Akilah Hughes ‘Obviously’ launched a comedy career from YouTube
The 30-year-old Kentucky native used her YouTube channel as a portfolio to launch a career in comedy and TV, and for landing a publishing deal thanks to a series of videos called “Tipsy Book Reviews.”
Comedian and writer Akilah Hughes owes her career, in large part, to growing up on the internet.
Her upcoming book, “Obviously: Stories From My Timeline,” is a collection of essays that chart her journey from a small suburb in Kentucky to a media career in New York spanning from a popular YouTube channel to appearances on HBO’s “Pod Save America.” She’ll be in Chicago on Sept. 26 for a book release event at Seminary Co-op Bookstore.
“I don’t think anyone would read the things I wrote if I didn’t have the internet to expose me to other people,” Hughes said in a phone interview. “As a kid growing up in the south in a very white area, I guess I didn’t know that young black women could have power, could publish a book, could be the head of something. I can’t name five black twentysomethings that were on TV when I was growing up.”
Hughes, 30, is from Florence, Kentucky, about 20 minutes south of Cincinnati. She grew up with a passion for comedy and performance, watching “Saturday Night Live” with her mother, and writing stories with her sister. She became interested in improv after seeing a show at the iO Theater during a 2007 trip to Chicago with school friends.
She decided to pursue her performance dreams when she graduated Berea College with a broadcast degree in 2010, entering the job market in the middle of a recession.
“If you live with the reality or at least the belief that the money’s not coming, then you do sort of move with this feeling of, what do I actually have to lose?,” Hughes said. “I might as well try to do the thing [I want to do] and be broke, because I can also do the thing I hate and be broke. What’s the difference?”
After briefly working at Disney World post-graduation, Hughes decided to move to Brooklyn to study with the Upright Citizens Brigade, inspired in part by reading about Tina Fey’s move to Chicago and the Second City in Fey’s book, “Bossypants.”
Although she’s maintained her YouTube channel, “Akilah Obviously,” since she started making videos with friends in the mid-2000s, becoming a viral star on the platform was never Hughes’ goal. She saw YouTube as a portfolio to showcase her work and open up opportunities.
“I came from a small place, I don’t know people in Hollywood. I don’t know how you get into that world, but I know the internet is free and everyone uses it,” Hughes said. “So if somebody sees me here, maybe they’ll put me in a commercial and maybe I’ll get to audition for a movie and maybe I’ll get an agent. And that’s sort of how it all really did work out.”
A series of videos called “Tipsy Book Reviews” in which Hughes would “get a little drunk and review books,” eventually led to her book deal with Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin.
Hughes was waiting for an elevator while working for MTV in 2015 when she ran into a former UCB improv classmate who worked for Penguin. They had lunch together and Penguin gave her some books to review on her show.
About a week later, the publisher reached out and asked Hughes about her own book.
“I was like, I don’t have a book, I just review them,” Hughes said. “And they were just like, ‘OK, well you have a lot of funny stories, would you be interested in writing a book?’”
When she started “Obviously” in 2015, Hughes said her writing was “very light and funny and silly and listicle-like,” but the project was sidetracked when she was diagnosed with benign liver tumors later that year.
“I had surgery in July of 2016, and then Donald Trump got elected. So I used that year to heal my body and just like kind of rest and recuperate and figure out what I cared about,” Hughes said. “I dyed my hair pink. And then I got back to it, so I decided to write something that felt a little bit truer about the state of the world and what it really does mean to be black now, and how there are still trials and tribulations, but truly, things are gonna be OK.”
“Obviously” releases on Sept. 24. Hughes will hold a book release event Sept. 26 at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., in conversation with fellow YouTuber and Havas Chicago Creative Director Anna Russett.