RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
#RESPECTYOURELDERS: AN APA HERITAGE MONTH PHOTO SERIES
For this year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Asian AF wanted to pay tribute to all the iconic Asian American actors, comedians, comedy troupes and groups who have paved the way for all of us to shine. With the incredible success of recent movies like Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Searching, and shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, & Kim’s Convenience, it’s important for us to look back at the trailblazers who put in the work to get us to where we are as the Asian American community. That’s why we’re creating the #RESPECTYOURELDERS photo series. This May, we’ll be posting up entries from special guests who will write about their comedy heroes and the institutions that influenced them! Some you may know well, others you may be hearing about for the first time - regardless, they’ve all made an impression on the Asian American comedy community in a big way. Consider this a Cliffnotes version of the history of Asian American comedy!
We’ll be highlighting 31 influential people/groups, so we obviously cannot fit everyone (as much as we wish we could). And while there are so many recent icons that we could talk about, for this project, we’re focusing on those who’ve been established and made a significant impact from before the mid to late 2000s.
We hope you enjoy this photo series and learn something you may not have known before. Thanks for following along and always supporting your favorite Asian American comedy show. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram to stay updated with all things Asian AF!
Creator, Asian AF
written by Gilbert Galon
*Cue Dos Equis music
The last time he flirted with danger, danger got clingy.
He’s listed as Korea’s #1 export… he was born in San Diego.
Barrack Obama refers to him as Hyeong.
He lives vicariously, through himself.
His name is not synonymous with Comedy because he is Comedy.
He is Bobby Lee. The most interesting man in the world.
He doesn’t always drink beer but when he does, he doesn’t. He’s 15+ years sober and dedicated. Showing the world your past doesn’t define who you are and how your story ends.
Surprisingly, my earliest memory of watching Bobby Lee on a screen wasn’t MADtv. It was Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The film was a huge win for the community and on a personal level, revolutionary. Watching John Cho and Kal Penn carry that film was one of the coolest things in Asian entertainment history. They had killer scenes but the most memorable scene to me involved a goofy character named Kenneth Park played by none other than Bobby Lee. In that short window, Bobby brought a character with a few lines to life and stole the scene.
Fast forward years later, I have the honor of sitting across from him every week as his sidekick on the TigerBelly Podcast. No matter how big or small our guests’ celebrity, Bobby always steals the scene. Every week, a master class in comedy.
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” Let us not forget the early tide.
Bobby Lee. #respectyourelders
- Gilbert Galon
* * *
Written by Risa Harms, Nicole Pasquale, Achilles Stamatelaky, & Rene Gube
Terry Jinn! To know him is to love him. You can’t say his name without breaking into a smile. And, try as you might, you can’t say Terry without saying (or at least thinking) Jinn. Try it! Terry Jinn!
I first saw Terry Jinn perform at UCB’s Harold Night around 2001. At the time, I didn’t realize that Terry was not only a Harold Night veteran, he was practically a founding father. As I began studying at the UCB, I learned that Terry had performed at their first NYC home (Solo Arts) with teams like Cowbot and even briefly had a Harold Team named after him (Terry Jinn presents Sergeant Frankenstein). Seeing Terry perform with teams like Dr. Awesome and Optimist International meant so much to me. Not only was there someone who looked like me on the UCB stage, but he was funny. It may sound strange to those in the majority, but when you are the “other”, you feel as though your own chance for survival rides on the success of those that come before you. By earning those laughs from a notoriously discerning audience of comedy students, Terry had transcended tokenism and kept the door open. He filled me with the hope that one day I may be able to grace that stage.
While Terry’s individual contributions on stage were plentiful, he may be better remembered for the camaraderie he helped fostered within the NYC improv community. With the opening of the PIT and Magnet theaters in the 2000s, the improv universe proliferated beyond the confines of the UCB, creating an unspoken (or not, depending on who you asked) rivalry between the respective home bases. In 2005, Terry created The Project, a comedy show consisting of independent teams that spanned across generations and theaters. From 2005-2008, improvisors formed new ensembles each year, their improv styles cross-pollinating in a warm and supportive atmosphere. I had the privilege of being on Terry’s first Project team, Fat Kitchen, where his intelligence, dry sense of humor, and generosity made him a optimal teammate.
While many improvisors will liken their team experience to playing in a band, Terry took that metaphor to 11 with his Enormous Television concerts. For over a decade, Terry allowed dozens of improvisors to channel their inner rock god, singing their favorite anthems while backed by the fiery intensity and airtight musicianship of the Enormous Television Band. Terry’s guitar virtuosity was so absolute, it felt as if you were singing to the original track. He’s the real deal, and he poured countless hours of energy and heart into giving us comedy folk an authentic rock experience.
For all he has done, Terry Jinn managed to impress me the most with what he didn’t do. In the mid-2000s, Terry was offered a small role in a film project starring a bona fide comedy star. That alone is significant: Roles written specifically for Asian actors were (are) virtually nonexistent, and to receive an offer without auditioning is like hitting the jackpot. But if you search for a clip of Terry’s performance, you won’t find it. In the script, Terry’s character was written as a lecher and a loser, simultaneously offended by and attracted to the comedy star. As tempting as it would have been to simply do the gig and cash the check, Terry ended up turning down the role. As he sees it, there was so little Asian representation in mainstream media, it would have caused more harm than good to play into the unfortunate stereotype of the sex-starved Asian male. The character never made it to the final piece and, thankfully, such tropes are becoming less and less common. What Terry did took tremendous courage. It’s easy to theorize that you would never sell yourself short for the sake of someone else’s joke. But when you are in the room and confronted with that difficult decision, it’s hard to say no to an opportunity that everyone else says you should be grateful to have. Especially when in doing so, you don’t know if one will ever come around again. In walking away, Terry set a valuable example for me in navigating your creative life with integrity.
In so many ways, Terry Jinn was ahead of his time. He will never take full credit for what he has contributed to the NYC improv community. But for someone like me, who was starving for any instance of Asian representation, Terry was an oasis. His accomplishments taught me that I was capable of achieving success in improv and how important it is to approach my craft with pride and without compromise.
- Risa Harms
* * *
When I took improv 101 @ucbtny in 2007, Risa was the only Asian woman I saw on the @ucbtny stage and I clung on to every awesome show I saw her do like my career depended on it. She’s a very quick and committed performer and it’s really hard to take your eyes off her when she enters a scene. Even when I’d see the Harold photos in the hallway at the training center I’d often look for Risa in the photos as if to make sure she’s still there, because just seeing her made me feel like perhaps I belong here. Maybe I can do this too! Then I learned Risa was Thai-American and I was like WHAT?!! She’s Thai-American like me! Now she’s for real my improv idol! Now it’s 12 years later and I get to play with Risa at Asian AF and I try to not break when she plays a goofy ghost DJ or something. I’m glad people get to see her perform at Asian AF, because perhaps someone in the audience is as inspired be her as I was then and as I still am now. THAI-AMERICANS IN DA HOUSE!!! 💕🇹🇭🇺🇸💕
- Nicole Pasquale
* * *
The first time I saw Erik Tanouye perform was on the UCB Harold Team The Shoves. I had just started taking classes at the time. What I loved about The Shoves — and Erik’s play in particular — was their intelligence, boldness, and commitment. They quickly became my favorite team. They were known for how they stretched, bent, and experimented the Harold form, and Erik was a huge part of that.
On a team full of great improvisers, Erik would often make the risky, form-bending move that would elevate the show. For example: during a show where the suggestion was “Hitchcock,” Erik made a move to be a character who was “watching” all the scenes from his apartment, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; in a show where they had found a Burt Reynolds theme, he made the 3rd beats a series of “blooper reel” moments a la Cannonball Run; and in a sports-themed Harold, Erik made the choice to not step into scenes because he was the “bench player” who only entered when subbed in.
Erik is also a hilarious writer. We were on the same Maude team together for a while and wrote some of my favorite sketches. Go to Youtube and search “Homeless Game of Thrones Spoilers” and “Hammer Mansion.” You will not regret it!
