Young, Awkward, and Black
Illustration by Erika Johnston
"Should I say hi again? She knows I'm here." J slinks along the hallway of Gutbusters, the diet-pill company she works for, to avoid seeing the new hire she keeps running into. Growing impatient with the situation's awkwardness, J wonders, "Does this girl live in the hallway?"
Whether it's running into a regrettable one-night stand (who can't stop talking about the night they "made love"), standing alone at a crush's birthday party, or being underdressed on a blind date, J, the title character of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, has been there. Issa Rae, the star and creator of the web series, uses stapler standoffs, insufferable poetry slams, clueless bosses, and other mundane minutiae in 8- to 13-minute episodes that are often thoughtful…and intensely awkward. And unlike many mainstream maladroit characters (think The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm), J is, as the title indicates, black and female—atypical both in the "humilitainment" genre of comedy as well as popular, two-dimensional depictions of black women. J defies pop culture's caricatures: She waffles over how to talk to her office crush, writes hilarious X-rated raps in her bedroom, and delights in finding an "awkward soul mate" at work.
And demand for such a character is tangible: When Rae and Tracy Oliver (Rae's co-writer, who plays J's nemesis manager, Nina, on the show) were faced with a lack of funds after episode five, fans nearly doubled the duo's $30,000 Kickstarter goal to see the series through. It's been almost a year since Rae initially recruited her friends for the cast and crew of ABG's first episode (as well as her brother Enimal, co-star of Rae's other web show, Fly Guys Present the 'F' Word, to score the series), and the series finale is due in January 2012. Bitch talked to Rae about watching her shoestring-budget show grow into a web hit, representation and racism onscreen, and why she prefers working on the web to striving in Hollywood.
When you started the show last January, did you anticipate where you would be right now?
Absolutely not. I honestly thought ABG would help propel my other web series, [Fly Guys]. But the response that the show has created thus far? I didn't anticipate it at all. I didn't expect it; it's great, but it wasn't the plan. I had no plan at all.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl really captures awkward social interactions well, à la Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. But Awkward Black Girl offers a more subtle commentary on race and racism, one that these other shows often lack unless they're from the perspective of a white guy like Michael Scott on The Office. What are the advantages of approaching race with a lens of awkwardness?
I think it's because it's so natural for all of us to experience. [There's] this double-consciousness that we all inhabit. So by acknowledging these situations and putting them out there, we don't have to be offensive, because we just get it, collectively. So I feel like the actors and I can portray it really well because we've been through these situations and we understand how to convey these situations, whereas, you know, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David may not have experienced it in the way we have, and they're just looking at it from an outside perspective.
And with shows like that, the joke is often, "Wow, these guys are being so offensive that it's funny." What do you think about that sort of humor? Is it useful to approach these awkward, subtly racist moments from the perspective of people of color?
Like you said, it is so subtle people may not realize that they are being offensive when they really are. And also, I do think the subtlety of racism is just funny. Awkward Black Girl isn't trying to necessarily judge you for being racist, but it just shows you how stupid some questions can be, or to really think twice before you say things. I think the subtlety is important—it does draw attention to the issue, whereas being ridiculously offensive can be a turn-off to some people and they won't listen. They'll be like, "Oh, this person is so offensive. Forget them, I'm not even going to listen to anything they have to say." Whereas if you're more subtle, people's ears are more open, and their eyes are more open as well.
In a Q&A with Vibe.com, you mentioned the catch-22 for black media consumers. You use Tyler Perry as an example—it's expected that people go see his films to demonstrate support for black filmmaking, but at the same time, that's supporting Tyler Perry. How would you like to see this paradigm shift?
I just honestly want [the industry] to be broadened, because it's so limited right now. All I ask is just for a more diverse representation of us. Because it's utterly ridiculous that I can't see anybody of my skin color that I relate to on television. And I know that people say that often, and people may be tired of hearing it, but that's still the case. It's going to be said until something is done about it.
Given what you know about the industry, what do you think needs to happen for something to change?
