Whenever I go to sketch comedy or variety shows in the US, I always keep my eye out for performers who fall outside the “typical” comedian stereotype.
Will there be the usual team of white dudes giving wry observations about everyday life as a white dude? Being self-deprecating about how hopelessly white they are? Being obstinately horrible to “shine a light on” our own horribleness?
Will there be women? LGBTQIA comics? Will they be featured or hosting? Will there be people of color? Maybe it’s just my own anxieties, but I always tense up a little when any of the above comedians take the stage. As the fight for minority representation in entertainment soldiers on, every time we’re in the spotlight we’re held to a higher standard. If one Black or Latinx or Asian or queer comic bombs, somehow it’s representative of all of “them”.
No matter how many Aziz Ansaris or Margaret Chos or Ali Wongs or Hasan Minhajs there are, all it takes is one Asian-American up-and-comer to have a shaky set for (white) people to say, “Eh…Asian people aren’t really that funny.”
So I didn’t know how to feel as I set out on cold New York night to watch the variety show Asian AF at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I’d read and heard nothing but great things about the hit show that premiered in Los Angeles, but nonetheless I found myself a little anxious.
A whole show that puts “ASIAN” (and “as f***”) front and center – I couldn’t help but think about how the boldness of the title could be a battle cry or a punchline.
“That show sucked.”
“Yeah, well what do you expect? It was Asian as f***.”
Is that even a punchline? SURPRISE, I’m not a comedian. But you get the idea.
But my worries were misplaced. The only punchlines were traded onstage by the group of comics assembled for the show.
My takeaway from the show was a feeling of ease. Make no mistake, I don’t mean that the show was lacking energy or engagement, it was just such a pleasure to watch Asian-American performers take the stage with confidence, skill, and daring. So often we see Asian-American comedic performers relegated to tokens or cheap-and-easy jokes about “Asian people are like…” but the evening felt both on point about Asian-American life, but also not too on the nose. The show did not feel defensive.
It was such a delight to see Asian-American performers given a forum to talk about, laugh about aspects of their race and how America deals with them, but it wasn’t all about that. As we’ve long been trying to explain to Hollywood and media, “Asians! They’re just like you!”
Hosts Dan Lee, then later Alex Song (she was held up at another show, but blended seamlessly into the mix when she arrived) set the tone as relaxed and welcoming. We were in good hands.
I’m not going to lie, seeing a show at a major comedy venue like UCB hosted by Asian-American people made me a little giddy. How many times as a kid glued to the TV had I play-acted hosting the Oscars or MTV Music Awards? I practiced my jokes, how I’d mug to the audience, even my musical numbers. But something always kinda niggled at the back of my head: “It would probably be weird if I hosted or was the star…because I’m Asian.”
This is not a unique childhood story amongst AAPI people who grew up in the west, but it’s because it’s not a unique story that shows like Asian AF are so important. Those kids are growing up and getting in front of an audience and changing the way the majority sees minorities. Like the title, a show like this shouts stubbornly – but, in a way, gracefully? – “LOOK AT US!”
This show (the lineup is always changing) consisted of sets by Fumi Abe (touching on sex and dating, being a late bloomer), Jordan Mendoza (on wanting to be a jingle writer, culminating in an onstage phone call to a random Dunkin Donuts that got the whole audience rooting for him), and Aparna Nancherla, who was featured on Master of None and is a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Nancherla’s set nimbly covered navigating a long-term relationship to being a hardcore introvert to mental health. For me, she was the highlight of the night. Speaking mostly angled away from the audience instead of facing us, her steady, vaguely self-conscious sounding speech felt masterful in it’s vulnerable delivery. She was performing, again I felt like I was in good hands, but it still felt earnest.
Again, all of the performers – whether it was the more eager and high energy Mendoza or the more casual “talking at the bar with your friend” tone of Abe or the controlled confessions of Nancherla – had a sense of confident, professional, ease.
The show ended with improv by an all Asian-American UCB improv team. As with any improv it had its highs and lows, but overall was funny and got a few zingers in there. Again, my pre-teen self was like, so totally happy to see a stage full of Asian-American people making a room full of people laugh.
As variety shows go, this is definitely one of the most satisfying I’ve seen. I never felt forced to laugh, I never felt bored and ready for the next thing to start. I was happy and engaged the whole time.
But it can’t be overlooked that I was in a room full of people who more likely than not had some similar cultural touchstones as I did. Some of it was revealed in their sets, some of it just came through in intangible mannerisms or timing. Not all Asian-Americans are the same, I’m not saying that, but there is something so downright special about being in a room full of people with an unspoken shared experience. The performers or hosts didn’t have to say it (which was part of the beauty of the night) but there was a sense of community.
I believe anybody – Asian as f*** or not – can have a great time at one of these shows. In fact, I urge everybody to go see the Asian AF shows in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.
But as an Asian-American person, I walked to walk away feeling so much joy. Those were my people, Asian-Americans who demanded to be seen and heard, Asian-Americans who were funny AF.
Asian AF was produced by Dan Lee, performs at the UCB Theater East Village in New York, and is sponsored monthly by Angry Asian Man
For more cities, dates, events, and info visit AsianAFshow.com
Featured image of UCBT via Creative Commons