Erik's influence extends beyond the stage. He has helped manage the UCB Training Center and built up its diversity program. He’s also just a good person who we should all look up to. Cheers to Erik!
- Achilles Stamatelaky
* * *
When I was brand new to this business I had a friend do me the favor of having coffee so I could pick his brain. He had an agent and was working as a series regular on a TV show so everything he said became my industry bible. It was a lot of truisms but helpful nonetheless, until it came down to the topic of finding an agent. When I asked him if he would introduce me to his representation, he flatly refused, "We're both Asian men, it's a conflict of interest for me." I should point out that my friend is not a bad guy, he's a great guy who saw the writing on the wall and chose to believe it: in an industry with so few roles for Asian actors, there isn't room for all of us.
Fast forward a few years, still a noob-- no agent, no bookings, very frustrated. I was interning at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre when I first saw Eugene Cordero perform. He was the only Filipino I'd ever seen on the Franklin stage and I was blown away by his talent. His comedy was so smart & silly, subtle & physical, and so damn true. I knew right away that he was a genius, and I avoided introducing myself because I was intimidated. Luckily for me, Eugene said what's up in the lobby of UCB, and we got to talking. He asked if I wanted to do some shows together and I was like, "Are you sure? I'm not on a Harold team or anything." He laughed at me, "Of course I'm sure." Before I knew it, I had a mentor. We'd do indie shows and pick them apart on the drive home (mostly it was me trying not to crash while I made mental notes of every gem Eugene dropped). He got me into the CBS Diversity showcase, put me in his self produced sketch videos, gave me the pep talks I needed before my first real auditions, and lifted me up after countless Hollywood rejections. Straight up, I would not have the career I have today if it weren't for Eugene and his endless generosity.
When I met Eugene, he was a veteran of this business that seemed to have so little to offer Asian talent. And yet here he is skyrocketing on film and television, stealing scene after scene while somehow making his scene partner look amazing. He saw the writing on the wall and chose not to believe it. He proved to me that there is room for all of us, we just have to create it for each other.
- Rene Gube
* * *
MARGARET CHO & ALL-AMERICAN GIRL
written by Jenny Yang & Jeff Yang
Margaret Cho is a legend and she deserves every single ounce of that word. She was the ONLY pop culture reference around when I was growing up. Whenever we played games like “hey what famous person do people say you remind them of” everyone else seemed to have SO many famous people to choose from but for me it was either Lucy Liu or Margaret Cho. And guess what?? As a loud, round-faced Chinese/Taiwanese immigrant girl it was Margaret Cho every single time. At first I used to treat it like it was racist. “What?! So just because you only know Margaret Cho I gotta remind you of Margaret Cho?” But it wasn't until I got to college and came into my own identity that I appreciated what a compliment this was. Margaret Cho was out there declaring her Koreanness and Asianness and Immigrantness and Sexiness with complete ownership and power before any of us had the language to describe our own feminism and sexuality.
I will be forever grateful to Margaret because she was also the inspiration for the first-ever mostly women-identified standup comedy tour that I co-founded called Disoriented Comedy. Since 2012, along with Atsuko Okatsuka, Yola Lu and then later D'Lo, we produced more than 80 shows around the country in 100 to 700 seat venues to sold-out mostly Asian American audiences who were thirsty for fresh and diverse voices. We thought wait, why is there unspoken rule there can't be two women on a lineup back to back much less an entire show full of Asian American women? In 2012, when we started the tour, our dream was to someday have Margaret Cho headline a Disoriented Comedy show and thankfully in 2015, Margaret made our dream come true. Everyone gave her a standing ovation and, as you can see from the video, after her comedy set she spoke to us from her heart, explaining that she is so touched that this was the first time in her long career that she ever performed on a lineup with all/mostly Asian American women. We all cried...like so hard. It's a testament to Margaret's support of fellow Asian American comedians and her generous spirit.
Thank you, Margaret, for slaying those barriers so that we could live out our dreams today.
- Jenny Yang
* * *
ALL AMERICAN GIRL
I write this post shaking my head at myself, for the role I played in helping to kill Margaret Cho's groundbreaking sitcom — the first to showcase an Asian American woman standup comedian, and the first to center on an extended Asian American family. Mr. T and Tina, the short-lived spinoff of Welcome Back Kotter, featured Pat Morita as a single dad with two kids in 1976 — but Cho's series had a full ensemble cast of veteran Asian American luminaries, from Jodi Long to B.D. Wong to Clyde Kusatsu and Amy Hill. And Cho herself was at the whirling center of it all, translating her brilliantly raunchy standup persona into something a little more family friendly for ABC primetime.
Maybe too family friendly, in fact: The biggest beef I had with the program was that it made Cho — always out there, always beyond the beyond — into the Richie Cunningham of an Asianized Happy Days, with all the bland mediocrity that role entailed. (At least Amy Hill, playing Margaret's grandma, got to be Fonzie.)
But when I wrote a searingly negative review of the show for the Village Voice back in 1994, I had no idea it would end up being blamed for the show's cancellation. And I had no idea that it would take 20 more years before network television would allow another Asian American family back onto primetime, with the premiere of Fresh Off The Boat, ironically featuring my nine-year-old son Hudson Yang as the show's Margaret. And even before the show hit prime time, we were hit with a critique similar to the one I had of Girl: That the show was a safe, watered down version of a blisteringly raw original. The critic in this case: Eddie Huang, author of the book FOTB was based on, and the person on whom my son’s character was based. Karma.
The FOTB journey has shown me just how hard it is for any show to survive through a first season (All-American Girl lasted 19 episodes), much less six. And I wonder constantly what would have happened if I and others in the community with influence and a platform had fought for All-American Girl to survive, grow and become what it might have eventually become. Would we be two decades farther down the road as a community? We'll never know.
But one thing I do know is that Margaret cracked the ceiling that FOTB squeezed through, and was the original seed for all of the transformative changes that have come to Hollywood since — and for that, she deserves to be celebrated as the iconic queen and survivor and pioneer that she is.
- Jeff Yang
* * *
18 MIGHTY MOUNTAIN WARRIORS
written by Greg Watanabe & Michael Hornbuckle
The 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors got started in San Francisco at the Asian American theater company in '94. A bunch of us were working at the theater in various capacities and I suggested we start a comedy group based on my experience with an API group out of college. It became a writing/ performance group called The New Godzilla Theater Workshop.
I went to Singapore to do a play and when I came back there was a new writer's group called The Rough Edge Writers with a performance arm called The 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors. We continued to work together over the years and began to form an identity as a theatrical sketch comedy troupe, heavily influenced by Culture Clash, the Latino theatrical comedy group, with their broad, brash style, and razor sharp wit and satire.
We played at the Asian American Theater Company, San Francisco State University, Noh Space, as well as touring to universities and colleges, brought in by Asian American student groups.
Eventually, some people started to leave the group, some of us moved to LA. We continued to perform in SF and later LA, and Sung H Kim shot a documentary about us and our trials and tribulations which won a northern California Emmy.
For me, the 18MMW are an extension of the Asian American theater movement, which is in itself an extension of the Asian American political movement. I learned so much about Asian American history and culture by working on Asian American plays.
My work with the 18MMW is an integral part of the formation of my identity as an artist, Japanese American, and an Asian American.
- Greg Watanabe
* * *
The 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors (18MMW) has been a huge part of my life for the past 24 years. The whole thing began the summer of 1993 at the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco where a bunch of volunteers were just hanging around the theater company with nothing to do because of the theatre’s financial situation. So Greg Watanabe approached some of us and asked if we wanted to form an Asian American Saturday night live kind of group. That begat the “New Godzilla Theater Workshop” which begat “The Rough Edge Writers” which begat the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors which begat it’s very first show in the fall of 1994 entitled “In Deep Shabu Shabu.”
