That Awkward Moment When... 'Awkward Black Girl' Blows Up

School yard rumbles are like boxing events for kids. Everyone gathers in a circle, eggs on the fighters and then walks away giddy to spread the gossip. In sixth grade, Issa Rae—the creator and star of the 1-year-old Web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl—spotted two boys arguing in the hallway of L.A.’s Palms Middle School. She’d never seen a fight before. Alone, and sensing an impending beat down, she did what any obnoxiously awkward kid would—walked up to them and stood there in silence. “They stopped and looked at me, like, ‘What are you doing…?’” Rae recalls. Tina Fey has competition. And she’s clearly just as socially inept.

Record-halting moments like this are the running theme on Awkward Black Girl, which stars Issa Rae as J, a deadpan employee at a weight-loss-pill company who’s somewhere between antisocialist and social assassin. With wide eyes and a mini-’fro, J looks nothing like the leads we see on whitewashed TV, another point of comfort for the show’s average 380,000 YouTube viewers. She’s prone to imagining absurd scenarios and coping with stress by penning ratchet rap lyrics (“I will slice you and dice you”), an exaggeration of 27-year-old Issa’s own quirks. “Even though J is Black, the things she goes through are universal. I can relate to Jerry Seinfeld’s pet peeves or Liz Lemon’s insecurities, but it bothers me that there aren’t people of color in those roles,” says Rae, who grew up in middle-class Windsor Hills, Los Angeles. “The awkward white girl is nothing new. It’s time for a change.”

While network TV struggles with just how much of its content to post online and still profit, dot-com shows have experienced an Adele-esque ascension. Internet TV hub hulu.com draws in 1.5 million subscribers, Google and YouTube are collaborating on quality programming meant to rival cable TV and parody-skit site Funny or Die is producing its first feature film. “One of our style technicians said, ‘Internet isn’t afraid of TV, but TV is afraid of Internet,’” says Issa. “Because they don’t know what to do with it. There are so many possibilities. And I don’t think it’s temporary.”

After sitting on the idea for two years, Issa started filming the voice-over-heavy Awkward Black Girl last year—along with production partner Tracy Oliver and a team of four writers—in the wake of odd gigs like being a tour guide for an African-American museum exhibit (“I was in the slave ship every day,” says Issa). “I was into film. And in that environment, you always have to go to networking events. I would end up not speaking to anyone. So I started thinking about how uncomfortable it is to interact with people,” says the Stanford alum. “I read an article in Clutch that asked where the Black Liz Lemon was. And I was like, I need to do this now before it’s too late.”

Just like J, ABG’s supporting characters are unsettling, yet refreshingly normal—from Boss Lady, the wannabe-down white office manager who’s worn dreads, cornrows and beaded braids, to Darius, the mousy coworker who speaks in whispers.

The power of social networking has helped ABG attract supporters like Chris Rock and Gabrielle Union. And for the Season One finale, Issa drove 10 hours to Tahoe to score a cameo from another big fanatic. In the episode, J and her new boyfriend White Jay meet her crush, actor Donald Glover (who moonlights as rapper Childish Gambino), following his concert. After J spits a lame freestyle, White Jay mistakes Donald for being related to Lethal Weapon’s Danny Glover. Awkward silence ensues. “I don’t think it’s just about being an awkward person. She attacks small, observational things,” notes comedian/writer Hannibal Buress, who after discovering ABG virally helped Issa land management. “Like in the pilot where she tries to say hi to a coworker while driving. Now it’s about getting a situation where she can be free creatively. Once you have a fan base, you can write your own ticket. I think it’ll work for a mass audience.”

With the sophomore season airing this summer, Issa’s in no rush to compromise her ethnically diverse series where the word “nigga” is spouted routinely. “The one [network] meeting I had was really, really negative. They didn’t think the show would be successful unless it had mainstream actors, and the actors they were naming were ridiculous,” says Rae, declining to name names. “That’s when I was like, ‘Yeah, you don’t get it.’ I don’t think they’re ready for it.”