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, Always Be My Maybe, 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
SPECIAL HONOR to
written by Tamlyn Tomita
With the success of all The Karate Kid movies and the current popularity of the Cobra Kai series, what could I tell people about Noriyuki "Pat" Morita that they don't know already?
Ralph Macchio said at his funeral, "Forever, my Sensei."
What could I possibly add to that succinct statement?
I have the honor, pleasure, and responsibility in writing about respecting our elder, Pat Morita, and delving up the personal treasure I got to know as "Uncle Potsie". It is next to the last day of APAHM and I'm still procrastinating. I fear that what I write won't be complete, won't be funny, and won't be nearly as polished as I want it to be. This is the 1st time I've been asked to publicly write something about this giant of a man/entertainer/actor. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love that we are still riding this golden (Yo. Yellow and brown equals gold.) wave of Asian August through Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2019 and that we are doing this all together, TELLING OUR STORIES. Aligning ourselves, arms around each other, retweeting, forwarding, celebrating all the faces that look like ours in growing numbers in the audiences, on the internets, on the big and little screens. Doing it with other actors, writers, directors, and producers who look like us.
Imagine a short, balding, funny, Japanese-American cat going at it in 50's/60's/70's, mostly alone.
As a young boy in Northern California, Pat was literally imprisoned in a full body cast because of a spinal illness. He observed life from hospital beds and learned how to talk well. Talk story. He was always proud of his skill in knowing how to talk. He would entertain the other patients, doctors, nurses and mimic them, and the Irish priest who would come to check up on him, and who blessed upon him the name "Pat". He spent his entire childhood, almost 10 years, in the hospital. Finally getting well enough and learning how to walk again, he was reunited with his family at Tule Lake, one of America's 10 concentration camps for Japanese-Americans; World War 2 had broken out while Pat was in the hospital. He would say, "I went from being an invalid kid to Public Enemy #1". I remember him asking where my families were interned, (that's a thing in Japanese-American family conversation: "Which camp did you/your family go to?") and I answered him that my father's families were at Manzanar and Heart Mountain. Pat told me a story, as a kid in camp, he and his friends would trap seagulls and paint red circles underneath their wings and bait them to fly by the soldiers who were armed at the guard towers surrounding them. Flying Japanese Zero airplane attack! "Banzai!" And his laughter, full of irony, (and expletives) in telling it. I know that when Pat came to know my dad, that they would share other stories of what it was like being a kid in their respective camps - my dad and his brothers, all young boys, wriggled under the barb-wired fence and would go fishing. Fun boyhood memories, but camp impressions run deep.
When I was cast in the role of "Kumiko" for "The Karate Kid 2", I didn't have a clue as to what I was getting into. Really. Not one clue. I wasn't an actor, I wasn't planning on becoming one, and I certainly didn't study acting or any performing arts. I first met Pat at an Okinawan Kenjinkai Picnic in LA before we were all to start shooting for "KK2". My dad was a Nisei, a 2nd gen Japanese-American born and raised in LA, my mom is half-Okinawan, half-Filipina and they had heard that "Mr. Miyagi" would be coming to the Okinawan picnic, the specific prefecture where "The Karate Kid 2" would take place and that we should all go up and meet Pat Morita! Growing up in the 70's/80's, we had all watched him on various episodes of "Love, American Style", "M.A.S.H.", "Sanford & Son", "Mr. T and Tina", "Happy Days", and of course, "The Karate Kid". But in being introduced to him, I was sooooooo fuuuu-reaking nervous, I don't remember a word I said. I really don't remember a thing except staring at him and seeing this cool "Hip Nip" who was self-deprecating, observant and gracious enough to all those who just wanted to shake his hand, take a picture, and, maybe if you were lucky enough, listen to a story of his. If you were brave enough to tell a joke or be funny with him, you'd get his honest response, like it or not. I do remember that he was pleased to learn that I was to play "Kumiko", but he wasn't overly gushing or enthusiastic, it was much more of a professional or peer-like acknowledgement, and I'm thinking, I am so not worthy! This is so weird! Does he not know that I know nothing? Pat was treating me as though I was a younger equal; what was I getting myself into? He was delighted to learn that my family on my mother's side was from Okinawa and suggested that I should start practicing speaking English like my mom since she was the real deal. Practice using an accent so it would become natural and unaffected: practice it to yourself out loud driving around in the car, practice it with strangers and see if you can get away with it, practice it with your relatives who are your toughest, meanest, and most honest audience and see if you can really get away with it. Practice, practice, practice.
I would first witness how Pat worked when they were filming the beginning scenes of "KK2", at Cal State Northridge, the reprise of the end of "The Karate Kid" and its aftermath. How he would make Ralph, the entire team of Cobra Kai, and the rest of the cast and crew laugh, serving as a kind of comic/entertainer who loved to make everyone laugh between takes (there was so much time between takes!) and he had a captive audience. How he was able to shift effortlessly between guffawing about something ridiculously stupid and/or silly to the quiet, deliberate, heartfelt and, sometimes, serious intent of a scene; how he was able to make absolutely clear that Mr. Miyagi could deliver that death blow to Kreese's face in the parking lot, and then, squeeze his nose with that 'honk'! He took full command of that scene and I knew I was watching someone at the top of his game.
