'Awkward Black Girl' Garners Laughs

"The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl" is part of the a growing universe of TV shows produced exclusively for the web. The program exploits everyday, painfully awkward situations to which many African-Americans can relate. Host Michel Martin discusses the new sitcom with its star, writer and director Issa Rae.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we go from the struggle to live up to standards of beauty to the story of a woman who has decided to ignore them and made a program out of it. Her name is Issa Rae, and her character Jay(ph) is the star of the online Web series "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl." Here's a sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SHOW, "THE MIS-ADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL)

ISSA RAE: (As Jay) Let me introduce myself. My name is Jay, and awkward and black. Someone once told me those were the two worst things anyone could be. That someone was right.

MARTIN: "Awkward Black Girl" is part of a growing universe of television programs produced exclusively for the Web, and some of those series have borrowed a page from public radio: getting fans to donate to keep the show alive. That gives a whole new definition of cliffhanger.

When it looked like "Awkward Black Girl" wouldn't be able to finance new episodes, Rae sought viewer support on the fundraising website Kickstarter. Backers chipped in $56,000 and counting, well past the $40,000 goal and enough to complete the remaining five episodes of "Awkward Black Girl's" first season.

We wanted to talk more about this. So we've called the girl herself, Issa Rae, and she's with us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome and congratulations on everything.

RAE: Thank you so much. Thanks again for having me on the show. I'm so - I'm having a fan-girl moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, that's nice. Likewise, likewise. But you don't sound very awkward to me.

RAE: Well thank you. I'm glad I fooled you.

MARTIN: So of course the question has to be asked is - you know, obviously one wants to know: How did you come up with the character of Jay? And I know it's such a cheap question, but is Jay you?

RAE: Jay is not me. She's an extension of me. I'm not as insecure as Jay, but I did - I used to worry about what people thought of me all the time. Pretty much just in creating her scenarios, I think about my own nightmare situations. What kind of situation would I hate to be in? What's the worst thing that could happen to me? What's the worst way I could behave in.

MARTIN: I think one of the - the appeal of the series is it's both universal and specific. I mean, it's universal in the sense that there are awkward moments that just about everyone has that you just think what's going on here. Like, there was the episode where you keep running into the same person at a stop sign on your way to work, and you really don't want to talk to this person.

On the other hand, there's some racial specificity that I'm mentioning because it's not just the misadventures of an awkward girl, it's the misadventures of an awkward black girl. And I wanted to know how important is the racial element to you in how you conceive of the character and of the series.

RAE: I think the fact that she is black but the concepts are universal speaks volumes. Like, it shows that you can have a black - just because she's a black female lead doesn't mean you can't relate to her. And I think that that speaks more to mainstream media because there just is this sort of perception that, you know, if a black person is in the lead, then it has to be for black people. It has to only relate to them.

And the fact that she goes through situations that we all go through is important. And I think she is awkward not only in a sense because she is just, you know, socially inept in some situations but also because she doesn't fit this mainstream black persona or archetype.

MARTIN: Well, she does go right there. I mean, the commentary - I think one of the things that people like about the series is that she just says what other people are thinking. Or I'll just say it. Here's an example. I'll just - and I'm interested in whether some people think that some of her commentary is over the top.

Like for example, this is where, you know, Amir(ph) is one of the characters, and let's play a short clip of how you introduce him. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SHOW, "THE MIS-ADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL)

RAE: (As Jay) Amir is the obnoxious, multiracial, self-appointed comedic relief of the office.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Amir) And I was like herro, I'm part Asian. I think I can calculate the totals.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAE: (As Jay) He's ridiculously offensive. So my boss and Nina(ph) love him.

MARTIN: Where did that come from?

RAE: You know, you have a lot of people - I've met a lot of people in the past, I've gone to private schools, you know, encountered different people who think that it's OK to make comments, insensitive comments about your race because they're joking. And think that if they're joking and they say it, you know, good-naturedly, that things will fly.

So just again, I wanted to make just a nightmare character, a person who just went over the top with every race. So Amir is just that type of guy. He's that guy in the office.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with the creator and star of the online sitcom "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl," Issa Rae.

You know, a lot of people feel like they're breaking new ground in talking about race, especially in comedy. But to other people, they're just being offensive. Where do you think is the line between actually breaking new ground and saying something funny and new and fresh and really calling it out and just being offensive in a new way?

RAE: It's a hard line, honestly, because even on my end, I've said some things in the show that people haven't approved of. And at the time, you know, you think it's funny because you may not go through - you may not have gone through something. You might not understand what it is to walk in someone's shoes.

MARTIN: Clearly, though, people are responding. I mean, it is just by evidence of what happened on Kickstarter. Were you surprised by that?

RAE: Absolutely. It was just overwhelmingly positive. I didn't expect that many people. We almost had 2,000 people donate to this show. And just to think of how this show came about and how impulsive it was, the fact that so many people support it and that the show resonates with them is just amazing.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about that. You were saying how it came about, it was impulsive. Tell me what happened, exactly.

RAE: Well, essentially I knew I wanted to do the show. I was sitting on the idea for about two years, and I was in New York at the time, and I didn't really have any resources. I didn't know that many people, and my camera equipment had just been stolen.

So I moved to L.A. and started working on another Web series with my brother, and while doing that Web series, I was like OK, you know, I've been sitting on this character for way too long. Let me try to do it. And I wanted to make it an animated series initially, but animation costs a lot of money. So I just decided to shoot it myself and do it guerrilla-style.

And, you know, it was never written in advance. It was just a very impulsive decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's funny. In your pitch on the fundraising site Kickstarter, you wrote about your frustration with the way black women are depicted on network television. You write: I don't see myself or women like me being represented. I'm not a smooth, sexy, long-haired vixen. I'm not a large, sassy black woman, an angry post office employee. I'm an awkward black girl, and I'm not alone.

I have to wonder, though, now, with this success on the Web and the fact that there are a lot of broadcast network television comedies that thrive on awkward characters, I wonder whether you think, you know, the network is next.

RAE: You know, sometimes I wonder if network TV is ready. We were producing the show or packaging the show to sell it to networks. And then we stopped and thought about it and thought about how just the landscape for television now, and especially for black women, and it's just so bleak.

So I think, you know, keeping it on the Web right now and just building an audience there, we have so much freedom, we have so much creative control, that's just an ideal space for us right now.

MARTIN: So what's next for the awkward black girl? What else does she got going on?

RAE: Well, in the next episode, for example, she's tackling what to do when you have an overly religious co-worker. So I know that that's going to be a sensitive topic because just in the black community, religion is a huge topic.

So yeah, she's going to grapple with that space.

MARTIN: Well, we'll look forward to it. Issa Rae is the creator, director and star of the online television series "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl," and she joined us not so awkwardly from our studios at NPR West. Issa Rae, thanks so much for joining us.

RAE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: If you'd like to check out the series, we'll post a link on our site. Just go to npr.org, and select TELL ME MORE from the Programs page.

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