Stand-up comedy stages aren’t friendly places, according to Los Angeles comedians, and it’s much harder for Asian Americans to take their spot on the center stage.
“Five to ten years ago I think Asians were usually the butt of the joke, but now things are getting better,” said William Choi, founder of Asian AF comedy variety show. “I’ll even get auditions [for Asian AF] that have nothing to do with race. I think that’s great.”
As of 2012, comedy show, Saturday Night Live, has only ever featured one performer of East-Asian descent; Fred Armisen, who is one-quarter Japanese. According to Asian American performers, this lack of representation is nothing new in comedy, which caters to a mostly white, mostly male audience. But the “unwritten rules and norms” of comedy booking are changing as theaters are becoming more inclusive of minorities and women performers, according to Jenny Yang, producer of The Comedy Comedy Festival.
It takes finesse to navigate jokes about racial stereotypes. Choi explained that there’s an unspoken rule against using fake Asian accents at Asian AF shows because he feels they are not typically used in a respectful way.
“What I try to do at our shows is stay away from the stereotypical – the jokes we’ve all heard growing up, jokes that have been directed at us – and really focus on quality performers,” said Choi.
According to a study by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asians represented about five percent of speaking characters in film, television and digital series in 2014.
Despite standout Asian American stars like Margaret Cho, Kal Penn and the cast of TV show, Fresh off the Boat, Asian American performers agree that there is still a lack of representation in media.
“It’s a struggle with representation. We have an expectation that each Asian American character has to represent everyone’s experience…that’s because we don’t have many Asian Americans to choose from. We have to put all our eggs in one basket,” said Jully Lee, Artistic Director of Cold Tofu Improv, an Asian American performance group. As an actor, it can be difficult to get auditions for leading roles or parts not cast as Asian American, she said.
Even fewer Asian Americans seem to make it on the comedy circuit.
“Initially when I started, I wasn’t seeing a lot of Asian Americans on the stand-up circuit,” said Atsuko Okatsuka, a comedian and actor who toured with DisOriented, a mostly female Asian comedy tour. “I didn’t talk about my identity as much because I didn’t know how it would go over.”
To combat the lack of representation in entertainment, Asian American performers are forming their own communities through comedy. These comedy tours and groups are focused on the Asian American experience and challenging stereotypes.
“I’m seeing a lot more initiative from Asian Americans to mobilize and write their own material,” said Lee. She highlighted the Asian AF comedy show, produced by former Cold Tofu member William Choi. Asian AF is an Asian American variety show at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles and New York.
Many Asian American comedy show organizers report playing to mostly Asian American audiences.
“We’re a predominantly Asian American audience so people can go even deeper with their sets – you don’t have to just acknowledge that you’re Asian American – you can really dig deeper,” Yang said. She added that nuanced jokes or references that may go unnoticed in a different setting are more likely to resonate with audiences that share the comedian’s background.
Despite the majority Asian American audience, Yang explained that the Comedy Comedy Festival is not limited to topics of identity. Like Choi, Yang said she chooses comedians based on their skill, not their comedy topics.
“We chose not to mention ‘Asian American’ in the title of the Comedy Comedy Festival to not tokenize ourselves. We can center our stories around our existence rather than our race,” said Yang. She feels titles like “comedy ninjas” or “comedy geishas” perpetuate stereotypes even if the comedians don’t specifically talk about race or identity.
Asian American comedians are using the stage to change the conversation around Asian American identity and to share relatable experiences in a humorous way. Okatsuka explained that she uses her anecdotes to share relatable but funny experiences that make people think.
“The comedy we all do at DisOriented is pushing boundaries. We all try to, first and foremost, make people laugh but also to make people think and to not shy away from the things we find absurd,” said D’Lo, a comedian who performed on the DisOriented tour. “All of us come with a desire to change the perception of who we are.”