We’d always been aware of other groups: Cold Tofu, a sketch troupe that’s been around forever and Actor’s Anonymous, a Bay Area Asian American sketch troupe that preceded us but had disbanded by the time we formed. We’d also been aware of Asian American comedy pioneers like Pat Morita. We hoped to be a part of that lineage. Personally, I’ve always loved sketch comedy, from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to SNL to Kids in the Hall to In Living Color. 18MMW gave me the chance to do that kind of material but with Asian Americans. My personal niche was writing sketches about neglected areas of Asian American history like Angel Island, the Chinese Railroad Workers, the Filipino farmworkers, and the 442nd. Two comments from audience members stand out to me. One person said “I didn’t know that part of history” (referring to Angel Island) and another said “I never saw Asians do that before.” (referring to whatever raunchy thing we were doing on stage at the time).
It’s been a whirlwind 24 years. 18MMW has produced numerous shows, toured colleges from New York to Los Angeles, performed in Hong Kong and Vancouver, won a couple of sketch comedy awards and was voted the best sketch comedy group in the Bay Area, and collaborated with Culture Clash, Cold Tofu, OPM, and the Latina Theater Lab.
Lately we’ve downplayed the live performance part and have been focusing on video. We hope our supporters will come along for the ride.
- Michael Hornbuckle
* * *
Follow 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors
Follow Michael Hornbuckle
& Bindlestiff Studio
written by Kevin Camia & Brent Weinbach
I always say if it wasn’t for Allan Manalo, I would never have become a comedian. While in high school in 1990, I attended an Asian Pacific American Heritage Week conference at San Francisco State University (back then it was only a week). They had a bunch of performances at the end of the event, singers, dancing, taiko, poetry, martial arts, maybe a couple of dragons made an appearance, can’t totally remember, but it ended with Allan doing stand up and my mind was blown. Just like a great joke should be a “sharp turn” or an “unexpected surprise” that entire experience for me was just that. He effortlessly weaved from bit to bit leaving the audience hanging on every word. He was silly. He used cultural references in a way that I never imagined AND he brought the house down!
Allan started coming up in the comedy club scene at the tail end of the 80s comedy boom. He was working at the world famous San Francisco Punch Line and also producing Asian American Comedy shows with Margaret Cho, Kevin Kataoka, Rex Navarrete, Tessie Chua and Kennedy Kabasares. I remember following them from gig to gig and looking up to them like rock stars.
Allan was also doing theater too. As a freshman at SFSU, I auditioned for one of his plays and got the lead role with no acting experience. From then on I felt like he took me under his wing. He later asked me to join a production at The Asian American Theater Company to be in a sketch comedy show called “No Tinikling Allowed”. The production was a hit. From that experience he wanted to form a Filipino sketch comedy group called Tongue In a Mood. This was back in the mid 90s, and it consisted of a mixture of trained actors, puppeteers, stilt-walkers, clowns, poets and musicians. We did our first production at Bindlestiff Studio and from that point on we moved in and became a regular part of the programming. The former founder of the theater, Chrystene Ells handed the reigns to Allan after a year of residency and Allan brought in other Filipino American groups and to this day the space is considered to be The Epicenter of Filipino American Arts.
I’m very proud to be a part of the history of Bindlestiff and if it wasn’t for Allan it would’ve never happened. 28 years ago I saw Allan take the stage and the seed was planted, although I didn’t try stand up until years later, I knew I always wanted to do what he did that night - kill the room! Allan is still part of the Filipino American arts scene in San Francisco, he continues to write, direct, produce and perform. Thank you Allan for everything!
- Kevin Camia
* * *
So, I met Allan through Kevin Camia. Kevin and I would do a lot of open mics together and Kevin told me that there was this whole Asian comedy scene in the Bay Area and that Allan was one of the main guys behind it. Eventually, Kevin introduced us at a show and Allan was really nice and complimentary. And basically, yeah, from there, he was always really supportive and would have me on these Asian shows he would produce around town and at Bindlestiff Studio (a Filipino-run performance space and collective). I was really honored to be on these shows because the crowds were so good and it was cool to be apart of this sort of other subset of the comedy world that a lot of comedians didn't even really know much about. One of the best shows I did through Allan was opening for Rex Navarrete at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. It was a huge crowd -the biggest I had done at that point and the response was so crazy. It was probably the biggest, longest laughs I had ever experienced at that point. The Asian comedy scene seemed to be just a really thriving community and I feel like Allan had a lot to do with that by producing all these shows.
Eventually, Allan moved to the Philippines to teach stand-up there and at one point he had this Filipino villager wear my t-shirt (which on the front just says “WEINBACH” and underneath has a black-and-white print of my face) and he sent me a photo of it. It was a funny, neat photo and that too was kind of an honor for some reason.
- Brent Weinbach
* * *
PAUL PK KIM
written by Minji Chang
PK has quite the resume.
According to his bio on his website, he’s emceed over 1000 shows, galas, & weddings. He’s performed at over 100 universities nationwide. He’s a regular at the Laugh Factory Comedy Club and has brought out over 10,000 people to his shows, many of them experiencing live standup for the first time. He’s the founder of Kollaboration, a non-profit organization and grassroots movement that has produced more than 165 talent showcases in 18 major North American cities featuring over 1100 Asian American performing artists. He co-founded Liberty in North Korea which has rescued 1000+ North Korean refugees. AND he’s 18 million views strong on his standup comedy YouTube channel "ChannelPKTown" out of the 30 million view goal he’s aiming for by the end of 2019.
So there’s that.
Speaking of YouTube, it’s that funny little website that connected us over 12 years ago in 2007. Real quick, rewind to 2006 when my then-boyfriend sent me a video file to my massive desktop computer attached to my university’s snazzy T3 internet connection. It only took me one full day to download that video file. When I finally got to open it, PK sang “I Love You K-Town Yujah”, “It Costs A Lot To Be Your Oppah”, and “Song For Uhmma” in his Korean church leader style. In less than 10 minutes, I laughed, cried, & felt seen in a way I had never felt before.
I proceeded to upload this 9:37 video to YouTube in 2007 and titled it “PK Culture Show”. Shortly thereafter, PK himself messaged me and thanked me for supporting him by sharing his work. And by this holy blessed power of the Internet, I became acquainted with PK and immediately invited him to perform at the Cal Korean Culture Night I was producing that spring of 2007. I hosted the showcase, learned about PK’s prolific Kollaboration shows, I called him asking for advice about pursuing an acting career, getting some interesting advice.
The rest is history.
I want to share some of the things that all the stats in his bio don’t cover but implicitly tell us about PK. In the 12 years I’ve known him and walked in his impossibly large metaphorical shoes carrying the Kollaboration torch, I’ve learned what a relentlessly passionate, positive, and hardworking man he is. It takes a particular kind of person to ignite and grow a grassroots movement of creativity, identity, and Asian American representation in media when absolutely none existed.
PK remains the same beam of light to everyone who comes into his universe whether that be in person or by way of YouTube. He has drive and tenacity, he is bold in his pursuits and always invites everyone to join in on the fun. He is a dedicated father of 3 beautiful children who he showers with love along with his amazing wife, Tammy. While they support and shape the lives of these joyful and hilarious little nuggets, PK still hosts shows at the Laugh Factory and hustles as an emcee on weekends to live out his purpose and dreams, and Tammy supports him while being a boss woman herself. “Can’t stop, won’t stop” personified for real.
PK makes respecting my elders really easy. He helped make me interested, investigative, and passionate about being Asian American and uplifting others to feel the the same. He taught me the value of the community, our responsibility in contributing to it as best we can, the impact that can have, and how to have a freaking great time doing it. For all of this, Asian America is extremely fortunate and I for one am profoundly grateful.
Thank you, PK!
Now, everyone go watch his YouTube. We have a 30 million goal to hit.
- Minji Chang
* * *
written by Suzy Nakamura
When I was hired for the touring company of The Second City, a Chicago Sun-Times article ran a small story and said something about me being the first Asian-American actor to work there. Soon after the story ran, Joyce Sloane, the legendary Second City producer, came backstage and corrected me. “You know, you’re not the first Asian-American to work here. Victor Wong was. Do you know who he is?”
“Yup,” I lied.
“He’s in movies all the time.” Joyce sounded like she was bragging about a relative. The name sounded familiar, but that wasn’t what she was asking. I had no idea who Victor Wong was.
