The current visibility of Asians in the media has mixed results. While most of the serious roles are action-oriented, we are seeing more emerge in dramatic roles. We’re also seeing more Asians emerge in comedic roles.
Two of NBC’s most popular sitcoms Community and Parks and Recreation feature emerging stars in Ken Jeong and Aziz Ansari, respectively. Another comedian, Aasif Mandvi, is a regular correspondent on the satire news show, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Jeong plays Ben Chang, a former Spanish teacher who has to get his degree to be certified in Community. Born of South Korean immigrants, Jeong gained his medical degree at University of North Carolina and developed his stand-up routine while completing his medical residency. Though Jeong’s acting career spanned 15 years, he first gained serious notice as Dr. Kuni in 2007 film, Knocked Up. His big break came two years later, playing drug lord, Leslie Chow in The Hangoverfilms (2009 and 2011). He’s made numerous feature film and TV appearances, but his signature roles are often egomaniacal, over-the-top, flamboyant and abrasive characters.
Ansari plays Tom Haverford, a sarcastic underachieving government official, in Parks and Recreation. Born of Indian immigrants, Ansari got his break from the MTV sketch comedy show, Human Giant. Ansari’s stand-up draws from personal experiences rather than ethnic humor. His success had led him to numerous film roles including Funny People, I Love You, Man, Get Him to the Greek, and most recently his first starring role in an ensemble cast in 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less.
Photo: Comedy Central/Martin Crook
Mandvi was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India to a Muslim family. He emigrated with his family to Tampa, FL when he was 16. After graduating from University of South Florida with a degree in theatre, he worked as a performer at Disney World before moving to New York City to pursue off-Broadway productions. Most of Mandvi’s work was in supporting roles in film and a few TV appearances before prominently featured in The Daily Show. He auditioned and was immediately hired in 2006 in the same day before becoming a regular correspondent in 2007. His titles often include “Senior Asian Correspondent,” “Senior Middle East Correspondent” and “Senior Muslim Correspondent” while appearing and commenting in numerous news segments.
Two of the most prominent late night sketch comedy shows featured Asian American cast members. Fred Armisen and Nasim Pedrad are current cast members of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Armisen, whose father is of German and Japanese descent, is the second Asian cast member in SNL’s history joining them in 2002. Iranian-born Pedrad joined the cast in 2009. Bobby Lee was a prominent cast member of Fox’s MADtv joining them in 2001 until the show’s cancellation in 2009. Many of Lee’s characters are Asian caricatures that play off of pop culture and stereotypes. Ironically enough, the character of Ms. Swan (played by Caucasian actress Alex Borstein) also played up Asian female stereotypes.
While the discussion of their stereotypes is nothing new, what responsibilities do Asian comedians have to help shape their audience perceptions? Are they to embrace the stereotypes and play it up for laughs or do we trust that they can deal with the issues based on how they see fit? Does it make it okay if Asians are in on the joke or does it make it worse in regards to acceptance into society?
It might be a matter of perspective. While a comedian like Lee can introduce characters on MADtv, we view his own personal take on confronting those stereotypes. NBC’s Last Comic Standing first season winner, Vietnamese comedian Dat Phan, focuses primarily on everyday life, self-depreciation and racial stereotypes.
Outside of sketch TV shows, the pinnacle of Asian comedy success was achieved by Margaret Cho, whose ABC 1994 sitcom All American Girl was based on her comedy. Unfortunately, that success was short-lived and tumultuous.
Cho’s one-woman show and book, I’m the One that I Want described problems that plagued the show, namely producers complaining about her weight, looking too round and not “acting Asian enough.” An Asian consultant was hired to help her be more Asian. Then when producers re-casted the show replacing the Asians with white friends, she was then told, she was too Asian.
There might be a more definitive line when it comes to laughing at Asians in comedy. It’s one thing to laugh because of a clash of cultures; it’s also a matter on how the characters deal with how others perceive them. If Jack Soo can can be witty on a show like Barney Miller, then why is Matthew Moy of Two Broke Girls reduced to be a walking stereotype?
Humor might be relative, it might matter that much more when a group is underrepresented like Asian Americans are. Long Duk Dong might be a funny character, but if that’s all what we see as the proto-typical Asian in comedy, that’s what sticks. If non-Asian executives believe that’s what sticks, then Asian actors might be at their mercy as Cho found out herself.
Will we see another opportunity? In 2011, another Korean-American comedian in Henry Cho, who’s been in standup since 1989, has a show called The Henry Cho Show on Great American Country. It features a variety of standup comedians and sketches.
Asians in comedy have come a long way from being portrayed as lesser buffoons to a yellowfaced Charlie Chan to the annoyed Japanese yellow-faced tenant in Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Despite the negative stereotypes in Hollywood’s past, there were figures like Soo and Burt Kwouk who made you laugh with their comedy.
As Jeff Adachi pointed out, we might be 15 years away from being a serious force in movies, but I think maybe we might be a little closer when it comes to comedy.