In shooting "KK2" in Hawaii, I have the fond memory of Pat taking me aside early on and saying, "Tami-chan, all you gotta know what to do in this business is: know your lines, get in your light, and hit your mark." I had no idea what a mark was and I asked him. He laughed and stepped up to show me the little T-shaped piece of tape or bean bag that served to show the actor where to stand in order for the camera to see you and be in correct focus. He said, "Make sure you hit your mark so that camera sees you or else all they're gonna see is my dumb face and then we're all going to be in trouble!" I think you can see me trying to be a natural as possible in hitting my mark when Sato (Danny Kamekona) makes amends with Mr. Miyagi. I was working, I was acting alongside Pat Morita! And he would constantly check-in, help, support, rehearse and role-play with me, sometimes speaking as Miyagi-san in accented English, and getting into the habit of being in character before entering and filming a scene. Everything I know I owe to this man who gave me the beginning tools of behaving on sets, character-building and the art of acting.
Now mentioning Danny Kamekona, I knew that he, Pat, and the loveliest of lovelies, Nobu McCarthy, were having the greatest of times shooting "KK2" together. These 3 acting veterans were together in a major Hollywood studio movie in how many years? "Flower Drum Song"? After filming for the day, they would often be out, out all night, out every night, outlasting Ralph, the Okinawan 'bad boys", Yuji Okumoto, Joey Miyashima and Marc Hayashi, outdoing all the other outlier partiers. Here they were, trading stories of doing what they did, who they did it with, and all they went through with all the fucked-up stereotypical shit they were asked/hired to do all because they loved working, they loved acting, they loved entertaining. They did what they had to do hoping that it would get better, knowing that it had to get better and that it was getting better: we were all together doing "The Karate Kid TWO!" They KNEW there were new Asian American actors coming up, there would be writers who could write their stories, there would be directors, editors, producers who could put those stories into the spotlight and that it would only take time, slowly, but surely. They knew this opportunity was special, incredible, and, most likely, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them to work together. And with us younger “kids”! And there was a lot they would teach us! But can you imagine all the stories and shit they were talking about when they were alone, without us “kids”, carousing at all hours trying to live out every single second they had together? These 3 veterans trading war stories of a Hollywood that was just starting to see Asian Americans as fully realized people. Pat would introduce the cast to the comedians/entertainers who were playing in Honolulu at the time we were shooting and regale the audiences by sometimes, playing patsy in their comedy routines or going head-to-head. He had developed the "Hip Nip" persona in his early days, as an emcee and nightclub entertainer extraordinaire, writing all his own material and learning how to win over a crowd and working whatever room he happened to be working in. He was sharp, cool, and a well-honed entertainer, and nothing like the Mr. Miyagi the world knew and loved. If I remember correctly, his Nor Cal Japanese-American family worked a Chinese restaurant in a black neighborhood where all kinds of folks who felt they were outsiders could gather and feel welcome. He didn't remember too much about the food, but that he could make people laugh. While we were in Hawaii, he always seemed to feel a little bit more at home as people of all 'kine' ethnicities make fun of themselves and each other, and equal opportunity good 'kine' fun was rule #1.
The "Hip Nip" was a moniker, in my newly forming activist mind that I had issues with, and I asked him, why? He simply answered, because it was funny. It was funny in the days he came up in, but he knew times were changing. It was a nickname he was given along the way, by the comics/musicians of mainstream nightclubs and if it allowed people to laugh at him and open themselves to him, then, he won. He was in. He had you. I don't have stories of him talking of gigging the famous "ChopSuey" circuits of San Francisco in the 50's/60's nor much of the early days of East West Players in Los Angeles as he making his way in Hollywood. But I know he was always working. There was an occasion where he and I had to do an event together and we walked into the venue. He instructed the sound crew as to how to situate the speakers and the mics so that he would be heard in the best manner possible, and he told me that Redd Foxx had taught him how. He absolutely loved and treasured Redd, said that Redd taught him everything he knew, and that he owed Redd Foxx everything that he is. And he would imitate Redd! On those occasions where Pat and I would be 'eventing' together, he would go out to suss out the folks in the room, sometimes engage with them and then backstage, calibrate his routine to fit that audience. He truly embodied the idea that you have to know who you're playing to and what you're out there to do; I'm just here to entertain and make people laugh 'cause that's all I know how to do!
Pat Morita loved to laugh and make other people laugh, with that big belly laugh, but sometimes, I could feel, often at his own expense. He loved to make people happy. But he was also one of the smoothest and cool cats ever: with a swagger one can only develop working nightclubs and joints where he had to combat bias and prejudice not by his hands, but his jokes. He made it all right for people to know it was okay to laugh at him, laugh with him, laugh because of him and his jokes, and laugh in knowing him. But I always had a sense of the cost - were people actually able to see him as I got to?
