Yvonne Orji: Organic Chemistry to HBO Comedy

by Elizabeth Edwards

George Washington University alumna and former DMV resident Yvonne Orji returns to the District for a stop on her first headline comedy tour, “Lagos to Laurel.” As a Nigerian American pre-med student, Orji’s path to comedy was unconventional. She stumbled into comedy with a little help from a higher power. However, after graduating from GW with a Master’s in public health, Orji volunteered in Libya because she says, “It was easier to go work in a war-torn country than just confess and tell my parents ‘I’m not going to do medicine.’ I don’t even like blood. I was like ‘No, take me to the war.’” When she returned from Libya, she gave in to her passion for comedy and moved to New York City. 

Orji’s leap into comedy paid off, as she now stars alongside Issa Rae in HBO’s critically acclaimed Insecure, which returns for a fourth season in April. She is set to tape her first HBO comedy special at Howard University this month. She recently opened for Chris Rock on his Total Blackout Tour. In a tweet, Rock praised how Orji “ripped the stage” at the Total Blackout Atlanta show. Orji is also involved in charitable organizations like (RED) campaigns and faith-based youth ministries. Her forthcoming book Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams is expected in May 2020. 

Washington Life: What was it like to open for Chris Rock last year at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York last year?

Yvonne Orji: Oh, it was amazing. I mean Chris has become an amazing mentor. He was my idol before, so even to get the opportunity to grace the stage with him was phenomenal. Even now on my tour, I hit him up like, “Hey, I’m coming to your city, would love to have you.” And he wrote back and was like, “If I’m free and I’m in town, done, I’m there.” He’s really good at supporting the next class of comics coming up on the rise.

WL: You went to George Washington University for undergrad and grad school, what were some of your favorite things to do in D.C during your time here?

YO: Ah man, at the time I didn’t really have a lot of time for favorite things. It was organic chemistry, organic chemistry, organic chemistry. I spent a lot of time in the library. While I was in DC it was fun just to hang out. I mean we had good social stuff. We would go party hop from either University of Maryland to Georgetown to Howard, so there were a lot of young people in the area, so it was really cool. 

WL: What about D.C. itself makes you laugh?

YO: I grew up in Maryland, so you know a lot of my observations come from being both Nigerian living in America, you know, specifically the city of Laurel at the time, so I mean I think I just observed everything around me. What’s interesting, what’s funny, [that’s what] I talk about. 

WL: Describe your experience with the comedy scene in DC while you lived here. 

YO: One of the first things I did after the pageant, I entered this competition, DC’s Funniest College students, and I ended up winning for George Washington University. Part of winning entailed that you got to perform at the DC Improv [Comedy Club]. 

WL: What inspired you to go into comedy?

YO: [It was] Jesus. There’s no other way around that. I entered a pageant in 2006 and I didn’t have a talent and they were like, “Well, everyone who competes needs one.” And I prayed and I’m like, “God, we’re two weeks out, you gotta give me a lifeline.” And the only thing I heard back from my prayers was, “Do comedy.” And I was like, “What?” But then I did it, and it worked out, and I was like, “Okay, well, maybe you know a little bit more about me than I know about myself, so let me just keep trusting you.”

WL: Did you ever doubt that? Did you ever think, “No, I couldn’t do comedy?”

YO: Oh, oh absolutely. I told him no. The first time I heard it, I was like, “Nah, I’m good.” Then I had further conversations with Jesus and he was like, “Okay, well what else do you got going on for yourself.” I was like, “I got nothing, that’s why I’m talking to you.” And he was like, “Well, I just answered you, and you don’t wanna listen, so why don’t you tell me?” Oh, he’s right, that’s how this relationship works. Okay. 

I was nervous the entire two weeks before. I was like, “What if no one laughs? What if this isn’t funny? What if He got it wrong? The first time ever God got it wrong, it’s with me!” And, that’s not how it went down. 

Don’t miss Yvonne Orji’s D.C. show at the Howard Theater on Saturday, February 29, 2020. Tickets available at yvonneorji.com. 

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