Filmmaker Issa Rae has built a cult following, with an Internet show that’s not just for colored girls. But it might be too hot for TV
Words: Clover Hope | Photo: Trevor Traynor
School yard rumbles are like boxing events for kids. Everyone gathers in a circle, eggs on the fighters and then walks away giddy to spread the gossip. In sixth grade, Issa Rae—the creator and star of the 1-year-old Web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl—spotted two boys arguing in the hallway of L.A.’s Palms Middle School. She’d never seen a fight before. Alone, and sensing an impending beat down, she did what any obnoxiously awkward kid would—walked up to them and stood there in silence. “They stopped and looked at me, like, ‘What are you doing…?’” Rae recalls. Tina Fey has competition. And she’s clearly just as socially inept.
Record-halting moments like this are the running theme on Awkward Black Girl, which stars Issa Rae as J, a deadpan employee at a weight-loss-pill company who’s somewhere between antisocialist and social assassin. With wide eyes and a mini-’fro, J looks nothing like the leads we see on whitewashed TV, another point of comfort for the show’s average 380,000 YouTube viewers. She’s prone to imagining absurd scenarios and coping with stress by penning ratchet rap lyrics (“I will slice you and dice you”), an exaggeration of 27-year-old Issa’s own quirks. “Even though J is Black, the things she goes through are universal. I can relate to Jerry Seinfeld’s pet peeves or Liz Lemon’s insecurities, but it bothers me that there aren’t people of color in those roles,” says Rae, who grew up in middle-class Windsor Hills, Los Angeles. “The awkward white girl is nothing new. It’s time for a change.”
While network TV struggles with just how much of its content to post online and still profit, dot-com shows have experienced an Adele-esque ascension. Internet TV hub hulu.com draws in 1.5 million subscribers, Google and YouTube are collaborating on quality programming meant to rival cable TV and parody-skit site Funny or Die is producing its first feature film. “One of our style technicians said, ‘Internet isn’t afraid of TV, but TV is afraid of Internet,’” says Issa. “Because they don’t know what to do with it. There are so many possibilities. And I don’t think it’s temporary.”
After sitting on the idea for two years, Issa started filming the voice-over-heavy Awkward Black Girl last year—along with production partner Tracy Oliver and a team of four writers—in the wake of odd gigs like being a tour guide for an African-American museum exhibit (“I was in the slave ship every day,” says Issa). “I was into film. And in that environment, you always have to go to networking events. I would end up not speaking to anyone. So I started thinking about how uncomfortable it is to interact with people,” says the Stanford alum. “I read an article in Clutch that asked where the Black Liz Lemon was. And I was like, I need to do this now before it’s too late.”