The Golden Age of Asian-American Comedy

Asians dominate the funny

Society has long regarded Asian Americans as academic stars and entrepreneurial successes, but we’ve more often been the butt of the joke than the joke-tellers. But now, led by Ali Wong, Ken Jeong, and Kumail Nanjiani, among others, Asian Americans are hilarious on screen and stage as never before. Despite great grades and perfect test scores, they also can be the smart aleck and class clown, demonstrating they enjoy the full range of human experience. It’s a long overdue transformation. We can finally reveal the truth: Asian Americans are funny!

Racism and Rehabilitation

In the past, Asian Americans on film were racist caricatures that now induce cringes. The Asian Americans typically were not even Asian Americans. The late Mickey Rooney, for example, portrayed Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the florid glory of yellow face, replete with buck teeth and a mock accent. A bonus feature on the DVD release of the classic preserved in the National Film Registry offers an analysis of what society once deemed hilarious, to avoid the ignominy passing without remark.

Mickey Rooney

Gedde Watanabe, trained in theatre and a veteran of Shakespeare in the Park, made his cinematic debut as foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong, nicknamed “the Donger,” in the John Hughes teen rom-com Sixteen Candles. The actor has said that his performance as a horndog looking to make it with a blonde was among the few opportunities available at the time for his ethnic heritage. References in the Harold and Kumar franchise have rehabilitated his reputation.

That series, starring John Cho and Kal Penn and boasting a comeback cameo from Neil Patrick Harris as a psychopathic version of himself, is now canonical in the genre of stoner movies. The Korean American (Harold) and Indian American (Kumar) roommates, who aspire to consume sliders at White Castle, were radical when released in 2004. The simple reason: neither of these buddies was a white male. Even their friends down the hall were their Jewish doubles. Their quest was Kafkaesque, about the ambition to be accepted as much as to eat a bag of miniature hamburgers. They’ve earned a cult following, with various bits of unlicensed merchandise available on the internet. Harold’s favorite film is Sixteen Candles. In real life, Cho’s reaction to merely witnessing the humiliation of Long Duk Dong was “WTF.”

Margaret Cho is the “OG” of Asian-American comedy. Her All-American Girl was like other sitcoms, with latent family conflict ready to explode. Yet it was also unlike anything else, with the Asian immigrants and their American-born children as the leading players. The cast was a pan-Asian American who’s who of its era. Cho is Korean American. B.D. Wong, Chinese American, of the Tony winning Broadway true story M. Butterfly, was the older brother. Clyde Kusatsu, Japanese American, a the veteran character actor who had been the Catholic priest begrudgingly accepted by the lovable bigot Archie Bunker, played the patriarch. Director Quentin Tarantino, basking in the acclaim for Pulp Fiction, was dating Cho, and guest-starred on an awkward episode. Unlike contemporaries Roseanne Barr (before her alt-right transmutation), and Ellen DeGeneres (before her coming out), Cho lacked creative control over her series. Post-mortems blamed producers for rendering the Asians inauthentic.

 

A complete catalog of Asian-American hilarity, both what prompted laughs as well as what provoked groans, would include the foreigners and the “hapas” (a term for “half” Asian that we’ve reappropriated with pride). Martial artist Jackie Chan made his American debut in the Cannonball Run. It was such an awful role in a company of stereotypes that Chan retreated to Hong Kong to continue his signature acrobatics for more than a decade before returning stateside with Rumble in the Bronx, which emphasized his unique style.

Chan’s later career in Hollywood confirms the ambiguity and versatility of Asians: Hollywood paired him with the black Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies and the white Owen Wilson in the Shanghai Noon/Shanghai Knights movies. Rob Schneider, sidekick to Adam Sandler, recruited his Filipina mother to his movies. You can see Pilar, a teacher, in Deuce Bigalow and a couple of other Schneider vehicles.

And now we’ve reached a golden age. Here’s an alphabetical work-in-progress field guide to current Asian American comedians. Apologies to Anglo-Asians such as Henry Golding and Dev Patel who dabble in light entertainment but are establishing themselves in drama.

Awkwafina (Nora Lum)

The ethnically Chinese and Korean rapper was the first woman of Asian ancestry to win a Golden Globe for lead actress, gaining the honor this year for her performance in The Farewell, a dramedy about a Chinese American struggling writer who journeys back home to pay respects to her grandmother, ailing with cancer. Her start came with her video, “My Vag,” which went viral in 2012. Her breakout was in Crazy Rich Asians as the flamboyant best friend to Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu.