I mentioned earlier that we all watched Pat Morita in his early forays in film and TV; but one that stuck out for me was the TV movie, "Farewell to Manzanar", a TV film that is now required viewing/reading material for California high school students to learn about the injustices of the internment camps wrought upon American citizens of Japanese descent during WW2. It starred Nobu McCarthy, who then went on to play Mr. Miyagi's love interest and my aunt Yukie in "The Karate Kid 2". How easy it was to watch these 2 screen veterans make their love scenes so heartbreakingly loving, sweet and real. I got to watch them shoot their love/tea scene as I was learning as I was going along shooting "KK2" and learned the lesson of what it was to simply relax with your fellow actor. To simply look into each other's eyes and connect. Isn't that what actors are supposed to do? To let the waves of nervousness, laughter, hesitancy, intention, and whatever else flow through you in order to get to the words you are scripted to say? You could breathe through their shared histories as their characters, and as actors, with all the fun, and yes, awkwardness (Who knew I would ever shoot a love scene?! Pat would playfully cry) and I tried to carry through that kind of connectedness into the tea scene between Daniel-san and Kumiko. It's all set-up by the elder Pat/Nobu and their character histories as Miyagi-san/Yukie. The transmuting of young love.
Knowing that Pat was nominated for the 1985 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Karate Kid, the show business industry knew that Pat was much more than a comedic actor. Jerry Weintraub, the producer for "The Karate Kid" (and many more, google him) absolutely did not want a comedic actor for Mr. Miyagi, he wanted a real actor. Toshiro Mifune was seriously considered for Miyagi-san, but his skill in English was questionable at the time. John Avildsen, the director would have none of it and slyly slipped in a tape of Pat auditioning for Miyagi-san and Jerry said, “Who's that? That's Miyagi!” Pat went on to brilliantly portray Miyagi-san in the drunken scene where he commemorates the passing of his wife and son in internment camp and John Avildsen pushed for that scene to stay in the film as studio heads said that that scene was unnecessary. John has said that was the heart of Miyagi and much of the heart of the film. What I am leading to is that when shooting the scene where Daniel-san goes to console Miyagi-san over the death of his father, overlooking the sunset and the bonsai tree, when they finished filming that scene, all of us who witnessed it thought that scene would secure Pat another Academy Award nomination for 1986. Pat was able to go deep, deep, into all the feelings he knew so well spending so much time alone as a child, as an outsider. And it is just sad that his dramatic acting work was just starting at this later time in his life, but what material was out there for him?
Pat admired and loved my parents, Shiro, and Asako. My mom because she is so darn cute, and because she would laugh at everything Pat would do or say. During "KK2", he'd sometimes ask my mom if there was anything specifically Okinawan he could do or say. My memories of Pat and my dad mean a lot to me as Pat had a special admiration for my father. My dad had co-founded LAPD's Asian Task Force, a task force of 8 bilingual Asian American officers, and the 1st in the nation in 1975. I cannot confirm where the idea for Pat's police detective series, "Ohara" came from, but I do know that Pat held the Asian Task Force in high regard. Pat wouldn't exactly joke around with my father, probably because he was my father, and even though Pat was a few years older than my dad, Pat would kind of treat him like an older role model. I like to think that because of Asian American folks who Pat would learn from and share stories with, Pat was always pushing towards more positive, more authentic, and more well-rounded portraits of Asian Americans and always encouraging the “young ones” to “Keep writing, man! There's so many stories to tell!"