And then it turned out I did. I knew Victor Wong’s face: He had a white mustache and thin beard, which only accentuated his ability to play wizards, wise men, and retired ninjas. And he had one droopy eye, which made him unforgettable.
Let me take you back for a sec: Before the internet or imdb, you learned actor’s names by reading TV Guide or waiting for the credits to roll at the end of movies, but no one really did that. What usually happened was you'd see a movie or show and you'd recognize one of the actors from another movie or show that you just saw, and now they’re on your radar and then you'd see them again in something else and you’d be like, “I like this actor. And he/she’s everywhere. I have no idea what their name is.”
I had just seen this old guy with Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, then in The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy, and by the time I saw him in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness I was like, “I like this actor. He’s everywhere. I have no idea what his name is.”
That was Victor Wong. And he was funny.
Today, I have the internet and I found out that his white facial hair was due to the fact that he didn’t really start film acting until he was 59, and his asymmetrical face was from Bell’s palsy.
Let me take you back again: There were no funny Asian men or women in media, unless they were the butt of the joke. But here’s this old guy being funny on his own— saving the day, or being the grandpa, or grifting Eddie Murphy. By the time I learned his name, I was watching him again in The Joy Luck Club, telling my friends that he, too, worked at The Second City. This time, though, it was me who sounded like I was bragging about a relative.
- Suzy Nakamura
* * *
written by Kay Kaanapu
Karen Maruyama has appeared in a long roster of film and television roles. She’s also one of the few women to perform on both the American and British versions of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” I remember spotting her on a “Whose Line” episode and thinking, “Where did she come from?” I would later learn the answer - The Groundlings.
By 2017, I had taken improv classes from most of the major comedy theaters in Los Angeles - except from The Groundlings. To be honest, their curriculum scared me because it focused on high energy, emotional, character work, which were not my strengths. But when I had a chance to take a Groundlings workshop specifically geared toward Asian comedians that was co-sponsored by East West Players, I said ‘yes.’ And that’s how I met Karen Maruyama. As the only Asian instructor at the Groundlings, Karen taught the workshop.
As a teacher, Karen is candid, passionate and tenacious. Again, to be honest, she ripped me to shreds. I was way out of my element and she didn’t let any moment slip by where I relied on my writer-brain to think of something funny. Her emphasis on embodying a character from the moment a scene begins truly enforced the improv philosophy of “Don’t Think.” There was no way for a thought to enter my mind because she would see it. I just had to feel, perform and be in the moment.
Though I struggled through the class, I was grateful for the experience. I found myself relying less on my typical bag of improv tricks and varying my performance with more emotion and character work. I remember when the class ended and we went out for the ritual post-performance drink, Karen complimented me on how far I progressed since the beginning of the class. Little did she know, she had helped me face one of my long-time fears - taking a Groundlings class.
Not only that, but she offered me the opportunity to conquer my fear in a safe space where I could collaborate with other talented Asian comedians. We were allowed to dig into characters and emotions specific to our backgrounds. We mined material from experiences that in other more Caucasian-oriented classrooms would be met with confusion and murmurs of “I don’t get it.” Don’t get me wrong. Karen’s class was scary AF for me. But I pushed through. I came out the other side a more well-rounded performer and more confident with infusing my cultural perspective into my comedic work. I also learned the awesome freedom that’s possible when training with diverse instructors in inclusive spaces. All thanks to Karen Maruyama.
- Kay Kaanapu
* * *
written by Lilan Bowden
I've never really been a "fan girl" or a person who has followed individual careers, but I have been following and loving Lauren Tom's career my whole life from childhood to adulthood, and didn't even realize it. I saw Lauren first in The Joy Luck Club, the first time I had seen more than one Asian actor on screen. Being Taiwanese, it was the closest representation I saw of my culture on screen, and it had a powerful impact on me. Then, Lauren appeared again in my favorite TV shows I watched as a teenager: Friends, and Futurama. I looked up to her, without consciously understanding why. Lauren and her career normalized for me the idea of Asian American women in comedy, and as versatile respectable actors. When I found out I had booked the role of Bex in Andi Mack, and Lauren was to be playing my mom, it blew my mind. Who gets the opportunity to work with one of their role models?!
Through shooting the three seasons of Andi Mack, I also developed a newfound respect for Lauren and an appreciation for what it has meant to be an Asian American actor. When Lauren had started acting, there were few roles designed for someone who looked like her. I got a better understanding of the patience and the resilience it had taken to bring your talent to an industry (which is cutthroat in general!), when you are a minority in multiple respects (female and Asian American). Actors like Lauren paved the way for actors like me.
And maybe that's why Lauren is so good. To watch her act, whether it's in a rehearsal or on camera, whether it's the first take or the twentieth take, her performance seems effortless, but I know to achieve that, it takes years and years of focused effort. She gives that gift of experience to the people she works with. When we're doing scenes, I barely feel like I'm doing any work because she's so engaging.
It has been a gift to work with Lauren, not just because of her talent, but her attitude. Through the success and hurdles Lauren has experienced, she remains humble and optimistic, in my opinion a great combination! She uses her platform to bring awareness to charitable causes such as Homeboy Industries, and promotes messages of love and kindness. I can't tell if it's how captivating she is in our scenes, or if it's the warmth she's shown to me or the advice she's given me, but she really feels like a (young, cool and hip!) mother to me. I hope everyone gets as lucky as I have been to know a Lauren in their lifetime!
- Lilan Bowden
* * *
Asia Street Comedy
written by Aaron Takahashi
Asia Street Comedy was a variety show on the International Channel (later re-branded as AZN Television) that featured pre-recorded sketches and stand-up comedy performed in front of a live audience. The show ran for two seasons, from 2004 to 2005. It almost exclusively showcased Asian American talent.
Asia Street Comedy aired (albeit somewhat under the radar on cable tv) at a time when the only places you could see Asians being funny (at least in LA) were on small stages where groups such as Cold Tofu, OPM, 18MMW, and Lodestone Theatre would produce shows, or at the occasional “Asian Night” at the local comedy club. OR, you could go to The Groundlings, Second City, or IO West, and you might get lucky and catch a show with one Asian American actor. We believed we were at the forefront of innovation, because nothing like this show existed anywhere before.
Season One, hosted by Dan Gabriel (@thedangabriel), featured a rotating cast including me, Greg Watanabe (@gregwatanabe), Suzy Nakamura (@notreallysuzy), Parry Shen (@parryshen), Diana Toshiko (@dianatoshiko), Charles Kim (@justcharleskim), Nancy Lee (@thenancyjlee) and Joy Bisco (@bisco_joy) among others. In Season Two the producers brought on more writers, and hired a cast of 8 series regular actors, which were me, Greg Watanabe, James Wong, Joseph Morales (@josephamorales), Nora Jesse, Kulap Vilaysack (@iamkulap), Tiffany Lo, and Pauline Yasuda (@paulineyasuda). The host for Season Two was Steve Byrne (@stevebyrnelive).
Well-known stand-up comedians like Ken Jeong (@kenjeong), Bobby Lee (@bobbyleelive), Randall Park (@randallpark), Amy Anderson (@theamyanderson), Kevin Shea (@kevinsheacomedy), Jo Koy (@jokoy), Joey Guila (@joeyguilalive), Steve Byrne and others graced the Asia Street Comedy stage. Many of these comedians also appeared in various sketches.
We had a small budget and the production valued suffered, but we made the best of what we had. Asia Street Comedy was risqué, irreverent, and at times bordered on racist, but was never done with any malice. Most of the sketches were outright hilarious. In writing this, I watched the show again (15 years later) and I was laughing out loud. I appreciate the show for giving me and other talented Asian American actors a platform to flex our comedic muscles.
Low ratings, low visibility and the inability of AZN to attract advertisers led to the cancellation of Asia Street Comedy and other original programming, and ultimately the termination of the cable channel itself. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for an Asian SNL. With the right kind of marketing, who knows how far we could’ve gone.
