited ⎯ to go with my gut.
But if TV comes calling, that doesn’t mean I would say no. At this point, we’re working on producing full, half-hour episodes in a quality way that would eventually allow us to transition to being broadcast on a network or being streamed on a platform like Hulu or Netflix.