Before she was a Golden Globe-nominated actress and a New York Times best-selling author, Insecure creator and star Issa Rae was simply a young woman looking for others like her on TV.
"What influenced me to start Awkward Black Girl in the first place was just this negative representation of regular black girls on television," she said Tuesday at a Paley Center conversation with HBO programming president Casey Bloys. "I'm doing my part, because I was frustrated by the lack of representation I was seeing."
While the '90s showcased African-American-centered series like Martin, Living Single, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Girlfriends, she noticed a drop in the aughts.
"I didn't have many reference points for shows of color and stories I wanted to tell," said Rae. "I'm always thinking about what the narrative is for black people and black women specifically just by being both of those things."
So came the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which ran for three years and saw Rae not only co-create and write but also star in the comedy. That led to her 2015 best-selling memoir of the same name, and also her HBO comedy Insecure, which returns for its second season in July after bowing to rave reviews in November. ("It feels like being popular in high school. I'm looking for the pig's blood every time," Rae joked about her newfound stardom.)
Like its web-only predecessor, there were several awkward moments during the first season, Rae and Bloys recalled, such as at a table read attended by Bloys, a Caucasian executive.
"There are moments in the scripts where they're making fun of white people in office settings, and I laugh along with it," said Bloys with a chuckle. "I love that the show kind of shows everybody from Issa's point of view. There are things that go on in offices and everyday life that she notices that I wouldn't necessarily notice."
Later in the conversation, Rae was asked about whether she was ever afraid of hurting someone's feelings with such jokes. "Issa should not be worrying about our feelings or anyone's feelings," said Bloys.
She admitted, though, "sometimes it can uncomfortable hearing about it out loud … we want to tell the truth."
Bloys emphasized the importance of the relatable nature of Rae's work. "I don't need to be a black woman to find it funny. I don't need to be a black woman to relate to frustrations about relationships or friends," he said.
Rae shared that sentiment. "I have always said that the show is universal but absolutely specific. … Its about the unique black experience."
Rae's distinct point of view comes after her first experience developing a TV series, a 2013 ABC pilot called I Hate L.A. Dudes, exec produced by Shonda Rhimes.
"I felt like my voice kind of became blah and mush because I was like, 'Well, what are you guys looking for? I think that's the approach I had. I was so focused on what I felt like fit their network that I didn't focus on the story I wanted to tell. I was eager to please and that made my voice kind of irrelevant, and the reason they brought me in the first place was to have something to say," she recalled. "I had to realize I have a specific point of view, I have a specific story to tell, and I need to tap into that."
As the creator and star of Insecure, Rae is just the second African-American woman to accomplish that feat, following Wanda Sykes' short-lived 2003 sitcom. "The idea that there hasn't been one since then is crazy so I'm personally proud to have some part in doing that," said Bloys.
Also helping Rae solidify the show's tone in season one was having a diverse team behind the scenes, including showrunner Prentice Penny (Happy Endings) and music video director Melina Matsoukas ("We Found Love," "Formation"). Just as Rae was working in (traditional) TV for the first time, Penny was a first-time showrunner and Matsoukas was a first-time TV director.
"There's just a shorthand," explained Rae. "I don't have to explain why I wanted to shoot on this particular street in Inglewood, why I wanted to depict this part of the relationship and not another."
Bloys chimed in: "The authenticity is really important, so I think that goes hand-in-hand with at least making diversity a priority."
That priority remains intact for season two, where at least six of the eight episodes will be directed by diverse women - an impressive stat that comes after studies in recent years have highlighted a surprisingly low percentage of female and minority directors working in Hollywood.
"It introduces us to new talent," said Bloys. The pay cabler also has HBOAccess, a writing and directing fellowship that allows diverse voices to work on projects alongside higher-ups at the network. "We're having some pretty good success with it."
And just like with Rae, who also has an overall deal at HBO, the company is looking outside of the traditional model for potential writers and directors.
Rae emphasized that kind of diversity, pointing to the Insecure writers room. "Every writer isn't black on the show, but every writer is a human being. Every writer has a piece or a chunk or morsel of their life in the show," she said. "It makes for great relatable moments."
Insecure returns to HBO in July for season two.