- Aaron Takahashi
* * *
written by Magnus Chhan
I always enjoyed making people laugh though. It served as a defense mechanism growing up, especially when you're Asian and different. It's like "Hey if they are laughing with you, then they aren't laughing at you." Like a good model minority Asian, I thought that I'd grow up to become a doctor or something in the medical field. I loved comedy, but it did not exist on my radar of things I want to do when I grow up. It wasn't even in the realm of realistic possibilities for me in my brain. How? I had never seen it done by anyone before. I had only seen Asian people be portrayed as stereotypical tropes and be the butts of the jokes of others. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to be that.
One night, I was watching a program called Last Comic Standing and lo and behold! There was an Asian dude on there. I was like, "Oh, word?! Yes. Represent!" I had to root for him. That guy was Dat Phan. He was more than good as he ended up winning the whole thing! That was HUGE for me to see someone who looked like me on the stage and on the screen and not only that but doing really well. He was being... himself, an Asian American. At the time, I didn't really even know that was possible. I didn't think people were interested in hearing that story but there he was telling it and crushing it. It was mind blowing to me. An Asian guy talking about being an Asian guy and people were with it. People were laughing was with him and not at him. Hell yeah. I was filled with pride and joy. We in this thang!
I've always thought comedy to be largely a white person's thing. It has always felt to me like it was made by white people and to be consumed by white people like a FUBU for jokes. For me to see Dat Phan talking about his experience as an Asian American and what that meant and his dynamic and interactions with his family really resonated with me. I lived it but had never seen it shown on a stage or a platform like that. He allowed us to laugh at the things that made us different while at the same time showing us how we're also the same. That unconsciously gave me permission to be comfortable in my own skin.
Seeing Dat Phan perform made me feel that it was much more than ok to be Asian. It showed me that being Asian could be a gift and was not a crutch. It encouraged me to find strength in my own voice and humor in my own story. I can only imagine how many others it did that for as well.
- Magnus Chhan
* * *
Cold Tofu Improv
written by Jully Lee
I was told I had to take an improv class if I wanted to be an actor. It was imperative. I was told to take a class at Cold Tofu. (Thank you, Rodney Kageyama.) I thought I would just take the obligatory 8-week class and learn these improv skills and move on. Fifteen years later, I am still here with Cold Tofu – continuing to grow and develop within a community that was started by 4 trailblazing women: Denice Kumagai, Marilyn Tokuda, Judy Hoy Momii and Irma Escamilla.
To this day, Cold Tofu is the first and longest-running Asian American comedy group. It was founded in 1981 – during a time when Asians had little to no visibility, much less any agency in the images that were being portrayed of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood. I am still astounded at the audacity it took for these women of color to form the first Asian American comedy group ever – and make up their own rules as they went along. They were basically saying F-U to the status quo. And they had the foresight to do things right: they established non-profit status, put on regular shows that got reviewed in the LA Times, and created an artistic home for over 100 Asian American comedic performers in the last 38 years. (Some former members and guest performers include Amy Hill, Emily Kuroda, Jerry Tondo, Phil LaMarr, Glen Chin, Robert Covarrubias, Dom Magwili, Takayo Fischer, June Kyoko Lu, Alvin Ing, Jim Ishida, Steve Park, Phil Nee, Tamlyn Tomita, Helen Ota, Aaron Takahashi – the list goes on.)
For me personally, the opportunities that Cold Tofu have given me is incalculable. I got cast in my first show ever through Cold Tofu: TELEMONGOL, a sketch show collaboration along with 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, OPM and Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. From this show, I was offered my very first TV co-star role on Reno911! along with 3 of my other TELEMONGOL cast-mates. (I thought this was how the business worked – you perform in a stage show and then you get offered TV roles! Sweet!! This is not how it works. This is so not how it works.) Aside from these career opportunities, I’ve made lifelong friends through Cold Tofu. How awesome is it to get to perform and write characters and create shows with your friends? And then go out for ramen together? And now with the Training Center, I get to teach classes and share how improv philosophies are profoundly awesome and invaluable.
I have an ocean of gratitude for the founding members of Cold Tofu. And for all the performers who came through Cold Tofu who helped create this community. When I wanted to be an actor, I had no idea it would be a political decision. There are so few images of us, anyone who gets any space in the mainstream becomes a poster child – positive or negative. I can’t begin to say how thrilled I am that this “burden of representation” is getting a little lighter with more and more faces and images in the spotlight. These are exciting times, and I can’t thank these trailblazers– the ones who said “I don’t need to be a stereotype or have an accent to get stage time. I don’t have to be your vision of who I am to be funny.” – I just can’t thank these OGs enough.
- Jully Lee
* * *
written by Quincy Surasmith
SKETCHCOMEDYSHOW.COM [Editor's note: that url no longer works]
I remember being an LA County Arts Intern at East West Players in the summer of 2006 -- conveniently the same summer the National Asian American Theatre Conference was in Los Angeles. I was learning about all these Asian American theatre artists, performers, and companies from all around the country -- including the sketch comedy groups that were right here in Los Angeles. Later that year I dragged my friend out to Burbank to go watch TeleMongol, a collaboration between Lodestone Theatre Company and the legendary Asian American comedy groups OPM, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, and Cold Tofu. I loved it, but thought about how these were all experienced comedy performers who'd been doing their thing for a long time. I was just a college kid and intern; I could never get to that level, I thought.
I graduated from college a couple years later, and moved back to LA full-time. My friend Justin had recently started helping out with a new sketch group I hadn't seen before. They were the comedy wing of an Asian American media organization, Projekt Newspeak. The group's name: SketchComedyShow.com. (It was very in style to put urls in your name at the time, so people knew you had a website. Incidentally, this link doesn't work anymore.)
Eddie Kim and Brian Corpuz, who co-founded SketchComedyShow.com, were Theatre Rice alumni from UC Berkeley. They wanted to continue the kind of work they had done in school, writing original sketches. Through Projekt Newspeak, they put together a cast and started producing sketch comedy shows.
The cast I most remember was stellar: Earl Baylon, Kris Clemente, Jeena Yi, Surina Jindal, Jeremy Lalas, Susane Lee, Davis Choh, Jason Owsley, and Leslie-Anne Huff. They had such great chemistry and characters, and made amazing use of music, physicality, and silence. Sketches like Anime Boy, New Recruits, and Beyonce Girls were so ridiculous and fun. Soon, the group was winning competitions at the International Sketch Comedy Championships and iO West's Sketch Fest, eventually becoming regulars at the LA Comedy Festival and featuring at the Comedy Central Stage.
I didn't really care about those accolades as much, though. I was just so excited to see what I felt was a new wave of Asian American sketch comedians come up to continue that legacy of groups like OPM, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, and Cold Tofu. And -- possibly just because I had friends involved -- I felt like maybe comedy performance was something I could do, too. They also made me realize that you can be an Asian American sketch comedy group without having to center your jokes explicitly about that Asianness.
But by 2012, Projekt Newspeak came to an end as an organization, and several cast members from SketchComedyShow.com moved on. They released a few more video sketches, but eventually stopped making new material. Back then, I had thought they were going to be the first of a new wave of Asian American comedy, but in hindsight, they were just continuing the work of the groups that inspired them. They were also the last group I saw that wasn't formed at one of the big comedy theatres or schools; it was an end of that independent Asian American comedy era. A lot of them are still performing, and I still see Earl and Kris doing improv monthly with their team Room to Improv. I also now play D&D with Earl.
Coincidentally, right around the time they wrapped up was when I took my first improv class. I figured, hey, might as well start training to keep the comedy torch burning, following those who inspired me. Thanks, SketchComedyShow.com (that name never gets any easier to say).
- Quincy Surasmith
* * *
written by Tony Garbanzos
I never conceptualized being a performer until my college years, but I think I always felt a tiny inkling, as a kid, that’d I’d love to perform. Back then, though, it just didn’t seem realistic. Look at that screen, I’d think, James Bond is a handsome, suave British man. I’m a dorky little boy, brown and round. The world won’t let me do that. It felt impossible for me to be a performer.