Pat was there for me during two of the most devastating points in my life: the first, being the passing of my father in 1989. Pat and I happened to be working together on "Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes", a TV movie where Pat played my father-in-law, who dies due to the devastating effects of the atomic bomb attack on that city. My father was in his last days of suffering through acute myelogenous leukemia, and he died during the very last days of filming. I was in a sustained state of shock during those days, bracing to hear the inevitable news, but we were still filming, and I had a job to complete. I threw myself into the work, just like my parents would want me to. But I really couldn't get my focus together for one scene. It was a scene where my character needed to mourn for my father-in-law, Pat. I was trying so hard to cry for the scene, while at the same time, I was trying not to cry in real life. Pat saw I was in need. At a break in filming, he took me aside and told me simply not to try so hard. Just be yourself. You're already really going through what the scene needs, in real life. Don't worry if you're not crying, because you not trying to cry makes the audience cry for you. I don't think I remember that movie, I don't even remember seeing it, but I will always remember Pat for pulling me aside and literally leading me through a most dark time. Since then, he more fully stepped in the role of my show business father, teaching me everything I know, and would often check in with me and not just asking about what I was working on. It was family kind talk. He would tell me how his beautiful daughters, Aly and Tia, were doing and that he wished he could have been a better father as he knew how very close I was to mine. He'd pick up the phone and call and say, "Heh, heh, heh. Tami-chan. Tami-chan, it's Uncle Potsie!...heh heh heh...." and often trail into funny observations and/or memories. And he would always ask about my mother, because he sensed how lonely she must have felt as his own father had passed away early on as well, leaving his mother alone. He was so good to me and my family. The second time Pat served as my consoling spirit and guiding counsel was when Nobu McCarthy passed away in 2002. Nobu and I were filming "Gaijin 2-Ama-me Como Sou" in Brazil, playing mother and daughter. Pat was the first person I called. There was no one else I could think of who could fathom what I was going through. I remember the calmness in his voice, the steadiness, his resoluteness in making sure that I would be able to continue on, because I told him that I could not. Nobu was the connection between Pat and I, and I felt the overwhelming responsibility in letting him know what had happened, and I felt so alone, working in a foreign country with no other Americans besides Nobu. Pat took me all in over the phone and as he spoke, he came from such a place of knowing what it was like to feel totally alone, of understanding, of experience, and with the belief I could carry on and that I simply had to. He used the word, "gaman" which means to endure all things, to persevere, even when it feels impossible. It's a Japanese word, and in our shared background as Japanese-Americans, there's a little something more to its meaning. It's a deep sense of knowing that there are generations that will follow after us and that we have to think of those who will follow in our footsteps, no matter how alone we may feel in times of loneliness and despair. And he also made it a point to laugh myself out of it. He then shared a personal greeting/exchange that he shared with Nobu, and he said that he would share it now with me. It's a Japanese word that they would use that's really not funny and really doesn't even make sense; it's just the way he and Nobu, and now I, would get to use it, always with a laugh in his eyes. And with that gift in finding the laughter, he showed me that laughing could launch you and others out of those holes of sadness. Makes it all a bit more manageable. It was okay to hole up for a while, but you have got to get yourself out of there, he would say to me, and he would help me up...and out...I could always count on him for that.
The last time I got to work with Pat was on an independent film, I believe one of his last, "Only the Brave", written and directed by Lane Nishikawa, about the 100th/442nd Japanese-American Regimental Combat Team and Pat was starring alongside Jason Scott Lee, Mark Dacascos, Ken Choi, Yuji Okumoto, Greg Watanabe, Emily Liu, and Ken Narasaki amongst other Asian American actors. He was asked to play in one scene, a dream sequence where he tells his soldier son to carry on in battle. I remember the meticulousness and specificity of the actions that he wanted to carve out and use along with the scripted words. A little, short, small scene that was made pivotal because of the thoughtfulness and fullness that Pat imbued his character with and the message that he wanted to pass along to his son. Specifically, it was a gesture of how his son should carry on with his head and his heart. The head action would be simply to tap his head at his temple, but the action with which to indicate his heart was more specific, not exactly at where the heart pumps, but to also show that bravery comes someplace between the heart and the throat because that is where sometimes you need to stop and catch your breath and your courage before you carry on. It's such a beautiful scene and we all knew somehow that this was a special moment to watch being filmed, a master still at the top of his game, but nearing his end. During the shoot he talked excitedly of doing a revival of "The Odd Couple" with Sherman Hemsley of "The Jeffersons" and that it was looking like it was a go! Can you imagine who Pat would have played? The fastidious Felix or obnoxious Oscar? I know, but, I'll let your mind race. He never stopped working! I know he was still doing a bunch of voice work that allowed him to exercise his Mel Blanc-like closet full of character voices and that he was working Las Vegas showrooms because he still loved it. We got to work with Pat this last time because he loved, absolutely loved, truly loved working, didn't stop, couldn't stop, wouldn't stop. He absolutely loved it! He would proclaim that he was semi-retired, because he was slowing down, but he loved working, he needed to, he had to, there was so much other shit to do, to learn, to share, to tell, to joke about, to laugh about. "Keep them laughing. Keep running." he would say. Leave them wanting more.
And that's what Noriyuki "Pat" Morita did.
- Tamlyn Tomita
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written by Saagar Shaikh
I remember being at a friends house with a bunch of fellow brownies and someone put on some comedy special. I was like, “Yo who is this brown guy with a white name and what is he trying to do? Brown people don’t do comedy like in REAL life, we’re only supposed make jokes around our friends!” and then my brain exploded. But five minutes into this legendary comedy special, I was hooked. I went home and watched the rest of it with my family and it was the first time my dad and I were sitting in the same room and we heard an Indian guy drop the F bomb on TV. It was a weird, confusing moment and nobody knew how to react to that, but the important thing was, we all felt this unusual sense of relatability to our TV for the first time.
