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Playing to Type: Caricature and Asian-American Comedy

By Aditya Mani Jha 27 May 2020

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Two moments—both towards the beginning of Jimmy O. Yang’s new comedy special Good Deal (which premiered on Amazon Prime Video earlier this month)—underline the dilemma of Asian-American comedians today. First, Yang takes aim at Hollywood’s whitewashing ways, making fun of Matt Damon for headlining a film about the Great Wall of China. “If I were offered the lead in a movie called ‘Mount Rushmore’,” Yang notes cheekily, “I would play the shit out of George Washington.”

Almost immediately after this, however, Yang promptly name-drops Silicon Valley, the show that made his acting career (not to mention his Tinder career) and, as he admits, led to this comedy special in the first place. On the show, his character Jian-Yang speaks broken English with a thick Chinese accent, so much so that (as Yang mentions in Good Deal), people are often surprised to hear his distinctly American English when they meet him in real life.

Critiquing the culture industry’s whitewashing, talking about racism in the ‘mainstream’; these issues are obviously on the Chinese-American comedian’s mind. But the opportunity to do this on Netflix or Amazon, before a prospective audience of millions, is also premised on the white man’s acceptance—this is the Gordian knot of comedy-in-the-streaming-era.

It also explains a lot about the frustratingly uneven quality of Yang’s hour-long special. There are a handful of moments offering original insight, but they’re strung together with a familiar line-up of well-worn stereotypes and easy jokes about Asian-Americans. For example, an extended sequence about how Yang feels the pressure “to be a good Asian” everywhere now works because it goes well beyond Hollywood to some unusual places. Similarly, his routine about the difference between Chinese and American stores (Whole Foods vs 99 Ranch) is quite enjoyable. “American supermarkets are too nice, too well-lit. Chinese people don’t like paying for atmosphere,” Yang says.

These perfectly serviceable jokes, however, are sandwiched between routines that have been done to death by now. The Asian with the small penis, the Asians who don’t or can’t tip, the senior Asian man who scoffs at romantic love, walks with a pronounced stoop and spends about 87 per cent of his time doing Tai Chi (Yang performs this miming bit with obvious relish; the physical comedy papers over the hackneyed material, to an extent).

To that end, Yang’s set comes across as a watered-down version of specials like Ronny Chieng’s Asian Comedian Destroys America and Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife. Both Chieng and Wong also have plenty of jokes about their roots (though maybe not as many as Yang). But they’re just vastly superior comedians, technically speaking. The hard work they’ve put in on their (visibly workshopped-to-perfection) routines is what’s missing from Good Deal, which is overly reliant on the twin pillars of Yang’s celebrity and his Chinese-American heritage.    

On Representation and Stereotypes

A much closer analogue for Good Deal (in terms of content if not style) is Ken Jeong’s 2019 special You Complete Me, Ho. The parallels are not difficult to see—much like Yang’s invocation of Silicon Valley, Jeong is introduced to the audience here by announcing the names of all of his famous movies, starting, of course, with The Hangover. A steady stream of Asian stereotypes follows. Jeong devotes a frankly inexplicable amount of time joking about tiny Asian penises (which should have warned Yang off, if you ask me), doing pelvic thrusts onstage and breaking into silly dances. Even the name of the special is a riff on “weird Asian last names” (his wife’s last name is, well, Ho) that feels like it was pilfered from 1987 using a TARDIS.

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Ken Jeong: You Complete Me Ho

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To be honest, one’s not inclined to be overly critical of Jeong for this — he’s giving the audience what they want (this much is obvious from the rapturous applause he receives). Moreover, why should he be singled out for cashing in on his image when any number of white performers do the same, day in, day out, that too without the baggage of representing their race? (As Yang says, “Nobody told Matt Damon he’s standing for the whites”).

How does one get out of the stereotype trap, then, as an Asian-American comedian? Malaysian comedian Ronny Chieng offers one way out, in Asian Comedian Destroys America — he simply reverses the gaze and points out the numerous aspects of America that feel inexplicably ‘alien’ to him and his fellow Asian-Americans—the barely believable levels of consumerism (“When I press ‘buy’, place the item directly into my hand”) or the constant nihilism (“Republicans suck. Democrats suck. The TSA sucks—trying to keep everyone alive, the morons”).