It didn’t help that I also struggled with how to identify as a Filipino American boy. There’s no elementary school curriculum for the history of my culture, and my family’s homeland of a bajillion islands, the Philippines, was an entirely different world. With no Filipino influences in my life, what am I to do? Well, I can watch TV. I eventually learned about Comedy Central, and watching stand up specials gave me JOY. Look at this dude! He’s being silly and weird, and FUNNY! Man, Dane Cook is so good! (Yeah, it was that time, y’all.)
I’d love to have fun doing that. But…what would I say? My brown and round little life isn’t relatable. No one wants to hear that. Impossible.
It wasn’t depressing for me. I just accepted that fact, that it seemed like that’s how life works. I’d enjoy these albums and specials and go on with my pre-teen life. Then, in 9th grade, I made a new Filipino friend, and this dude, Mike Leyba, was ABOUT IT. He know what it was like! And, after a couple of weeks, he had a gift for me - a burned copy of Rex Navarrete’s Badly Browned.
Y’all. My mind was blown. This dude was doing stand up. Talking about TSINELAS. And the audience was LOVING IT. He talked about his time in ESL class, and I WAS IN ESL CLASS. (Fun fact: He was born in the Philippines while I was born in Kansas City, MO, but for some reason, I still ended up in ESL class until 2nd grade. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
When his dvd Hella Pinoy came out, I tracked it down so hard. You know how difficult it is to find a Filipino stand up comedian’s dvd special in 2004?? JOHN-CHO-IN-SEARCHING LEVEL DIFFICULT. My efforts were rewarded, and I finally got to see what he looked like. And goodness, gracious - he looked like ME. Brown, round, and doing his thing on stage. A live Filipino comedian became truly, truly real in front of my eyes.
His album was on repeat for the rest of high school, mostly because I was sharing it with everyone. My mom loved hearing me enjoy something distinctly Filipino, and my non-Mike Leyba friends were connecting with the comedy. Because that’s what Rex was doing, and what a good performer does - connect the audience with their voice.
- Tony Garbanzos
* * *
written by Tess Paras
Growing up, Amy Hill was that actress who I recognized every time she popped up on screen. Wait! Isn’t that woman from 50 First Dates the same woman who was on All-American Girl? There she is again, on Frasier! And on Reno 911! And Six Feet Under! And Next Friday! And… everything! When Hollywood needs an Asian character actress, we all know who they call… AMY MUTHAFUCKIN HILL.
Amy Hill is a chameleon. As a performer, she can do it all. Personally, she is GOALS. It’s that flexibility that I admire and aspire to as an actor. She can do the wackiest jokes or the most grounded drama (have y’all seen UnREAL - so good!) On stage, she does this beautiful mix of storytelling and stand-up with a lot of heart. Plus, I’ve learned that she’s just the warmest and most supportive person.
I’m lucky to have become friends with Amy over the past five years. When I first met her on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we immediately connected doing bits on set. We had a running joke that I was her character’s least favorite daughter and I was trying my damnedest to impress her. (That part’s true though… I want her to like me!) After that, she became a friend. I told her about Quick and Funny Musicals at UCB and she came to watch us! She came to Comedy Comedy Festival! She came to Asian AF! She shows up to support and play, too! She’s so generous with her time, it’s incredible.
A couple of years later, I got a job playing her nemesis on Just Add Magic. I got to go toe-to-toe with Amy Hill and I still can’t believe it! It was an absolute blast. I will never forget one day that she sat in my dressing room and told me stories about times she was on set and what it’s been like for her - writing, acting, creating a home, being a mom. Life stuff. (She also wanted to gossip about my love life, but that’s another post!)
The most impressive thing about her is that she really cares about the big picture and takes all of this industry stuff in stride - with a big dose of gratitude. I personally owe a lot to Amy for her encouragement and her support, and the world is truly served by her immense talent and positivity. Thanks for inspiring us all, Amy! We love you!
- Tess Paras
* * *
written by Shilpa Das
I first heard about Mindy Kaling when I was living in New York and word was spreading about the off-Broadway show she co-wrote and co-starred in, Matt & Ben. At that time, I was so excited that an Indian woman could be the creative source of material that was creating a buzz. Growing up, I had auditioned for many shows at school and at regional theaters, but I really never considered that I could be cast in a leading role or that I could write my own material that would be of interest to others. I had never seen someone who looked like me in American movies or on TV so just hearing about an Indian female making waves and showing the potential to claim a seat at the table was incredibly inspiring.
When Mindy joined The Office a couple of years later, she was the only female writer. She also performed, directed and was eventually promoted to executive producer on the series. She was often lauded for being confident and assertive - not adjectives commonly associated with Asian women. She was nominated for an Emmy for her writing on the show and went on to write, produce and star in The Mindy Project. As an Indian American, it was great to see a character like Mindy Lahiri who was as bold as she wanted to be and who didn’t hide her ethnicity, but also didn't fit the standard sterotypical box. She is loud, smart, confident, and a hopeless romantic. Observing this empowered me to make bolder choices in my life and in my performances, embracing my heritage but not letting the expectations of that define me as an artist. Mindy is one of many different types of Indian women. Like all races of women, we have a wide range of stories to tell and mainstream American media has yet to really explore the variety within Asian American cultures, among others. Mindy is one of the many writers now providing a landscape for that material and those conversations and though change has been gradual, I feel like we are experiencing a shift. Last year, I co-produced/hosted the first ever South Asian AF show at UCB and was witness to the growing number of South Asian comedians, writers, actors in LA with unique voices, perspectives and content. And we are not afraid to be loud.
Mindy’s upward trajectory and wide range of work has been a reminder to me that, in a world and industry where our voices are underrepresented, we should not put limitations on ourselves. Whether it’s in writing, acting, standup, improv, directing, producing or anything else - we all have to potential to develop our skills and showcase our work in a way that is honest, bold and confident. We have stories to tell, tears to cry, and laughs to share. Let’s continue holding the door open for each other.
I'll leave you with one of my favorite Mindy quotes (of which there are many):
“If you've got it, flaunt it. And if you don't got it? Flaunt it. 'Cause what are we even doing here if we're not flaunting it?”
-Mindy Lahiri, Why Not Me?
- Shilpa Das
* * *
written by Randall Park
Ages ago, when I was a student at UCLA, a couple friends and I co-founded an Asian American college theater company called Lapu The Coyote That Cares, or LCC. We fancied ourselves as playwrights, and we wanted a space to tell our stories, because at the time, they were hardly being told on TV or in the movies. Quarter after quarter, we packed the Northwest Campus Auditorium (it’s probably called something else now) with other young people who also wanted to see themselves reflected in the entertainment they consumed. It was a magical time. But we were students. And like most students, we would eventually have to graduate and move on with our lives. So, we did.
But for some of us, the desire to tell stories stayed in our blood. Circa 1999, a group of LCC alums, along with other actors and artist friends, started a collective called Propergander. We built a ramshackle theater (complete with a full service liquor bar) in my parent’s backyard, where we put on shows. We packed that backyard with people, and their laughter and applause would echo over the entire neighborhood. Everyone got drunk. My mom was pissed. Eventually, we rented theaters throughout Los Angeles. We didn’t drink (as much), but we continued to sell out shows. It turned out that the desire to see our community as the stars of our own stories wasn’t confined to the campus of UCLA. It certainly didn’t hurt that our shows were pretty darn good.
PG produced original plays and one-acts, many of which were written by LCC alum Michael Golamco and myself. Our shows were irreverent, risk-taking, at times downright weird. I remember one piece I wrote about a father (David Lee) and son (Tim Chiou) out at sea. We hand painted an entire seascape diorama that enveloped the entire stage. As the tides rolled in, we would dump buckets and buckets of water onto the actors as they performed the most maudlin dialog I could muster. The front row was given sheets of plastic to keep from getting drenched. The theater owner was pissed. So much effort was put into quite possibly the stupidest thing I ever wrote.
Our shows were truly one of a kind. We consistently got great write-ups and reviews. But this was a time when the industry wasn’t actively seeking out Asian American talent. They didn’t believe that our stories could be relatable to a “mainstream” audience. They didn’t see our packed houses as a bellwether for the commercial value of investing in Asian American voices. Sometimes, it felt as if we were thriving in a bubble. But we kept at it, mainly because we were having a blast. Then, around 2005, we closed shop. It was finally time to move on with our lives.
