Representation quality matters. Quality representation matters.
I am a writer and comedian. I spend a lot of time crafting each joke and its delivery, whittling down my premise into the most bare-boned setup and punchline. I always consider the connotations, the shades and dualities of meaning, all the different ways an audience might interpret a joke. And I try to be as precise as possible.
Stand-up comedy makes perfect use of the double consciousness with which I already live life as an Asian person in America: that constant feeling of being watched and judged, yet disregarded at the same time, of taking extra care in deciding what to share and with whom, because in America, every person of color is by default a representative of their race. There’s no escaping it, and trying to do so only heightens one’s association. The choice is not whether to take on this responsibility, it’s whether to honor it.
For Asian Americans, merely existing in white spaces is a performance art. Frankly, being on stage doesn’t feel that much different than walking down the street in the Midwestern town where my parents still live. The main difference is, onstage, I have the power to control the narrative. Onstage, I dictate how I am seen, and by extension, Asian America.
We spend a lot of time discussing the media that doesn’t represent us well. We also spend a lot of energy tearing each other down, particularly in a gendered way. Reflection and critique are necessary, but there is room in the conversation for more Asian men and women to advocate each others’ work that does represent us the way we‘d like.
That said, here are some of the Asian male comedians who have inspired me:
“I ate a pomegranate; that is a magical fruit. It’s like juice corn. It’s like God got stoned one day, and he was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to put some fruit juice inside these kernels. Let’s do that. But I’m not going to put it on the cob; I’m going to shove it up this fat, dirty radish.’”
Sheng Wang is so low-key he doesn’t have a website. But follow his Twitter, it is lit AF. Sheng just might be my favorite male comic of all time. He’s been writing and performing for over a decade, and now these skills are honed so razor-sharp that I consider his observations and delivery to be some of the best in the industry. On top of that, both his physical and comedic voice are extremely relatable to me as a person who is food obsessed, grew up in the Midwest, has always gravitated toward absurd musings, and carries around a lot of anxiety about everything that I do and am. He doesn’t usually talk about race, but when he does, it is some of the most incisive commentary you’ll ever hear.
“I never change my set. I’d rather me be uncomfortable in a given night where there’s a few too many white people who are not getting it than shuck and jive for the audience’s convenience.”
Remember when Aamer’s bit about reverse racism went viral? It was so specific, historically accurate and to the point, yet hilarious. I love that Aamer consciously does not do comedy for white approval. He performs for people of color, for the people of his own community, especially activists doing the hard work of affecting real change on the ground. That is a note on self respect and empowerment I take for my own material. Aamer is still at it, saying the real shit about geopolitics, society and culture, and current events. You know, all the stuff that’s just too real, too hard to even talk about in polite company anymore, not to mention get people ROFLMAO about.
“You would never ask these other white comedians [what their parents think of their careers] because you know their parents don’t give a fuck about them.”
Ronny has been featured on Crazy Rich Asian and The Daily Show, but to me, his standup still takes the cake. He is like Bill Burr, but with justifiable anger. The pacing of each bit is as smooth as (probably) his chest, and watching him scream feels like vindication and catharsis. In her groundbreaking Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby says that, if you’re already a marginalized person, self-deprecating humor isn’t humility, it’s humiliation. Conversely, when a marginalized person exploits self-aggrandizement, narcissism, and anger — everything you hate about the Chads of the world — to punch up, to mock the establishment, that’s not douchebaggery, that is radical rebellion. Ronny’s righteous indignation invigorates me to get angry and stay angry. Three out of five people on Earth are Asian. We’re the fucking norm, and it’s about fucking time we own it.
“You can be anti-Trump and not pro-Hillary. Just because I hate diarrhea doesn’t mean I love constipation.”
I think Alingon is just an extraordinarily good writer with a keen sense for putting together disparate ideas to comedic effect. His jokes are impeccably tight and use interesting analogies and concepts to surprise the audience at every turn. He constructs his sets flawlessly. They flow well, and he always brings the show together at the end with an unexpected callback.
“My dick is huge.”
I love Joel’s comedic voice because it spins even the most humiliating situation to make himself high status by the time he delivers the punchline. He is thoughtful about Asian emasculation, and he employs his flagrant self-involvement and vainglorious bluster to make a positive statement for all Asian men. He knows he’s the sexiest guy in the room and he’s going to make sure everybody else knows it by the end of his set. He’s also currently developing a show about his experiences as a gay Korean adoptee in the Midwest. I greatly appreciate that there is a mainstream comedic voice speaking to the transracial adoptee experience, and I hope the show will delve into the complexity and nuance of even the best of these relationships.
“Telling me that I’m obsessed with talking about racism in America is like telling me I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning.”
I love Hari’s sharp insights, broad historical knowledge and writing savvy. He can make a joke about British railroads in India, then explain the joke, without ruining the joke. That pretty much defies the one rule of standup comedy, other than “don’t talk about standup comedy”. Also, HE TOOK DOWN APU. Hari began the discussion that fundamentally changed pop culture around the world. Somebody finally had the chutzpah to go after Apu while he was still on the air.
Even in its very special episode about media rep, Master of None chose to highlight the brownface in the movie Short Circuit 2 instead of the infinitely more recognizable character from The Simpsons, despite the episode being called “Indians On TV”. So many people in the Americas are pissed off at Hari right now, and I think that’s pretty badass. If the world cared as much about Asian lives as about fictional caricatures thereof, Hari would be an international hero. Besides, if everyone has your back on everything you say, you’re not saying anything interesting. You’re not really pushing the envelope. Hari definitely is.
“I’m from the South. So I guess that makes me South Korean.”
I have to admit, Henry’s humor isn’t always my cup of tea. But I need to include him here because he is the OG of OG’s of representation. An ethnically Korean American raised in the south, he has been performing his brand of twangy, clean observational humor for the Jeff Foxworthy crowd since 1986. 1986. In 1986, there was Long Duk Dong, and there was Henry. motherfuckin’. Cho.
This guy has been a successful comedian for three decades going, and he does not use the hack crutch of racist stereotypes or make any marginalized people the butt of his jokes, even though he performs mainly for white people in the south. I have mad respect for that, and there is absolutely no excuse for anybody else. It’s great to see someone like him make it in entertainment. Who knows, maybe he’ll inspire some Episcopalian Taiwanese kid from Sugarland, TX, who was the class clown of his high school and wants to do family-friendly humor.