Stanford and NY Film Academy grad Issa Rae has made a major splash with her popular, loosely autobiographical webisode, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which debuted on YouTube earlier this year. The show, "ABG" for short, details the humorous travails of J (played by Rae), the general absurdity of her love life and antics of her friends and co-workers, all within a very non-PC world. Made from a desire to see characters of color shown in a Seinfeld-esque sensibility, the debut has garnered over 500,000 views and averages about half that number of views per episode.
In addition, the series has triggered a resounding Kickstarter campaign, a college tour and its star/creator to be signed by the powerful management team, 3 Arts Entertainment. Issa took some time to talk about the show's origins and how to create a popular web series, while outing some of the show's famous fans.
Tell us about The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Where did the idea come from & how did you start?
The idea came from my own awkward interactions and experiences with people. I wanted to create a character who was an exaggerated version of me and who went through some of the same situations I did. I started with the phrase "I'm Awkward. And Black." It sounded like an awesome brand idea to me, so I started creating t-shirt ideas for it and then built a web series around that concept.
You're a part of a growing number of black filmmakers who are taking their projects directly to the web & gaining a considerable following. What are some of the positives & negatives of launching your own webisode?
Some of the positives are: 1) complete creative control; 2) instant feedback from audience; 3) audience engagement; 4) online monetization opportunities; 5) using social media to spread the word. Some of the negatives are: 1) low to no-budget producing; 2) things don't always go viral; 3) you can't ALWAYS make money off of your webisodes; 4) you have to be very persistent and patient if you want your web series to get even the smallest bit of attention.
I was already a fan but I think I became more of a fan once I sat in on the set of one of your shoots. (Jason and Issa met via Twitter and it led to his being a featured extra in Episode 5.) It was one of the most fun sets I've been on, how do you keep things so loose while still creating a great product?
Thank you! I'm lucky that most of the cast and crew are friends and they WANT to be there. There are no divas on set, nobody complains about being on set too long, and they're all very patient people. My biggest thing is that I only work with people who want to work with me. I can't stand feeling like someone is there because they're doing me a favor. There's an added pressure that stifles my creativity and the overall vibe of the set.
What is the process of an episode from idea to script to shooting to posting on the web? How long does each step take for you?
[Producer and co-star Tracy Oliver] and I are ALWAYS working on ABG. It started off as me coming up with an idea, writing it in a day or two and then shooting it guerilla style. ABG is written, produced and post-produced monthly. We write one week, work on pre-production the next week, shoot the next weekend and edit the following week. It's a month straight of working on ABG. We don't even really leave time to properly market and promote it. We have an awesome social media team that works with us, but even they have to work with our last minuteness. For season 2, we're looking to write and shoot episodes in advance and then release them. Stress-free!
As if the hits you regularly receive didn't prove it, the amazing Kickstarter campaign you did to raise additional funds showed that people are hungering for this project. Can you talk a bit about the Kickstarter project?
Kickstarter stemmed from Tracy and I being broke. We were funding the series out of pocket and with help from a friend. After we couldn't afford it anymore, we decided to turn to Kickstarter to raise money. Initially, we were only going to ask for $5,000 to produce 5 episodes because we thought that, while black people supported in terms of viewership, they may not support monetarily. Then our cinematographer, Shea, was like, "Are you guys crazy?" At that time we were averaging about 60,000 views per episode. He said that if just half of those people gave a dollar, then we'd have $30,000. We decided to make that our goal and people gave above and beyond. We were able to almost double our goal with over $56,000 raised.
Who are some of the people you look up to in this industry and what TV shows inspired ABG?
I love Tina Fey, Donald Glover, Amy Poehler, Christopher Guest and Larry David. ABG was definitely inspired by Seinfeld, Curb your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, The Office and Arrested Development. LOVE those shows.
Any famous ABG fans who've reached out to you?
Yes! Tracie Thoms, Gabrielle Union, Kim Coles, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, Amanda Diva, Hill Harper, Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover -- and those are just the ones I thought of off the top of my head. So many have shown love and support and it's amazing.
Episodes often leave us at cliffhangers. Can a brotha get a hint as to what we can expect next?
So Episode 11 came out on December 1st and [it was] a flashback episode as J examines why she's so bad with guys. I [was] really excited about [that] episode. The season finale is the following episode, with the BIG decision and that airs on January 12, 2012.