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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Yvonne Orji Can Turn Punchlines Into Choruses

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Yvonne Orji in Momma, I Made It!
Photo: HBO

Yvonne Orji’s new stand-up special for HBO, Momma, I Made It!, is appealing and beguiling, a warm and personal tour through Orji’s family, the weight of parental expectations, the challenges of dating, and her double vision as a Nigerian-American. She has a polished, hugely charismatic stage presence, especially when she deploys her razor-sharp ear for mimicry. She creates characters in her jokes, and while she often includes herself as one of the characters in a kind of narrator position, part of Orji’s skill is in drawing out many different versions of herself. They play in harmony with each other, layered on top of one another. She’s the Nigerian woman bargaining with her student loan company; she’s the woman with a master’s degree shaking her head in dismay at her friends playing a party game; she’s a penitent daughter, a frustrated woman out on a date, an actress on a popular HBO comedy. It’s compelling to watch Orji perform that skill so masterfully, and the special relies on a kind of truth-telling about who Orji is and where she comes from — even including documentary footage of herself in Nigeria. But it’s most meaningful and effective when Orji embodies it.

It’s been fascinating to watch the trend toward including documentary footage in comedy specials over the last year. Gary Gulman’s The Great Depresh is far and away the most effective example to date, as Gulman uses clips of his family and footage from earlier moments in his life when he was deep in a depression to help illustrate how far he’s come and the gap between his internal narrative and what it looks like from the outside. There’s also been Whitmer Thomas’s The Golden One special on HBO, which uses documentary footage to create a portrait of his grief after his mother’s death, as well as Jenny Slate’s Stage Fright, where Slate includes interviews with her family and footage of herself in her childhood home.

There are patterns to the way specials include documentary footage, and they fit with the narrative Orji’s trying to build in Momma, I Made It! Documentary footage is often used as verification — it is the mathematical proof for the joke or setup a comedian just introduced. When Slate talks about her haunted house, there it is, a clip of the exact hallway she’s referring to. When Thomas refers to his mother’s uncanny musical talent and her otherworldly love for performing, it’s reinforced by the footage that immediately plays: clips of her smiling while onstage with her sister.

The issue is that unless the presence of documentary footage has some role beyond proof — unless it says something in the special beyond “here are the receipts” — it can undermine the power of a performance. So often, the artistry in stand-up comes from watching a comedian interpret and shape the real world, focusing it through their own perspective. Half of the joke is often in watching a comedian re-create a scene, watching them enact other voices.

Orji does this too. She has mountains of material on her parents and on the differences between Nigerians and black Americans. She tells jokes about her own fame in her home country and about how Nigerians can’t tell directions. She’s particularly adept at embodying her mother, in a way that reminds me of Margaret Cho’s stand-up — both daughters perform their mothers with a complicated, irreducible mix of love, mockery, mimicry, frustration, and admiration.

But the introduction of Orji’s actual mother into the special then feels like gilding the lily. It’s unnecessary; Orji’s brought her to life so fully in her performance that seeing the actual woman almost undermines the success of Orji’s impression. While I suspect the intent of the documentary insertions is to be mind-expanding and welcoming for viewers who’ve never been to Nigeria, the brilliance of her stand-up is that it’s artful and effective enough to work in spite of an audience’s lack of familiarity. Instead, those documentary moments become a box-ticking exercise. Orji says that Nigerians can’t tell directions, and yes, see, here they are, Nigerians balking at Orji’s simple request to point her toward a landmark. See! She told a joke, and the joke was accurate! The truth of the joke, which lands in your gut with an unwavering certainty when you hear it from Orji, just feels like a pedestrian observation when you see it in action on the streets.

I’m complaining about the documentary bits because it’s a trend that’s been bugging me for a bit now, and if it’s going to keep showing up in comedy specials going forward, I’d like to see it included in a more thoughtful way. My intent is not to slam Orji’s special, though, because the documentary elements are easy to overlook, and without them, it’s a truly fun, well-paced, well-written hour that’s a joy to watch Orji perform. If the documentary footage is designed to create audience buy-in even for viewers unfamiliar with her culture, in fact, Orji’s performance is a testament to how well she’s able to spark that kind of connection entirely on her own.

Early in the show, Orji’s doing a joke on bargaining in Nigerian marketplaces. After being offered an absurdly high price for something, Orji says, buyers should immediately show their disdain. “‘Because it’s you, just give me … oh … I don’t know, give me 50,000,’” Orji says, pretending to be the seller. “You’ve gotta feel immediately insulted,” she explains. “‘50,000? Me? A whole me?’” It’s clearly a familiar line for some members of her audience — you can already hear a very few voices chiming in when she says it: “A whole me?

It’s a returning line in her material, though, a disgusted retort that she comes back to in different contexts. Later, Orji describes a scene where a young black woman is at a hair salon getting her hair braided by a Nigerian woman and complaining about how painful it is. “‘I can’t even think!’” Orji says in the voice of the pained subject. “‘Why don’t you just get your hands off my hair you stupid b —’” Orji cuts off abruptly, suddenly taking on the persona of the Nigeran hair braider, shocked at this profanity. “‘A stupid what? Me?’” There is the tiniest pause, and this time the audience says it for her in unison while Orji doesn’t even complete the punchline: “‘A whole me?’” A phrase initially unknown to many of them has become a unifying chorus.

It is a testament to how well the comedy works and how effective it is at being hilarious while also introducing voices and ideas that will be new to some of Orji’s viewers. The documentary footage is unnecessary; Orji can say plenty on her own.

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