How 'Nora From Queens' Mirrors Awkwafina's Life Before Fame

Awkwafina, BD Wong and Lori Tan Chinn in "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens"
Zach Dilgard

Awkwafina is Nora From Queens is a new sitcom starring Awkwafina, whose real name is Nora Lum and who comes from, you may have guessed it, Queens. The series, which premieres on Comedy Central Jan. 22 at 10:30 PM ET, is loosely based on the real life of the actress who, like Nora on the show, grew up in a multi-generational household in Forest Hills with her father and her grandmother. It’s hard to say exactly where the similarities stop on Awkwafina is Nora From Queens. For the role, the actress, 31, rewinds her age to play a version of herself who still lives at home, who hasn’t figured out if and when things will start to go her way.

On the show, for example, 27-year-old Nora has an MTV poster hanging on the wall of her messy bedroom; in reality, when Awkwafina was the same age, she was hosting Girl Code on MTV, a show featuring female comics and actresses talking about their experiences as women. But Awkwafina is Nora From Queens is semi-autobiographical in the sense that big, anchoring facts of Nora’s identity are ripped from real-life. Awkwafina frequently talks about the outsized impact her grandmother had on her upbringing after her mother passed away when Awkwafina was only four. Like Awkwafina, Nora is half-Korean and half-Chinese. Like Awkwafina, she smokes a lot of weed.

In the series premiere, Nora’s animating fear is that she’s a “townie log” — she has no job and no place of her own. Her most recent failure to launch, we learn, is that she got kicked out of a dental assistant program, a story that resembles one from Awkwafina’s early life; she was fired from a marketing job in book publishing when her bosses learned that her rap video for My Vag was going viral. TV Nora makes her own play for internet stardom in the pilot, when she agrees to do a video for her friend’s camgirl channel, 420 Cam Chicks. The pilot gestures at musical overlap, as well. Awkwafina attended LaGuardia, a performing arts magnet high school in Manhattan, where she played the trumpet. So far we’re learned that TV Nora “dabbled” in music as a teenager, too.

According to Awkwafina, the series grew more and more autobiographical over the six years she’s spent developing it. "The biggest change was how much more grounded in reality and my experiences the show became," she told USA Today. "I really did focus groups for money; I really did work in a shady real estate agency. I felt that the best way to tell a story without making it seem like it's trying too hard, especially with comedy, was to just tell it the way it happened."