Wrapping up production on “Insecure” in June was an emotional experience for writer and executive producer Amy Aniobi. Not only was the beloved HBO comedy ending, but world events made production even more complex.
“Creating that final season in a pandemic felt like the hardest thing any of us had ever done,” Aniobi tells Variety. “It was just like pulling teeth to be funny when you’re sad, but I think we pulled it off.”
Fortunately, the cast and crew of “Insecure” feels like family — Aniobi and creator-star Issa Rae have known each other since Stanford, first teaming up for “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” web series, and now working on the new HBO Max comedy “Rap Sh*t” in Miami, which is where Aniobi Zooms in from. But, she notes, not every young writer has that support system, which became increasingly apparent after the murder of George Floyd.
“It was such a dark time,” Aniobi recalls. “Black creatives felt particularly isolated. We were on Zoom, and the world was burning because somebody hurt someone who looked like us.”
During this time, she also had several white showrunners reach out hoping to find support for the Black writers on their staffs, which was a specific feeling of loneliness she could relate to. Where the environment is primarily populated by people of color when working on “Insecure” or “Rap Sh*t,” Aniobi also has plenty of experience being one of the only Black voices behind the scenes.
“It was so interesting working on what can only be called ‘white shows,’ white content, network television early on, because obviously I grew up in predominately white neighborhoods, I went to a PWI [predominately white institution]. I didn’t expect to feel so isolated, but I did,” she explains, looking back at her early career. “And it was such a foreign feeling going from working on a show which was predominantly white, to going home, working on ‘Awkward Black Girl’ and cracking jokes that we get.”
Despite that fact that Aniobi was literally at home working on that web series (the “Awkward Black Girl” writers room met weekly in her living room), it was the feeling of being around people that fully understood her that she relished most. “I was like, ‘This is what I want — getting to make jokes with people who look like me,’ she recalls. “It’s just a general energy of comfort when you know you’re with people who truly see you that just can’t be replicated or faked.”
It was the same feeling she got on “Insecure,” where Rae, Prentice Penny (who she’d first worked with on “Happy Endings”), Melina Matsoukas and Yvonne Orji (who she “knew from being Nigerian and in comedy in L.A.”), were some of the folks she’d met along her career journey, bonding over common experiences.
“That’s the feeling that I want to give to other writers — knowing that across the room, or across the Zoom, someone has your back,” she explains. “That’s so pivotal as an artist, and the only way I learned anything about writing professionally was through people who mentored me.”
Aniobi’s answer to it all was to create Tribe, a networking and mentorship program primarily populated by writers of color. The creator had already been mentoring people on an ad hoc basis (“Whoever slid in my DM’s, I’d be like ‘Let’s chat,’” she says), but creating a formal program was a way to “introduce all these writers who now know me to each other, because the only way I’ve been allowed to rise is by having a tribe.”
Since January, Aniobi has assembled more than 30 writers from all experience levels and invited friends like “Pose” co-creator Steven Canals to share their expertise. Tribe’s virtual meetings and workshops focus on learning both “hard skills,” like how to write an outline or take a general meeting, and “soft skills,” including tips on keeping your mental health in check or navigating narcissists in the workplace. “Being able to lean on other writers and help bridge those gaps for them has felt really healing,” she says.
Building this virtual network has also done wonders to dispel that pesky myth that Hollywood is filled with terrible people who’d rather compete than create opportunities.
“There is this changing energy, where it used to be, ‘It’s you or it’s me,’ because there are so few spots for people who look like us. Now, it’s you and it’s me, or it’s none of us,” Aniobi says, adding that she’s heartened “knowing that [approach] isn’t just something that I believe in, and it isn’t just something that Issa believes in, it’s something that a lot of people in this industry are now starting to understand, believe and practice.”
The changing tone around inclusion also gives Aniobi confidence to expand Tribe. The creative is working to build a full-time infrastructure around the program in order to support more up and coming writers. Mum’s the word on plans for now, but Aniobi says she’s really excited about “putting my money where my mouth is, and supporting people not just with talks and panels, but actually getting investment into the projects they want to create.”
Aniobi has a particularly full plate of projects of her own in this post-“Insecure” landscape — she’s got “The Dolls” in development at HBO and is in the research phases on the HBO Max show “Enjoy Your Meal,” which chronicles the many media reckonings that took place last summer in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She’s currently in Miami, where she’ll direct episode 106 of “Rap Sh*t,” hopping back into the director’s chair after helming episodes of “Looking For LaToya” (“Insecure’s” series-within-a-series). The new comedy, produced by the hip-hop duo City Girls, follows two estranged high school friends from Miami who reunite to form a rap group.
“It’s going to be visually and energetically different from ‘Insecure,'” Aniobi teases. “I’ve been in that world for so long, it’s exciting to explore different visual style. It’s also Black as fuck and it’s Miami as fuck. I’ve never been in Miami before and I was just like, ‘Yo, like this city is poppin.’”
“Getting to collaborate with local Miami crew and writers who really know the city well, has been really thrilling,” she adds. “I love directing, I love working with actors, and this cast is phenomenal, so I feel like lucky. There hasn’t been a show like this and I’m so excited to see how it all comes together and how it gets received. It’s such a cool show – which is to be expected from the people who created it.”
Pointing to the people who created “Rap Sh*t” (Issa Rae executive produces the series, with Syreeta Singleton as the showrunner) leads directly back to “Insecure,” which kicks off its fifth and final season on Sunday. Over its five-season, Peabody-winning and Emmy-nominated run, the HBO comedy has left a lasting legacy with its viewers and blazed a trail for the creatives who worked on the show behind the scenes.
When asked what she’s most proud of about the series, Aniobi points to the way the show “is painting a portrait of a flawed yet desirable, dark-skinned Black woman.”
“As a Black woman, the expectation is perfection, always. We’re never allowed to be average, ,” Aniobi explains. “We’re always either Olivia Pope — white suits, never spill our wine — or we’re ‘Bad Girls Club.’ Where ‘Insecure’ paints a woman who’s in the middle, and is, for lack of another word, ‘average’ — which sounds like a bummer, but average is actually the goal.”
Plus, presenting Issa Dee and all of her flaws, mistakes and insecurities during this moment in history has been particularly powerful. “It just so happens that when we premiered, post-Obama and contextualizing our humanity at a time when America almost doesn’t want to believe we’re human, I’m really, really honored to have been a part of that,” she adds.
The experience was also transformative for Aniobi both personally and professionally. “Insecure” allowed her to bring her full self to the writers room for the first time. “I wasn’t just a Black writer, and I wasn’t just a female writer, and I wasn’t just a comedy writer, but I was all these things together,” she explains. “I’m using all of myself because I am her. We are all her. That is what makes the show so relatable.”