Aziz Ansari

Ansari’s fictional alter ego, Thomas Montgomery Haverford of the TV series Parks & Recreation, is the result of a name change to appeal to the mainstream. Like Ansari himself,  Haverford’s coworkers assume him to be a newcomer to the nation. But he’s native-born and must constantly remind his colleagues of that fact. Ansari was the first actor of Asian background to win a Golden Globe for television work. Ansari has had to address anonymous accusations, which divided observers, about sexual misconduct on a date with a fan.

Mindy Kaling

Following a seven-year run on the American edition of The Office, she created the eponymous Mindy Project. Among her writing credits on the former was the script for an episode about Diwali, the Hindu “festival of lights,” She’s also created and starred in the indie comedy Late Night and penned two memoirs, both of which achieved best-seller status: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and Why Not Me?

Ken Jeong

Reputed to be among the smartest celebrities, the real-life physician gave up medicine to gamble on fame. He’s seen the bet pay off since he jumped out of the trunk of a car, stark naked, in the first installment of The Hangover, subsequently joining the Wolfpack in their billion dollar trilogy of testosterone and alcohol-induced misjudgment and malfeasance. He then became Señor Chang, the Spanish teacher of Greendale College in Community. Rumor has it, however, that he’s maintained an active license as a physician (specialty: internal medicine).

Kumail Nanjiani
Kumail Nanjiani
Kumail Nanjiani, stacked.

Nanjiani first came to public attention playing dorky coder Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley. But after the hit The Big Sick, inspired by the true story of his courting of his now wife, went on to Stuber, an independent action comedy that co-starred former wrestler Dave Bautista (part Filipino, part Greek) as a racially ambiguous tough cop and Iko Uwais (Indonesian) as the villain. Originally a podcaster enthusiastic about video games played in bootlegs on a Commodore 64 computer (Street Surfer and Paperboy) and Dungeons & Dragons, Najiani recently wowed fans with photographs of his ripped physique, which he credited to a team of physical trainers prepping him to be a Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero.

Ali Wong
Ali Wong

The San Francisco native, whose father was an “ABC” (American Born Chinese) and whose mother was a Vietnamese immigrant from before the war, majored in Asian American Studies at UCLA before her giant Netflix specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, garnered a following for the raunchy, tell-all humor. She followed those up with Always Be My Maybe, in which all three of her suitors are Asian American males (among them Keanu Reeves as the antithesis of his saintly image, a nod to his Hawaiian-Chinese roots). Although Wong ridicules her husband, her father-in-law was the television personality “Dr. Fad.”

Constance Wu

The star of Fresh Off the Boat, inspired by chef Eddie Huang’s life, has lasted more than one hundred episodes. Wu then was the mathematics professor fiancée in Crazy Rich Asians, based on the Kevin Kwan trilogy, which enjoyed box office receipts for an Asian-American title not seen since Joy Luck Club. Wu has explained, as her CRA character confronted, that Asian Asians and Asian Americans are not the same. Viewers may not have fully understood her mahjohng competition with Michelle Yeoh as her prospective mother-in-law: she deliberately lost, signaling her awareness of Asian cultural expectations.

Bowen Yang

The new regular on Saturday Night Live is the first Chinese American to join that cast and only the third openly gay member. Born in Australia to a Chinese family, Yang then moved to Canada, and from there to the United States, The subsequent termination of Shane Gillis, a colleague who SNL had also promoted but who had a history of racist remarks, marred Yang’s ascendance, ironic since Gillis’ remarks included disparaging Ali Wong — “making it so Asian chicks are funnier than white chicks.”

Jimmy O. Yang

A Chinese immigrant, Yang appeared on Silicon Valley, inspired by that program’s show runner, Mike Judge of Beavis and Butthead, who delivered the commencement address at Yang’s college. To make ends meet between seasons of Silicon Valley, when he was a guest paid union scale, he drove for Uber. Since then, he’s appeared in several movies and published the book, How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.

Although these Asian Americans all approach their comedy differently, they touch upon similar themes. At the prestigious Johns Hopkins University (freshmen class 31% Asian American), a popular mini-course between semesters is standup comedy: many of the pre-med nerds make fun of their immigrant parents. Up-and-comer Sheng Wang, who is opening for Ali Wong on tour, remarked that his parents came from Taiwan to ensure he would have opportunity. For all their sacrifices, their son . . . is a standup comic. As Wang jokes in perfect deadpan, that’s just too much opportunity. May he and the others prove it was worth the struggle.

 

Frank Wu

Frank H. Wu is a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law. He wrote Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

One thought on “The Golden Age of Asian-American Comedy

  • February 27, 2020 at 12:57 am
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    Frank — before there was Margaret Cho — there was Henry Cho back in the 80s. She ain’t the OG IMHO. I see you are missing some other notables — like Dat Pham and Bobby Lee. There are others.

    Reply

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