Russell Peters is an OG in the comedy game. This dude started in 1989 and didn’t get any real recognition till about 2006 when he blessed this world with a loud brown voice and introduced his comedy special “Outsourced.” Jokes and punchlines from “Outsourced” have been referenced every single day by people all over the world since the day it came out. You can literally walk up to any brown person you see and say “Sum-bady gonna getta hurt real bad” and they will definitely respond with “I won’t say who. But you know him”. He is the only comedian i’ve ever heard of that can offend a minority group by NOT having a joke about them in his set.
He has had several TV and Film appearances but hasn’t found much success in it. In his words’ “I don't need Hollywood. With or without them, I'll be fine. But I'll admit it would be nice to have them on board.” I would love to see the industry showing him more support. He has definitely paved a way for a ton of comedians that look like me. He opened the door and left if open for so many other South Asian comedians to follow his lead.
- Saagar Shaikh
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written by Phil Yu
When you first encounter vintage video of Johnny Yune performing standup on The Tonight Show, it's a little mind-blowing. The curtain opens for a smiling Asian man, looking sharp in a wide tie three-piece suit and holding one of those skinny 1970s TV mics. Speaking with a hint of an accent he's clearly made some effort to thin out, his jokes are corny and measured. But he's funny. And he kills. He's like your Korean dad, if your Korean dad was invited to tell jokes on one of the greatest TV comedy stages of all time.
In the history of Asian Americans in comedy, we have our breakthroughs and icons, but Johnny Yune is a pioneer. Born in South Korea, he came to the U.S. in 1962 to study at Ohio Wesleyan University. Somewhere along the way, he tried his hand at standup, got discovered at a Santa Monica comedy club, and was booked on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he was welcomed back over 30 times during the 1970s and 80s -- among the most appearances made by any comedian on the legendary late night institution, and a first for an Asian American.
At the height of his unlikely crossover stardom, Yune wrote and starred in the feature film They Call Me Bruce?, a broad comedy about a hapless Asian cook who finds his life hopelessly complicated by people continually confusing him with, yes, Bruce Lee. The movie was a modest hit that actually a begat a sequel, They Still Call Me Bruce. Looking back, the film's humor -- largely based on Yune's standup act -- hasn't aged particularly well. And as subsequent opportunities in the industry dried up for Yune, his impact seems to have dulled and faded into relative obscurity. Still, he was an Asian American comedian starring in his own Hollywood movie. In the year of our Lord, 1982. It feels like a minor miracle.
Today, as we celebrate glacier-paced changes in Hollywood diversity and long-overdue opportunities for Asian American leads in feature films, let us recognize Johnny Yune's trailblazing moment in the spotlight.
- Phil Yu
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written by James Chen
He is a creative force, and heavy-weight multi-hyphenate: Drumming, stand up, impressions, sketch, SNL, Portlandia, TV, movies = actor-comedian-musician-writer-producer-Latinx-Asian-American! I’m talking Fred Armisen, and I’m happy we can claim him. His dad is half-Korean (born in Germany to a Korean-German father) and his mother is Venezuelan. But he was born in Mississippi and grew up in Long Island (knew there was a deeper connection between us!)
I’ve always loved Fred’s work because he’s so good at accents, impressions and characters. The man has X-ray vision for human behavior and what’s funny. Watching him craft 5-seasons-worth of characters inspired by all the bookstore, music, civilized hippie granola culture of Portland is when I really was hit by how good he is. He’s all about taking a deeper dive. I’m thrilled if I can nail a good Texan accent (and will be shocked to actually use it someday), but do yourself a favor and Youtube Fred showing off all the Texan variations from Dallas to Houston to Austin to Corpus Cristi.
While he does great work with broader characters such as Stuart from The Californians sketch (“ooWuhdUhrYoodooingHeehreh?!”), I’ve always enjoyed Fred’s mastery of the casual & deadpan. When not performing, his energy is pretty soft-spoken and a bit nerdy, so when these eccentric characters are unleashed I always feel like he gets me with a sneak attack laugh instead of being bludgeoned with loud punchlines.
So it came as no surprise that someone with such a good ear was also a talented musician — Fred’s a really talented drummer who’ll band lead Seth Meyer’s Late Night from time to time. Also his latest stand up album is all drumming themed, so he’s up there with a drum set jumping back and forth doing impressions, jokes, drumming, and telling jokes & doing impressions about drumming & drummers while drumming. He made sure to fill the house with actual drummers for effect.
I’ve always loved how Fred combines his skills and interests into whatever he makes. His sketches and characters often center around musicians, playing music, or characters & situations from the music world. And as a lover of impressions, I think it’s something we don’t see too often in Asian-American comedians... someone who can do so many varied impressions from all over the world so well. Having such a talented, and prolific character-based comedian and storyteller like Fred Armisen really shows that you can and should go ahead and make whatever the hell your curious, excited, creative, childlike spirit desires!
- James Chen
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written by Andrew Lopez
As a young comic and storyteller starting out, you tend to emulate the people or stories you consumed growing up. I remember my first stand up jokes were about toasters and napkins. They were ripped off the stylings of a comic I loved back then.