More importantly, he points out that “America is not a monolith”, before launching into a hilarious routine about the differences between the East and West Coast states, like how Texas has the most chilled-out state motto. “Everybody thinks it’s go fuck yourself… it’s friendship. That’s a 180-degrees off-message,” Chieng says. His point about monoliths will remind his white viewers about unfortunate tendency to ‘flatten’ Asian-American performers, pigeonhole them in the same category, whether they are Japanese, Koreans, Chinese or something else entirely. Chieng caps off this sequence by noting that Asians can be interlocutors for “the ongoing race war”.

“We need more Asian people in this country. I’ll tell you why. It’s because we are the only objective referees in the ongoing race war between white and black people. It’s because you don’t care about us. And we don’t care about either of you. There’s no bias, no agenda, because we don’t care.” (Later, reemphasizing the same point, Chieng says, “No agenda, just pure logic, right?”, and does the Vulcan salute at the end of the line, alluding to Hikaru Sulu, George Takei’s character from Star Trek; perhaps the first Asian-American character on primetime network TV).

Interestingly, perhaps the best joke featured in Good Deal stems from a certain uneasy equilibrium between two minority communities: black people and Asian-Americans. Yang talks about the time he started a rap group in high school:

“It was me, my black friend Julian and my other friend Yugi, who’s half black and half Japanese. So we’re perfectly one and a half black dudes and one and a half Asian dudes. And we called ourselves the Yellow Panthers. We had a real song; it was called Underground Railroad Builder. I was confused!” (‘Undergound Railroad’ refers to an early 19th century covert network of safe houses and alternative routes, used by abolitionists and free men to transport rescued slaves).

The Next Generation

Yang’s decidedly mixed results notwithstanding; he remains a part of the next generation of Asian-American comedians—people who will, hopefully, elevate the comedic discourse from its current Ken Jeong levels. Two Chinese-American performers who are especially noteworthy in this context are 29-year-old Bowen Yang, and 31-year-old Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum).

In September 2019, Bowen was promoted to Saturday Night Live’s on-air cast, the first queer Asian-American cast member. Since then he has written and performed some very funny, risk-taking skits, like The Actress alongside Emma Stone, where gay porn tropes are parodied. His stand-up style is very much in flux at the moment, and he seems to be trying out different onstage personas, different modes of audience engagement. But the promise is there for anyone to see.

He has this hilarious bit that’s common to all of his half-a-dozen or so comedy clips on YouTube. “So I went to one of those really chic, really modern Chinese restaurants recently,” Bowen notes, as the audience expects a familiar ‘Asian’ punch line. But a strategic pause later, he follows it up with “You know the type: the hostess was white.” It’s brilliant fishing: hook ‘em with the familiar, reel ‘em in with the prospect of laughing at themselves, release ‘em while they’re still tucking away their shame.

Awkwafina, whose performance as Goh Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians was one of the best things about the film, debuted her Comedy Central series Awkwafina is Nora From Queens in January. It’s a single-camera comedy in the tradition of Broad City, Louie or Maron, where comedians play lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Nora From Queens sees Awkwafina in her elements, surrounded by a stellar cast of Asian-American actors (Bowen among them), and it’s clear that we’re watching one of the breakout stars of her generation. She already has a Golden Globe (for her role in the 2019 film The Farewell) and a Marvel Studios contract; can world domination be far away?

But even Awkwafina is no stranger to the minefield of stereotypes and cultural appropriation, however. Internet elders will remember the origins of her celebrity — in 2012, the then 23-year-old Awkwafina released a satirical rap song called “My Vag”, intended as a riposte to Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick”.

“My vag speak five different languages
And told yo vag bitch make me a sandwich
Yo my vag feel like winning the lottery
Yo shit got turned down from eHarmony”    

Awkwafina was fired from her job at a publishing house after her identity was revealed (she had performed the video in dark glasses, fearing precisely this). But as the lyrics show, this wasn’t her only problem—she performed the ‘yo’s and ‘bitch’ with a ‘blaccent’, prompting widespread criticism. It’s something she’s still asked about in most interviews, even today.

Therein lies a lesson for Indian performers—and audiences—as well. A joke isn’t always just a joke; it isn’t always wrapped up in the Teflon of freedom of expression. Words matter, representation matters. Performers—every time you make a casteist joke (like that band at Delhi’s Piano Man bar who decided to name themselves after a casteist slur) or make fun of your watchman or your domestic help, you’re making the problem worse. Audiences, every time you address your Naga (or Mizo or Khasi) neighbour with items pulled off a Chinese menu, you’re making the problem worse. It’s not funny and it never will be.         

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