Guess who's having the last laugh?
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“Where are the Asian comedians? Maybe there just aren’t any!” said comedian Adam Carolla, formerly of The Man Show, in a recent interview with Salon. In Carolla’s America, humorless Asians nonetheless “beat the rigged system” and now “pass white people” in every other area of life except comedy. Which they have no business trying. Because, you know: unfunny.
“How did Asians pass white people? They got lucky?” he told Salon’s Daniel D’Addario, in an interview in which he also bemoaned “the gay mafia.” Carolla added, “I would go ahead and say: The Asians beat the rigged system and did better than white people. You don’t think that’d be something to look into? Do you think we decided to rig the system against certain ethnicities?”
It would appear that Carolla believes he is a member of a group so disenfranchised, so marginalized, that it’s not even recognized as an oppressed group (now that’s oppression!): The Straight White Male Comedian! And Straight White Male Comedians, he feels, should be able to say what they want, without fear of the p.c. police, because it’s what Straight White Male Comedians do: point out life’s absurdities. Yes, they do. Want to hear something absurd? Carolla said the same thing in a 2012 interview with the New York Post. Back then, however, he was claiming that “chicks” can’t be funny. “They make you hire a certain number of chicks,” Carolla complained, “and they’re always the least funny on the writing staff.”
Here we are, two years later, and he’s swapped “Asians” for workplace chicks. This makes perfect sense since they’re small, yellow, and cute. I’m guessing the “Asians” Carolla is complaining about are Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, and not South Asians that Carolla is complaining about. East Asians and South Asians are culturally and geographically distinct. I don’t, for example, think he’s referring to comedian Aziz Ansari, or Mindy Kaling, who has her own network vehicle, The Mindy Project. Incidentally, I think she is very funny, but I don’t identify with her. My parents were Christians from South Korea. Her parents were Hindus from India. On the basis of distinct cultures, religions, philosophies, languages, etymologies, foods, and climates, it’s weird to lump East Asian and South Asian together. From what I can tell, the only thing we have in common is overbearing parents who spend most of their time trying to marry us off, and then pushing us to reproduce. But I could say the same thing about Jewish mothers too. Where would comedy writers get material, if not for the pushy moms?
And so it’s been 20 years since there has been an Asian-American sitcom on network TV. In 1994, Margaret Cho, a Korean-American comedian (who is now on a comedy tour called, naturally, “Mother”) broke all kinds of barriers starring in a primetime sitcom, All-American Girl. Alas, that show lasted barely a minute. In the intervening years, however, the Asian-American population has nearly tripled to 18.2 million. This fall, the second primetime television show with a headline Asian cast is coming to ABC, called Fresh Off the Boat, and stars several well-known comic actors, including comedian Constance Wu as the mother, and Randall Park (Veep’s Danny Chung) as the father.
Fresh Off the Boat has a few things going for it that All-American Girl lacked, including the fact that it’s based on a best-selling memoir of the same name, written by a celebrity chef, bringing our current obsession with all things food into Middle-American living rooms. Set in the 1990s, it chronicles the fish-out-of-water adventures of young Eddie (played by newcomer Hudson Yang, the son of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Yang) as his family moves from D.C. to Orlando so his father can set up shop as the owner of a “cowboy restaurant.” The show is told from his perspective, a touch of The Wonder Years but with the edge of Everybody Hates Chris. Marrying nostalgia to the reliable kookiness of Florida, it is also “unapologetically and defiantly Asian,” Jeff Yang tells me. They’re “telling stories that are not afraid to blow up tired expectations and misconceptions of who we are, what we do, and how we think.”
And the trailer is really funny.
So why are there suddenly Asian comedians on American television? Four years ago, Nina Rastogi posed that question about South Asians, namely Indians, in Slate. For her, a major factor driving this trend could be chalked up to demographics. Simply put, the first big waves of Indian immigration started in the 1960s, meaning that a half-century later there were enough Indian-Americans around to reach a critical mass—writing, directing, producing, acting, and, finally, watching a show that had prominent Indian characters. Factor in the Hollywood fascination with Bollywood and the peculiar possibility that, as Rastogi suggests, Indians might be perceived by Americans as “diet Muslims,” and you have a formula for newfound visibility on big and small screens. She wrote, “More Indians in the fabric of American life means we’re more likely to be a source of inspiration for non-Indian writers, like the two Jewish guys from suburban New Jersey who wrote Harold and Kumar—the title characters are based on their friends.” Rastogi was focused on Kumar, played by Kal Penn, but Harold, who was played by Korean-American actor John Cho, is finally getting his chance to break out. Cho is starring in his own vehicle on ABC this fall, called Selfie.
Asian-American actors are dramatically succeeding for all the same reasons that Rastogi cited: early immigration of select, well-educated individuals, successful assimilation into American society, followed by sustained economic and educational dominance leading to a comfortable position in the ranks of the professional classes. Today, however, the headlines aren’t dominated by conflicts in the Middle East, but the continuing political instability in North Korea and the fact that China will be displacing the U.S. as the world’s largest economy later this year. Scholarly blog Asian-Nation.org says that “Asian” is composed of a very diverse group, with 51.6 percent of Indians holding a “high-skill” occupation, compared to 41.9 percent of Chinese, 32 percent of Japanese, 27 percent of Koreans, and 21.4 percent of whites. Taken as a group, then, “Asians” in America, meaning Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, have the highest personal and household incomes of any other racial demographic in the U.S.
This is the “success” that Carolla complains about, but it leaves out the other Asians in the U.S.—e.g., Laotian, Vietnamese, Bhutanese, Nepalese, some of whom are doing okay, and some not so much. The positive stereotypes of the hardworking immigrant making good on the American dream play out in Huang’s tale, which is appealing because it shows that the Dream is still alive and kicking. But it also tends to perpetuate simplistic myths that efface the real challenges of everyday racism and sexism, topics that have recently been the focus of hashtag activism via Suey Park’s #notyourAsiansidekick, and social media forums highlighting racist micro-aggressions.
The best of the new standup comedy acknowledges entrenched racist and sexist attitudes, and then works to subvert expectations by turning them in on themselves. Using “guerilla tactics” to surprise her audience, Kristina Wong appeared in the initial installation of I am Asian-American and…, the first docu-series to focus on the diverse range of the Asian-American experience. Wong makes fun of men with “Yellow Fever” (a compulsive sexual attraction toward Asian women), a fetish so completely normalized that it doesn’t even make it into Jesse Bering’s book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Those were “all real dudes” appearing in that clip, Wong tells me.
And so, to answer Carolla’s cri de coeur, “Where are all the Asian comedians?” Well, it would seem they’re on TV. They’re in comedy clubs. They’re too busy working to explain to him that they’re, well, everywhere. If Carolla was willing to ask nicely, maybe he could get a guest spot on Fresh Off the Boat, playing himself on a television blaring The Man Show—which aired nearly 20 years ago—to show everybody exactly how far we’ve come. It would be kinda beautiful.
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