I honestly think that television and film are not ready for us yet and we need to continue to create our own content online. I think that's the best space for us, because you can get it through to each other; there's no gatekeeper. And people will be able to see it and give you feedback instantly and spread the word if they appreciate it. I don't think that going through Hollywood is the best way. I think that you just need to create content on your own and make it happen for yourself, and then others will take notice.
What are some advantages of making a web series?
Well, definitely unexpected advantages are that people will spread the word and post about it. I didn't expect the show to extend outside of my social circle like it did; that was completely unexpected. So social media [response] was a huge side effect of putting the show out there. But I guess some of the expected things are just being able to keep your vision and maintain creative control for the series without having it tainted by an outsider or someone who might not understand what you're trying to do. And also just having the luxury of instant feedback. Because as soon as you put something out, people are going to be like, "Oh, this sucks!" You know, like, "Okay, let me go back to the drawing board...." Or, they might really like it and tell a friend who tells a friend. And that's just—you can't ask for anything better than that.
On the flip side, are there any drawbacks or limitations?
It may take a while. Things don't necessarily go viral right away. I've seen a lot of great web shows or good content where [I'm like], "Wow, nobody has caught onto this yet? This is amazing!" So that's a drawback—because there is so much web content, it may take a while to stand out and to be noticed. But that's pretty much it.
On that note, who are some other media makers flying under the radar whom you would like to see get more attention?
I would love to see Tony Clomax get more attention. He does the 12 Steps to Recovery web series. And I really like Celeste Bright, as well. [Their work has] really good non-stereotypical portrayals of black people; they're good stories of color, and we just don't have that. We don't even have it on BET. And BET is geared for us, but they don't really produce content, necessarily, for the general black public. So yeah, these are the shows that we're missing.
With the series wrapping up, you've been talking about landing a network show with your co-writer. What's the latest news?
We're keeping the show on the web. We pretty much decided we don't want to have to go to the networks and pitch it, because we'd be essentially selling our rights and we'd risk losing creative control. Once a network buys the show, they'll have the power to change the cast, or change the title or vision of the series. That's just not something that I want to go through right now when I know that viewers of the show like it the way it is. I don't want to take a chance. Keeping it online and trying to monetize that is just the best way for us to go right now.
I was really hesitant from the jump because I had had a meeting with a major television network, and hearing some of their ideas for the series completely turned me off. They [suggested] recasting J with other actresses who were long-haired, fair-skinned, or mainstream, because they felt the series would be more marketable that way. And some of the storylines they pitched just didn't fit into my sense of humor.
I was like, "What? Are you serious? You don't get the show then, you don't understand what it's about." I was thinking this in my head, of course—my passive ass was not saying it out loud! But I was listening to their ideas, completely turned off, and I was thinking about the web and how it is such a unique space. It's untapped potential, especially in terms of minority content. And I thought, this could be a big thing for us to make something out of it. Like, we could be one of the first women of color to have a hit show on the web, and maybe inspire others to continue to do the same thing, and maybe we can have our own network online. Why do we have to go through these channels that don't seem to understand us and are putting out horrible content in the first place? Why would I want to go through that medium? So those factors led to a decision. It was just a wake-up call: I don't want to have to go through a gatekeeper or someone who doesn't "get me" to tell my story.
In a hypothetical situation where you had an unlimited budget for a series, what would your dream cast look like?
Man. I would love to have Donald Glover, Tina Fey, probably Chris Rock, Tracie Thoms, Maya Rudolph, Sanaa Lathan, and Kristen Wiig. But a lot of those casting decisions depend on the movie or series as well!
Do you foresee minority filmmakers continuing to use the web to go outside of traditional models of distribution and filmmaking?
Absolutely. I think it's necessary for minority filmmakers to do so and that we will. We're going to be like, "Wait a minute. I'm turning on the TV and seeing the same stuff. Let me just do my own thing." And I think that more people are going to start to catch on. People are ditching their cable boxes anyway and going to the web to watch media, especially our generation. I think that web content is growing and changing and sort of setting the tone, so why wouldn't we catch on?
Visit awkwardblackgirl.com to view episodes and keep up with Issa Rae's projects. Kjerstin Johnson is Bitch Media's web content manager and senior editor. She pretends to not be the least bit awkward during interviews.
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