Funny thing is... my family is Filipino AF. We straight up didn't have a toaster in my house and I've never seen my mom, dad or my brothers use a napkin. Ever. We eat with our damn hands!!! My first screenplay was a rip off of 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. It was full of this whimsical manic pixie dream girl stuff. I don't know what I was thinking. That's not my story. If I would have taken a girl like that home, my mom would have told me straight to my face "YO, she doesn't like you. You're not blind are you?!?!"
Looking at myself back then, I was going through an identity crisis. I grew up in a sleepy midwestern town in the middle of Iowa. I was surrounded by white people. I think subconsciously, I wanted their approval and I put some sort of value of that in trying to relate to them.
I was 17 years old at Iowa State University when I first saw Jo Koy. I was sitting in a room with my new floor mates (three white dudes and two black dudes) and we were SCREAM LAUGHING at his stand up. My friend Trez was snorting on his UV Blue Vodka. I'll never forget the feeling I had when I looked around the room and saw a diverse group of people living in complete connection. My heart felt so full watching them laugh at a comedian that was saying my truth for the masses.
Jo's stand up not only changed the way I looked at comedy, but it changed the way I looked at inclusion. Jo's stories were decidedly personal and also Filipino. Yet they were absolutely emotionally universal. To add to the punch he was gut wrenchingly funny with his truth.
I truly believe he's the perfect example for what people want in the content they consume; deeply emotional stories used for explosive entertainment. Can we just start a campaign for Jo to be ONE PUNCH MAN in the live action movie already?
Eleven years later, I'm opening for Jo on the road. I get to see first hand what he's done for Filipinos around the world. He gave us a voice and a platform to not be scared of our stories and our truth. Jo sells out theaters and arenas EVERYWHERE and they're full of audiences that look like a college brochure. Nothing makes me happier than when you go to a Jo Koy show and see you every ethnicity represented in the crowd. I've heard white people, Asians of all kinds, African Americans, Persians, Hispanics, damn near every single ethnicity come to up to Jo and say "Everything you say on that stage, is exactly like my life."
In a world that feels exceedingly pessimistic, we need more people like Jo telling stories. He's not afraid of what you think of him and his life because he knows you are going through the same thing. Nothing has ever stopped Jo. I've seen the odds stacked against him and he still comes out on top. I've heard people tell him he's not good enough to his face, only for him to turn around and prove to them that he is. He does this all with grace and kindness. Jo is a family man full of ambition and drive. That's all I can ask for from someone I will look up to forever.
Go to one of his shows. He’ll show you what I'm talking about. And you'll love every second of it.
- Andrew Lopez
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written by Lenny Shelton
It was 1990. I was lucky enough to grow up in Queens, New York City. The most ethnically diverse place in the world. I grew up in a large POC community with other children of immigrants. We were proud of our heritage and just as American as the "American" kids on TV.
There were rarely Asians on TV. Oh, there were the occasional stereotypical roles: the nerd, the sidekick, the accented immigrant. All comedic fodder for the white "American" protagonist. There was some representation for my African-American heritage. "The Cosby Show" was the #1 TV show. But little for my Asian-American heritage. Especially, not my Korean-American heritage. The only Korean people I ever saw on TV were on reruns of "M*A*S*H*". I had never seen a Korean person on TV outside of the context of the Korean War. But where were WE on TV? Where was the cool Korean boy who the girls liked? Where was the athletic Chinese kid who loved playing basketball? Where was the stylish Indian girl who the boys liked? Where was the tough Filipino girl who twisted the arms of the boys who harassed her? Where were the people from my neighborhood?
In 1990, there was a glut of stand-up comedy TV shows and I watched them all. I wanted to be a comedian when I grew up. One night, I'm watching TV and an Asian man wearing cowboy boots struts out onto the stage. I braced myself for the stereotypes I had seen other Asian comedians portray to appeal to the audience. With a heavy Tennessee drawl, the man says:
"Howdy! I'm Henry Cho. How y'all doin'?...
I know what y'all are thinkin'. What the hell is that voice doin' comin' out of that face?"
The crowd explodes with laughter. He continues his barrage of well-written jokes delivered with flawless timing. I was immediately mesmerized. A Korean comedian on TV! A Korean-AMERICAN! With his bowlegged cowboy stance, Henry Cho commanded the stage with a confidence that I had never seen Asian person portray on American TV. He flipped the stereotypes of Asian people around on the audience. He was not gonna play the nerd. Not with that accent. He was not here to be the sidekick. Not with that swagger. He was here to be the star. He talked about his childhood, his heritage, and his busy dating life. He refused to diminish himself for acceptance. He was his own person. Except for his Southern accent, he was just like the people in my neighborhood. Finally, someone like us on TV!
