Asian-American comedians improv against 'white-washing'

The Asian AF monthly showcase at Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, where actors, storytellers and comedians of Asian descent are part of a quest for representation in the comedy ecosystem.
The Asian AF monthly showcase at Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, where actors, storytellers and comedians of Asian descent are part of a quest for representation in the comedy ecosystem. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - On a recent Friday night, the comedian Misha Han took the stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in the East Village and told the crowded room that Asians love two things. "We love Miyazaki movies and we love not being asked: 'Where are you really from?'" The audience responded with a handful of knowing hoots and hollers.

Welcome to Asian AF, a monthly showcase for actors, storytellers and comedians of Asian descent that regularly sells out UCB theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

The evenings are not the first of their kind, but they are part of a larger quest for representation by a loosely affiliated group of performers who had felt invisible in the comedy ecosystem. Their success has led to spin-off shows around the country as well.

The series is the brainchild of the Los Angeles actor and comic Will Choi, who in 2016 noticed that UCB devoted some evenings to heritage themes, but none involved Asian descent. Around the same time Scarlett Johansson came under fire for starring in the Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese manga Ghost In The Shell.

Seeing an opportunity, Choi gathered three Asian-American improv teams for a show at UCB in Los Angeles. It sold out.

Over the next several months, Scarlett Johansson Presents resurfaced on the opening nights of Hollywood films accused of whitewashing: Doctor Strange, in which Tilda Swinton played a character initially conceived as a mystical elderly Asian man; Great Wall, in which Matt Damon took the lead in a tale based in Chinese culture; and finally Ghost In The Shell.

"It was kind of just like: 'Come support actual Asian-American people, and don't watch these movies,'" Choi said. The comedy evenings did well "just because there was a need for it". The first Asian AF was staged in Los Angeles that November; the New York version followed less than a year later.

Comedian Jenny Yang took part in the premiere and deeply appreciated the need for Asian representation: When she started out in comedy, in 2010, she set up a Google alert for "Asian-American women comedy". "I was like, 'Who else is out here?'" she recalled thinking, and received hits about once a month at most - mainly when comedian Margaret Cho was in the news.

As a new standup at the time, she found it difficult to relate to colleagues at open-mic nights: They were mostly younger, mostly white and mostly men. And their material? "Bad marijuana and masturbation jokes," she said.

In 2012, she and two other performers started Disoriented Comedy, billed as "the first-ever (mostly) female Asian-American stand-up comedy tour," and traveled the country. In 2015, Yang and two members of Disoriented Comedy came up with the four-day Comedy Comedy Festival. Though it featured more than 100 comics of Asian descent, they purposefully gave the festival a generic title that omitted racial identifiers as a comment on representation and diversity.

Choi and his future co-host, former Gilmore Girls actress Keiko Agena, worked on programming the improv and sketch performances.

"We're all really good friends," Yang said. "Like, deep homies." For Yang, these ventures were not about self-promotion. Instead, it was "this bigger thing that I feel I wanted to be a part of, which is to be able to showcase people that aren't typically seen on mainstream comedy stages."

"There is something to be said about doing this kind of work in a more well-known, mainstream comedy space like UCB," she added.

The support of Asian-American audiences spurred the success of the series from the outset. To cover startup and logistics costs, Choi raised money selling T-shirts he designed that were inspired by the Hollywood whitewashing controversies. They read simply "Scarlett & Emma & Tilda & Matt." (Emma was a reference to Emma Stone's turn as a partly Chinese character in Aloha.)

After Michele Selene Ang, the Taiwanese-American actress who is a star of 13 Reasons Why, posted a picture of herself wearing the shirt, requests to buy it poured in.

"It elevated the awareness of our show," Choi said.

In both Los Angeles and New York, Asian-American stars like Cho, Randall Park and Kelly Marie Tran have appeared as special guests. Ken Jeong stopped by the Manhattan show last month when it was part of the Del Close Marathon.

"That's been the fun part, seeing who we can get," Choi said.

The show has been such a success, he argued, at least in part because it represents the breadth of the Asian experience. The guests Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang discussed their experiences as self-described queer performers who happen to be Asian, for example. The series has also led to the creation of offshoot groups like Filipino AF and South Asian AF. It also inspired Y'all, We Asian, a variety show and improv troupe in Austin, Texas.

To get a slot on the main stage of the ColdTowne Theater in Austin, "it was very helpful to be able to point to Asian AF and be like, hey, they sell out every show, there's a market for more," the co-founder Yola Lu said by email.

Through the series, Choi said, performers have been invited to audition for TV roles and hired at other venues. Choi is hopeful that such connections are a sign that one day the showcase won't need to exist anymore.

"Right now we need it because of representation, but I hope there will be a day where it's like, 'No, you know what? This show does not need to exist anymore, because we solved it,'" he said, laughing. "We solved diversity, we solved representation. Will that day come any time soon? I don't know. But I do feel like right now it's important, and I'm glad that we're doing it."