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An HBO exec talks about how to transform a YouTube show into an HBO hit

Nathan McAlone
issa rae

(Issa RaeGetty/Kevin Winter)
As TV networks plot to get a new generation of viewers hooked, YouTube stars are snagging “premium” TV deals like never before.

Many of these YouTuber-led shows are popping up on streaming services, from Netflix to Verizon’s Go90, but traditional stalwarts like HBO have also jumped into the game.

“We talk about it a lot in comedy development,” HBO EVP Amy Gravitt, who has developed original comedies like “Veep” and “Silicon Valley,” told Business Insider. “The YouTube web series has become the new stand-up showcase.”

Gravitt said that while she still hunts for talent at festivals, one-person shows, and stand-up nights, as digital video has developed, YouTube has become a fertile ground as well. It's a good place for identifying fresh voices.

That doesn’t mean every YouTube star can make the jump, even when given significant resources. For instance, a few of Netflix’s recent bets on social media stars, Miranda Sings and Vine star Cameron Dallas, haven't impressed its subscribers and critics.

But HBO scored a certified hit a few months ago with its new show “Insecure,” from YouTube breakout star Issa Rae. The show has garnered a whopping "100% fresh" score on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and secured Rae a Golden Globe nomination.

A voice and a world

Why did HBO bet on Rae to have crossover success when other stars have floundered?

“Her voice is so strong and specific,” Gravitt said. “She shines as a performer, but she’s a phenomenal writer first and foremost.”

“Insecure,” which follows the life of an awkward-yet-charming woman turning 30 and still trying to figure out life and love, was never meant to be a straight adaptation of Rae’s hit YouTube series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Rather, "Insecure" was meant to take many of the central ideas behind the web series, and Rae's voice, and turn it all into a premium TV show.

“Issa was the starting point, her voice and character,” Gravitt said. Even with that voice, it hadn’t been a simple jump for Rae from YouTube fame, which started in earnest in 2011, to TV. Rae had a few years of frustration in Hollywood, including having a potential ABC show with Shonda Rhimes killed, before “Insecure” premiered in 2016.

Gravitt said that one big key for the show's success on HBO was to build a fully realized world around Rae. A charismatic writer and actor, even one as talented as Rae, wouldn’t be enough to stop the show from falling flat on its face if it didn’t have the emotional scaffolding of authentic relationships. Supporting characters were vital in a way they might not have to be on YouTube.

hbo exec amy gravitt

(HBO's Amy GravittGetty/Emma McIntyre)
In helping develop that world, and the relationships in it, Rae collaborated with Larry Wilmore, a comedy veteran who has been a force in many shows, including recently “The Daily Show” and “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.” Wilmore was a creative sounding board in the initial stages of development, Gravitt said, and the original script came out of conversations between Rae and Wilmore.

‘‘I asked her what was going on in her life, what’s important to her, her sex life, what she thinks about, and we built the show out of that,’’ Wilmore told The New York Times. ‘‘She had the ideas for characters, and we created a world around them.”

But the initial version of “Insecure” is actually quite different from the season that drew rave reviews from critics, according to Gravitt. The biggest change was that “Insecure” initially revolved around the work life of Issa (the character), at “We Got Y’all,” a very white, though well-meaning, non-profit focused on education. But the central friendship between Issa and her best friend Molly just kept being referenced over and over, and eventually the team realized that was actually the heart of the show.

“The friendship is really refreshing,” Gravitt said. It’s not without conflict, but it’s comfortable, real, and supportive, she explained. “I miss my best friend from college when I watch the show,” she laughed.

In the end, though it was the unique voice of Rae that initially hooked HBO, it was the crafting of complex, loving, and fraught relationships that gave the show the juice it needed to be successful on premium TV. And for YouTubers seeking to spin a captivating personality into a lucrative show, it's a good thing to note.

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