Henry Cho is probably the most successful comedian you've never heard of. He has remained firm in his dedication to never portray negative stereotypes of Asians. He's had many sitcom deals and film offers but he walked away because the roles were stereotypical. He has turned down numerous roles that could have propelled him into mainstream success. But he was not willing to pay the cost that so many Asian-American actors had to pay to survive in the business. Hollywood doesn't know what to do with a Korean guy with a Southern accent. As a kid obsessed with stand-up comedy, Henry Cho was a revelation. He continued to pop up on TV throughout my life with his welcoming drawl and sharp wit intact. I became a stand-up comedian when I grew up partly due to his influence. 30 years later, he continues to be an inspiration to me and I hope to thank him for that someday.
- Lenny Shelton
* * *
Follow Henry Cho
Follow Lenny Shelton
written by Will Choi
Ken Jeong was the first “celebrity” I ever met, and the brief interaction we had influenced me in ways he could never have known.
Back in 2011, I was a 24-year-old kid who had no real ambition in life, trying to figure out what my next step would be. One thing I did love my entire life was TV, and a show that I had an unhealthy obsession with was Community. There are few shows that I can really say changed (chang-ed) my life, and Community was one of them. A group of Spanish class misfits going on crazy adventures deeply spoke to me, as I had a similar experience with my Spanish study group back in high school. And who shows up as the main antagonist for the Greendale 7? The man who can never die - Señor Chang, otherwise known as the incredible Ken Jeong.
I’m sure by now, we’ve all heard the famous story of the doctor who became one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. But in case you haven’t, here’s the lowdown: Ken started off his professional career as a doctor for Kaiser Permanente. He started doing stand-up comedy, and eventually gained the attention of Judd Apatow, which led him to star in his breakout role in Knocked Up as - you guessed it - a comedic doctor. Then came the massive hit The Hangover. This skyrocketed him to fame so quickly that it seemed like he became one of the most sought after actors and it’s never stopped since then. Say what you will about the character of Leslie Chow and its impact on Asian American representation; but for me, as an immature 21-year-old kid, I couldn't wait for that type of movie – ridiculous, raunchy, so-dumb-yet-so-good – to come out.
And then, the world knew who Ken Jeong was.
It’s back to 2011. My friend Howie is the writer’s assistant for Community and invites me to come visit the set. All my dreams are literally coming true at this moment – I’m going on set for my favorite show! Keep in mind, this was years before me pursuing anything in the entertainment industry was even on the table. I’ve only had images in my mind of what that would look like, based on TV & movies. So I’m there, and it’s exactly how you’d imagine it – except, a lot… slower… Like, really slow. Like, I think we were watching them shoot for 6 hours and they maybe did two scenes. But still! It was so exciting to be there! There’s Joel McHale! And Yvette Nicole Brown! And, guys, I never get starstruck, but, yeah. I was internally freaking out. There he was. El Tigre Chino himself. Ken Jeong.
Ken is a comedic force, and I loved his portrayal of Señor Chang. He was the goofy Asian American actor at a time when there weren’t too many on TV. I knew if I ever went into acting, I could never be Daniel Dae Kim’s character in LOST, or John Cho’s character in FlashForward, but all of Ken’s characters seemed to be in the realm of possibility for me at that time. Loud, unapologetic, truly insane, but absolutely hilarious – I loved it all.
So I see Ken in his season 3 security guard outfit, goofing around with his castmates and talking to the crew. I’m standing by video village, further away from the commotion from the cast members waiting to shoot their scenes. And as I happen to look back over to the group, I see Ken Jeong walking toward video village, and I’m assuming he’s coming to talk to the director or whoever. But nope, he goes straight up to me and says, “Hi, I’m Ken. Nice to meet you!” Taken aback, I nervously respond, “Oh, I-I-I I know who you are!” and then I immediately wanted to die. But that brief moment made a huge impact on me. This “celebrity” came up to me and introduced himself? I thought that was crazy. But I got to experience first hand how open and down to earth he was to me, a complete stranger. I made a mental note to myself that that’s exactly how I’d want to be if I were to ever be in a position like his.
Flash forward to 2018, and I run into Ken Jeong at the East West Players Gala. The same nerves hit me again, but this time, I go up to him and introduce myself. I tell him how much of a fan I am of his work and he graciously accepts my compliments. As our conversation proceeds, I’m thinking OK cool he’s keeping this going, so I mention me meeting him before on the set of Community and he locks in. What I thought would be a hello-I’m-a-big-fan-goodbye situation turns into a full blown half hour conversation during this hectic event, telling him about all the cool things we’re doing with Asian AF. He is stoked to hear about all our success, and says he would support anything that we’d do in any way he can. This is when I learned that he is a man of his word. Within a month of meeting Ken, he generously agreed to show up as our secret special guest at a big Asian AF event we did in New York City last year. The thing is, Ken had his own stand-up show maybe about an hour after ours, but he still made the time and effort to come out, participate in the acts, and even stayed to watch the entire show. And if anyone in NYC was able to catch that one, you know how amazingly hilarious that show was.