I cherish those days. They were some of the most creatively fulfilling times of my life. One of my personal career goals is to get back to the spirit of those times: telling universal, comedy driven stories from our unique perspectives, taking risks, and most of all, working with my friends. Many members from Propergander are still out here, traversing this industry with that same rebel spirit, striving for the same things that made our shows such a joy to be a part of.
- Randall Park
* * *
& EMILY KURODA
written by Rachel Chapman & Alex Song
From time to time, my editor will assign me a Gilmore Girls story to write for Elite Daily, and those are always my favorite. As a girl growing up in the 2000s, I fell madly in love with Stars Hollow and all its characters, especially Lane (Keiko Agena) and Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda). People talk all day about Rory and Lorelai, but I loved the relationship between these two. Not only was I seeing a little of myself in an Asian American family, but their mother-daughter relationship reminded me of mine. Like Lane, I never wanted to disappoint my mom, but had big dreams. Everyone always asks if you're more a Rory or a Lorelai, but I felt connected to Lane Kim.
I was impressed with her ability to hide CDs in her floorboards. I shared the same panic when she dyed her hair (and then dyed it again). I cringed when she touched Rich Bloomenfeld’s hair. I took note of her elaborate schemes to meet up with boys. I was shook when I saw that giant suitcase her mom gave her, thinking she was never coming back from Korea.
Speaking of Mrs. Kim, I love everything about her too. Yes, it seemed like she was always angry, but it was a big mood that I respected. The way she talked to any boy who came into Lane’s life was a true inspiration. She always said what was on her mind, and it always made me laugh. She was strong, hilarious, independent, and a no-nonsense business woman. If she’s not a feminist icon, I don’t know who is.
I love Lane and Mrs. Kim so much.
Cut to 2017 where I found myself in an improv class with Keiko. I was so nervous, because here was the actor who played Lane Kim — aka someone I had admired for so long. I tried to play it cool, but it’s so hard not to be impressed with how smart, warm, and funny she is. It only made me a bigger fan.
The thing is I love Gilmore Girls so much, and it will always be a part of me. I still watch it all the time on Netflix, it’s why I have a coffee addiction, and I could go on for hours about #TeamJess. Though, I really have Keiko and Emily to thank for that. They allowed me to see a little of myself in a show that I loved, so I’m eternally grateful for them.
Also, if you need a good chuckle Lane’s two weddings gets me every time.
- Rachel Chapman
* * *
I first realized I wanted to be an actor by watching 7th Heaven every day after school. I first realized Asian people could in fact be actors by watching Gilmore Girls. Lane and Mrs. Kim were funny, fierce, and held the impossibly difficult task of being the Only Real Asians I Watched On TV (I wasn’t a particularly aware kid – I thought Ms. Swan from MADtv was actually Asian). Keiko Agena and Emily Kuroda, in their nuanced, heartfelt, and effortlessly comedic portrayals of an Asian-American daughter and mother, were the first Asian actors I had ever really seen. So while I was seeing myself in their characters, I was also hoping to see myself in the actors themselves.
In 2017, Asian AF came to New York for the first time for UCB’s annual Del Close Marathon. I got to meet Keiko for the first time in the UCB East Village bar, before Scarlett Johansson Presents kicked off the first show of the venue. Besides being impressed by how much cooler LA Asians seemed in general (especially the perpetually chill Will Choi), I was also nothing short of starstruck by Keiko. But I refused to tell her. And then I saw her again when Dan Lee and I took over hosting Asian AF regularly in New York, and Will and Keiko flew back to help us launch our first show. I didn’t tell her then, either. Finally, for Keiko’s birthday that year, I awkwardly sent her an email wishing her a happy birthday, and also-by-the-way-you-being-in-Gilmore-Girls-meant-everything-to-me-okay-bye.
The next year, I moved to LA for a few months, and Keiko and I had the chance to host Asian AF together at UCB Sunset. We tried to prepare a hosting bit in the greenroom before the show, but it all flew out the window as soon as we took to the stage. I can’t remember a thing we said, and it was also one of the most fun times I’ve ever had being myself onstage. Keiko is so genuine of a performer and a person, it’s disarming. She is effortlessly funny, and makes you want to rise to her level. She also knows an incredible amount about enneagrams – we later found out we are the same enneagram type.
I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to know Keiko and call her a friend. I still don't always fully gush over her talent and creative output to her face though, so I will put more of it here. She was really great in 13 Reasons Why, which I’ve seen all of. Her episode of Don Fanelli’s podcast, The Need to Fail, is wonderful and inspiring and charming and honestly, a must-listen. And her book – she wrote a book! – No Mistakes: A Perfect Workbook for Imperfect Artists, which I'm sure is great, is on my bookshelf, waiting to be started, terrifying the crap out of me. Because I am so scared of mistakes. But hopefully, as I’ve been trying to do since I first saw her on TV, I'll keep trying to be a little more like Keiko.
- Alex Song
* * *
written by G-Su Paek
Stephen “Steve” Park was a standup and performer on the hit television show In Living Color during the 1991 season which aired on Fox. Coincidentally, at the same time, I was an impressionable 5 year old living in South Texas with just enough curiosity to want to absorb all the television I possibly could. Up to that point in my life, I had actually never seen another Asian-American face on the TV screen. But then I was introduced to the hit show In Living Color and that was the beginning for me. I absolutely had to watch In Living Color every week and would always bug my dad to change to the correct channel when it was time for the show. Seeing someone that represented me on that big stage allowed me to have the dream that it WAS possible for an Asian to be on TV anywhere.
His continued work in being a voice for representation along with his excellent performances in films like Falling Down and Fargo really helped cement the idea that Asian performers can be more than just a stereotype and helped give me the faith and confidence to push forward and pursue my passions.
As I continued to grow and learn, I eventually found my way into doing improv and comedy which I have been doing for the past 17 years. Since I started doing comedy in high school in 2002, it's only lately that I noticed a trend of more people of Asian descent doing comedy. For a long time (and also from a lot of personal experience) it was just something that wasn't accepted by our community and families just yet. But with the world evolving every day, I now see more and more familiar feeling faces as well as hearing more voices that I feel truly represent us. This led to me being able to work with other Asian performers and eventually help launch Austin's only All-Asian sketch group, Hot Pot Comedy as well as the All-Asian improv group, Y'all We Asian.
As we continue to grow and move forward with representation in comedy as a community, I hope that we can continue to inspire future generations of Asian-American comedians and performers, just like Steve Park did for me.
- G-Su Paek
* * *
ROOM TO IMPROV
written by Earl Baylon
About 14 years ago, I was semi-fresh out of college, living in Orange County, California, and lamenting my lack of an artistic outlet. My roommate at the time, Kris, was in the same predicament. We were both science majors in college, but by golly we were artists at heart. After all, we did meet in drama class.
One fateful day, Kris was checking the casting calls on Backstage.com for the last time before he canceled his subscription and called it quits. There he was, sitting at his computer, scrolling through the many breakdowns that didn’t fit our brown asses as I lay on the bottom mattress of the bunk bed we shared in our converted den of a room.
Suddenly, the scrolling stops. Kris turns to me and says, “I think I found something.” It was an casting call for an improv troupe called Room to Improv, and they were looking for people of Asian descent. Long story short: we both submitted hardcopy pic/resume, auditioned, and were cast in the group.
Wait, wait, wait - what is Room to Improv, anyway?
Room to Improv is an Asian American improvisational theatre troupe that was created in 2002 by CSUN alum Elvin Lubrin, as an act for that year’s Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC). After their first performance at FPAC, Room to Improv continued to perform at various community events and started producing their own monthly show every first Friday of the month - first at the Raven Theatre, then the Two Roads, and now at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood.
Over its 17-year-history, RTI has performed at colleges, cultural events, and comedy festivals nationwide. A number of it’s members have gone on to do cool things in the performing arts, including James Kyson Lee, Leslie-Anne Huff, Marc Macalintal, and Kahyun Kim.
