In the web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, star-writer-producer Issa Rae plays J, a socially awkward, boy-crazy, sarcastic black woman dealing with a sadistic boss, annoying co-workers, and a love triangle that puts Bella Swan’s dilemma to shame. Since filming last year on a shoestring budget, the series has gone viral and expanded its budget thanks to a grassroots fund-raising campaign. With the first season finale airing January 12, Rae talks to Vulture about awkward Hollywood meetings, nineties sitcoms, and creating the black Liz Lemon.
How did the idea for the show come about?
It had been spinning in my head for two years, but when I saw an article in Crush magazine called “Where’s the Black Liz Lemon?” it caused me to just go ahead and do the web series. When 30 Rock started, I really appreciated it because Liz Lemon is awkward, and I identified with her. But it was frustrating that there were no characters like her that looked like me.
Did you always plan to star in the show?
I was going to make it an animated series and cast someone else to play the voice. But when I told an animator my budget he was like, “With this much money, I can draw you seven pictures.” So I thought, I guess I’ll be in it. Everything was really impulsive about it. Even shooting the promo for the series, the reason the character J cuts her hair is I decided to cut my hair off in real life, and a lot of my friends wanted to see what I would look like bald, so I decided the character J would do it, too, and she’d probably do it because of a guy. And I just put the two together and broadcast my haircut and promoted the show at the same time. The promo got 2,000 views, and I sort of forgot about it, and started working on my other web series. Then this one fan kept on writing, “When is Awkward Black Girl coming out?” And I just threw out the date February 3. Then January came around she’s like, “I can’t wait!” So I ended up doing the show because of this random fan.
Did you have a plan for how long the series would be?
When I first started, I thought there would only be seven episodes. But after six episodes, it was costing money. I had a 9-to-5 job, and it was pretty much me and my co-producer Tracy Oliver paying out of our own own pockets. So we did a Kickstarter campaign and asked for $30,000 to complete five more episodes. That was really low-balling it. We ended up raising almost double our goal, $56,000.
Do you think your show could have existed without the web?
Absolutely not. There’s so many, “no, black people aren’t like that” barriers in mainstream media.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t think the mainstream media understands people of color are multidimensional. For some reason, there’s an idea that only white people are relatable. I don’t think it’s necessarily racist. But it’s odd, because the people who watch the most television are black women, so we should be represented in more ways.
It seems like in the nineties there were so many more sitcoms centered around black characters.
Yes! It’s so crazy how in the nineties, there was so much diversity on television, and so many options on black television. My producing partner Tracy Oliver jokes she had the nerve to be picky back then, like, “I don’t feel like watching Martin, I’ll watch Living Single.” We had options. We don’t have any choices. There are only a few select things.
There are a lot of shows with diverse casts.
But the black characters on TV are the sidekicks, or they’re insignificant. You could put all the black sidekicks on one show, and it would be the most boring, one-dimensional show ever. Even look at the black women on Community and Parks and Recreation — they are the archetype of the large black women on television. Snide and sassy. I love both of those shows, and I love the characters, but it’s like, come on, there’s more than that. At least there’s Donald Glover on Community. But unfortunately that’s one of the lowest-rated shows on television.
Speaking of Donald Glover, your character on the show geeks out about him. Do you like Donald Glover as much as J does?
I do. It’s an obsession. He invited Tracy and I to his studio and his birthday party. His sister is a fan of the series, and he reached out to me.
Have other high-profile people reached out to you because of the show?
Yeah, it’s been really crazy: Gabrielle Union reached out, and speaking of nineties TV, Kim Cole from Living Single. I was at the Art Walk in L.A., and I was about to recognize her, and she recognized me first. She’s like, “It’s you! Awkward black girl!” That was pretty awesome. And Chris Rock and Hannibal Burress are the reason I have representation.
Will you turn Awkward Black Girl into a full-length show?
After meeting with a couple different executives in television, and seeing our visions don’t really align, I don’t want to sell my life to it now. In one meeting, during the first ten seconds, this guy said, “The show is pretty funny. This is about a typical black woman with her black women problems.” And then said big names were necessary to make it to television. Everything we were against, he was for. It was just one meeting, but for me, that was all I needed to realize we’re in the right space, and I realized I’m not ready to hear those things just yet. For season two, we’re working to build our audience and leverage our audience to networks to say, “We’re successful showrunners, give us a chance to have creative control.” I would love Awkward Black Girl to be on television, with the right team of people who understand and get it. If Awkward Black Girl could make it to HBO starring a dark-skinned black girl, that would be revolutionary.