When I approached Ken to see if I could put together a stand-up comedy show for the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians featuring Ken, Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O Yang, and Nico Santos, he was immediately on board. He helped by putting me in contact with all the right people, listened when I was stressed out planning the show, and supported me throughout the entire process. The Crazy Rich Asian AF show was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life. We basically broke Eventbrite: tickets sold out in less than like 3 minutes or something. The event itself was wild, with crazy lines, security guards, huge black cars dropping off legit superstars – like Jon M. Chu, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Kevin Kwan, and almost all the other cast members of CRA – all at the UCB Inner Sanctum Cafe & Stage. We were all there celebrating this monumental movie, but also simply celebrating being Asian American. And there I was, in the middle of it all for that evening. It felt like I was hosting this big Hollywood event in front of so many of my comedic heroes. I was so proud that Asian AF got to play a small part in the movie’s journey. And if anyone was lucky enough to catch that one, you know how amazingly hilarious that show was.
If you ask anybody, “Who is one of the kindest, generous, hard-working, and genuine human beings in Hollywood?” – Ken Jeong is on everyone’s list. And my stories are only the tip of the iceberg. He fights hard behind the scenes to further Asian American representation, especially with his own show Dr. Ken. For two seasons, America saw so many Asian American actors get the opportunity to be in a network show with an Asian American family. He helps produce Asian American projects, like Ktown Cowboys, Seoul Searching, and Advantageous (where he also plays a dramatic role in the movie. More serious Ken Jeong roles please). And before The Hangover, his wife was going through Stage 3 breast cancer. He took the role on through his wife Tran’s encouragement, and used Chow as a way to make her laugh during that hard time. He recounts this process in his stand-up special & romantic tribute to his wife, You Complete Me, Ho. He even saves lives at his own comedy shows. He is a doctor after all.
So this is why I hold so much respect for Ken Jeong. The success I’ve achieved so far is direct proof of how impactful Ken’s open heart and generous spirit is. It finally hit me - Ken does not stop working, so he can in turn support the up & comers, the next generation. The people like me, who are trying to make a change in Hollywood representation of Asian Americans. The man not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk. I know first-hand what a class act Ken is.
So don’t question Ken Jeong, or you’ll get bit. YA BIT.
- Will Choi
* * *
Harold & Kumar
(John Cho & Kal Penn)
written by Will Yu and Jeff Yang
Two dudes get high and go on a quest to satisfy their munchies. On the way, they run into a gang of extreme sports douches, Asian nerds, racist cops, a Freakshow, and an escaped Cheetah. Neil Patrick Harris is also present. These details make up the film that is Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. The film, and its two sequels, would go on to rake in over $100M in the box office and cement itself as a bonafide cult classic.
When I first watched these films, I don’t think it even registered that I was watching a film with two Asian American leads. It wasn’t until a couple of friends of mine in high school - also Asian American - made a Harold & Kumar parody video did I realize the effect that representation could truly have people who looked like me. That seeing someone who looked like me on-screen could offer possibility and range for the type of person I wanted to be. Years later, I’m forever grateful for this realization.
Before I launched #StarringJohnCho, I looked to the Harold & Kumar franchise as an almost case-in-point example of why Asian American leads work in Hollywood. You had a clear-cut example of a money-making property that subtly explored cultural nuances, garnered a massive cult following, and launched thousands of thirst tweets for its two leads, John Cho and Kal Penn. 15 years after the first film debuted, we seem to be on the precipice of the future that this film envisioned. As we now know, the universe tends to unfold as it should.
Thank you Harold and Kumar for showing us that as long as we’re high, we’ll be just fine, because we’ll never be low.
- Will Yu
* * *
One of the most important movies in Asian American comedy history — in Asian American pop culture history, in fact — is also one that isn't technically an Asian American movie at all. I'm talking about HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE (2004), a slacker-buddy flick about two dudes with lady problems and the munchies; essentially, every movie you ever saw starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, except this film starred John Cho and Kal Penn, breaking the "One Asian Lead at a Time" rule to majestic and hilarious effect. The film and its sequels — it was successful enough to have sequels! It was a franchise! — essentially launched Cho and Penn's careers. Cho would go on to become Asian America's go-to leading man; Penn would go on to the White House, not to mention ensemble lead roles in a bunch of dramas (and he's now squarely the marquee name in NBC's forthcoming sitcom SUNNYSIDE, which breaks the "One Asian Lead at a Time" rule EVEN MORE by bringing Kiran Deol, Poppy Liu and Joel Kim Booster along for the ride). But HAROLD & KUMAR didn't just establish the careers of two of Asian America's most resilient and beloved performers. It also shattered an array of stereotypes, especially the model minority myth, and proved that audiences wouldn't run screaming from a film that stars a pair of Asian guys. All three films in the series made bank in theaters, and even more on home video. Which begs the question: Now that weed is basically legal across America, when the hell are we going to see a fourth film in the trilogy?
- Jeff Yang
* * *
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
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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
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& 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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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