Room to Improv’s mission is to create a space for Asian American artists to produce work, develop their artistry, and tell stories that appeal to a diverse audience. Essentially, we’re here create room to improv.
That’s my much of my goal these days as Artistic Director, to afford people the same opportunity I was given way back when. Room to Improv is where I cut my teeth on comedy and on performing in Los Angeles. It was my safe jumping-off point into many other zany adventures in the industry. Through Room to Improv I found the courage and know-how to start a career as an actor. In RTI I found a support network that made navigating through this sometimes chaotic mess of a life path feel less directionless. Because of RTI I found another comedic home in Projekt NewSpeak’s SketchComedyShow.com, which only led to further opportunities. I found connections to the Asian American performing community and the industry as a whole that have been invaluable to me.
14 years later, my purpose in the group has definitely evolved into something different from when I first joined the group - but at a personal level, Room to Improv will always be my artistic center, my constant. It is my safe jumping-off point when I need to re-calibrate and let go.
I hope that others find in it what I have.
Room to Improv is celebrating its 18th year in existence next year. We’re gonna have a debut.
- Earl Baylon
* * *
written by Charles Kim
In 1997, in Seattle, I answered an ad for sketches for a mostly Asian Pacific American troupe called OPM (aka "Opening People's Minds"). I was new to acting or writing, but I always felt a strong yearning to perform. And as a 20-something transplant from L.A. attending law school there, I felt this was my golden opportunity: if I didn't answer my deep-rooted artistic call then and there, I would forever lose my chance to embark on a thespian's journey. I submitted my sketch about two Asian-American rappers calling themselves Hung Yang Clan who get their asses whupped by one of the rapper's Korean dad. Fortunately, the founder of OPM, Leroy Chin, took a chance on my sketch and me-- and for the next 14 years, I was on a nonstop sketch comedy ride (averaging 3 runs and up to 2 original hour-long shows, per year). It was an absolute blast. We performed in Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, our home base for 10 years, from 2001 to 2011.
But it wasn't easy, especially before smartphones and social media saturation. Ewan Chung and I did all the producing, while writing, acting, and day jobbing, and marketing the shows was mostly by email, word-of-mouth, and paper flyers. But it was so worth it, and we were blessed. Audiences loved our shows, and we won awards in L.A., San Francisco and Vancouver. Best of all, we made many friends and got to work with amazing groups such as 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, Cold Tofu, Assaulted Fish, Lodestone, and more. Many of our OPM alumni and collaborators achieved their own Hollywood success, such as Janina Gavankar, Aaron Takahashi, Randall Park, Jae Suh Park, Nika King, Deborah Craig, Rodney To, Maurissa Tancharoen, just to name a few...
And it may sound a bit corny, but I like to think OPM truly opened people's minds. We were a rarity back then and may still be. The closest thing to us I ever saw on TV was In Living Color or MadTV. We were multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-everything. We wrote and cast all of our own material, so we had no barriers to our creativity, no studio telling us where the line was, and no one who could dismiss our vision or truth. And the truth was shown and proven in each of our runs, where our audiences, Asian and non-Asian alike, packed the house and roared back with approval. We were proving to ourselves and everyone who came, that APA-featured stories and performers can be funny and rock the house. It inspired me then and continues to do so now.
- Charles Kim
OPM Artistic Director, Producer, Writer, Actor
* * *
written by Tim Jo
As a kid growing up in Texas, the only time I ever saw another Asian person was on Sundays at church. Not at school, not in public. And of course, I never saw them on TV- I never expected to. Instead, I fell deep in love with cartoons. And most of all, those end credits. That’s when you saw the names of all the Asians who worked on the show. Sounds silly, but simply reading the names KIM, PARK, LEE, etc. let me feel seen, included, represented.
Fast forward a few years, there’s not a soul that doesn’t watch Saved By The Bell. It’s basically the Game of Thrones of the 90s. Somehow, I get wind that Zack Morris is Asian. TIME OUT. Tall, blonde, sharp nose, double-folded eyelids and this dude is Asian?? Turns out it’s true, MP is half Dutch and half Indonesian. I proudly carry this fact around with me for years, inserting it into every conversation appropriate and otherwise. It gave me so much pride to see the look in peoples eye’s when I told them the baddest MF on television was an Asian guy, just like me.
Fast forward a few decades, I’m on the set of PITCH with this giant brown-haired bear of a man. Sorta quiet, doesn’t smile, he’s IN IT. No hint of Preppie to be seen. I bend over to grab some sides and someone gives me a shove. I look up to see MP, slight grin behind the beard, pretending to look away. That’s when I see a glimmer of Zack Morris in his eyes, we’re brothers and together we’re proving that there can be two Asian male leads on network television. At least for one season.
- Tim Jo
* * *
written by Harrison Pak
Founded by Quincy Wong and Keith Uchima in Chicago, Stir-Friday Night! (SFN!) will next year celebrate 25 years of providing Asian American comedic talent a place to congregate and play. Let that sink in... 25 years. The MCU is only 11 years old!
I spent seven glorious years with SFN! and was lucky enough to serve as its Artistic Director from 2006 to 2011. In that time, I got to work and play with Danny Pudi, Mary Sohn, Sonal Shah, Neal Dandade, Rammel Chan, Sayjal Joshi, Christine Lin, Aaron Rice, Punam Patel, Steven Yeun, and countless others. (Yeah, that's right: I got to play with Abed from Community and Glenn from The Walking Dead!) SFN! gave me, and others like me, the opportunity to produce, write, act, and direct in a city that appreciates and validates your comic endeavors. Sure, Chicago has Second City, iO, and Annoyance, but after 24 years of service, SFN! deserves its spot among those hallowed institutions.
Robert Rodriguez says everyone has 500 bad movies in them and you have to get them out of you before you can do anything good. When opportunities are scarce in the comedic world, SFN! is that comedic oasis for you to bathe, drink, and possibly fail before you head out into the real world. SFN! is that safe space to do the "Ho" sketch (apologies to Mary Sohn for that one) and get it out of your system. And when you suspect your "Geisha Olympics" sketch isn't all gold, I can't think of a better group of performers to brave it with than this one. Christine Lin's sultry dirge "First Cousin" will remain with me forever... incest is so hip right now.
I am forever proud and grateful that I was a small piece of its history. I anxiously await to see what the future has in store for SFN!
- Harrison Pak
Former Artistic Director of Stir-Friday Night!
2006 to 2011
* * *
written by Keiko Agena
I met Suzy Nakamura at a 72 Hour Film event years ago. Sure, art is not about competition. But you can bet your sweet ass our film won the audience favorite award. Though the encounter was brief, I’ll never forget it. Suzy is a star and you know one when you see one. Is it her husky voice, her comic timing honed from years at The Second City, or the way she makes you feel comfortable and special at the same time? It’s all of it.
Suzy has been killing it for years on such shows as The West Wing, Veep, Dr. Ken, and Go On. But the biggest leap might just be the next gig on the horizon. HBO’s newest, sure to be comic gem, AVENUE 5 has just been picked up and is currently shooting in London. Suzy plays Iris Kimura and is in stellar company with heavy hitters, Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, and Jessica St. Claire to name a few.
Most recently I had the chance to work with Suzy on the classic play, “Sisters Matsumoto” for LA Theate Works. This important play, penned by Philip Gotanda, chronicles the life and challenges of the Matsumoto Family in the days after returning from the Internment Camps. Suzy has an uncanny ability to channel the perfect tone. Heartfelt. Honest. Funny. She is a gem to work with and modest to boot.
If my praise sounds effusive, it is! Because here is the real Jam. Sure, she is a talented actress and comedian, but more importantly, Suzy is just a damn great person. She doesn’t advertise it, but for years she was a long time volunteer of the non-profit, FOOD ON FOOT, helping homeless members to transition to full-time employment and life off the streets. Her efforts helped to transition this organization into a true powerhouse. You can contribute to them as they continue making a difference. www.foodonfoot.org
May is a month to stop and appreciate all of the contributions made by the Asian American community. Thank you for spending the time to celebrate one of my absolute favorites. Love you, Suzy!
- Keiko Agena
* * *