Ayo Edebiri still remembers the first joke she ever told. She was in eighth grade and had just joined the improv team at her school in Boston. She was an anxious, nerdy teen, fond of writing fan fiction about Jacob Black from Twilight eating hot dogs. Improv was not necessarily an obvious fit. Then she made a crack about why Christians’ favorite cheese was Swiss: “Because it’s holy,” she says, rolling her eyes. “For some reason, people thought that was really funny.” (For the record, this reporter laughed.)
The 25-year-old’s comic sensibility has matured considerably since then. She’s currently a writer for Netflix’s hilariously profane animated series about puberty, Big Mouth, where she’s started voicing Missy, a similarly awkward black teen with a predilection for writing steamy fan fic and humping her Glo Worm. In her stand-up and on her Comedy Central series Ayo and Rachel Are Single, co-created with Rachel Sennott, she’s joked about everything from getting too high on edibles to people constantly asking her to have a threesome (what she calls having “the energy of a third”). But in most respects, she’s the same geeky, self-deprecating kid she once was.
Edebiri grew up in a religious Pentecostal household — her social-worker mother hailed from Barbados, and her father, who worked for the state of Massachusetts, emigrated from Nigeria — and her exposure to comedy was limited to Christian stand-ups and reruns of shows like Martin. (Her parents, with whom she briefly lived during quarantine, are supportive of her career, though she notes that her mother has a “very dry” sense of humor and rarely laughs at her jokes unless they include a Bible reference.) Still, she says, it wasn’t “a rigid experience without joy or anything just because there were rules.”
When she entered NYU, Edebiri initially planned to study education, but switched her focus to performance after a student-teaching gig, because, as she puts it, “10th graders are terrifying.” She decided to try comedy after interning at improv hot spots like the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where she saw “a lot of black women around me doing it full time and making it work.” She cites Keisha Zollar and Monique Moses, members of UCB’s first all-black team, Astronomy Club, as particular inspiration. “That was really important for me to see.” She gave herself two years to pursue a comedy career, and if it didn’t work, she’d go back and get her master’s in teaching.
The gamble paid off. After landing a stand-up set on Comedy Central and spots in writers rooms for shows like the NBC sitcom Sunnyside, Edebiri joined the writing staff of Big Mouth for its fifth season. She had just started there when producers called her in to audition to play Missy. The original actor who portrayed her, Jenny Slate, who is white, stepped down from the role last June, amid widespread discussions about representation in television. The move coincided with the writers beginning to explore the trajectory of Missy’s blackness toward the end of Season Four. Though she declines to say exactly where Missy is headed, Edebiri is eager to dive into a new side of the job. “It’s exciting to me to be on a show that I love with people that I love and respect and look up to,” she says. “There was definitely an adjustment period that’s probably still happening. But I feel supported by the people in the cast and crew of the show.”
Beyond Big Mouth, Edebiri is plenty busy. Though quarantine has not been a boon to her personal projects (“At the beginning of lockdown, everyone thought they were going to write their own King Lear, but I assure you, I haven’t.”), she has a spot in the writers room for the upcoming Netflix series Mulligan, co-produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and a plum role in the second season of the AppleTV+ series Dickinson, as hair-care entrepreneur/clairvoyant maid Hattie. Still, she maintains a Missy-esque attitude toward her success. “People keep saying that [I’m on the verge of blowing up], but it certainly doesn’t feel like it, I can tell you that much,” she says wryly. “You have to understand, I can normalize pretty much anything in my mind.”