“Hello. I’m the new Hispanic cast member, and I’ll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano. Because, baby steps.”
Back in October 2016, Melissa Villaseñor went meta on Saturday Night Live when America was in the heat of the presidential election. Since then, the Oval Office underwent a major facelift, but some things never change, such as SNL’s lack of a female Asian American cast member.
In its 40-plus years, save for hosts Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan, SNL has never featured a player of East Asian descent. And while critics may decry this argument, citing that Fred Armisen and Rob Schneider are both one quarter Asian, the fact remains that their Asian-ness is, for lack of a better word, invisible.
Last year, SNL production designer Akira Yoshimura played Asian Star Trek character Sulu. It was the fourth time Yoshimura had been outsourced for the role since 1976. And earlier this year, a photo of Will Ferrell with an Asian family was shown as a closing shot. In a show that uses Asians as props for comic relief, an Asian cast member is long overdue.
It’s not like there’s a lack of successful Asian American comics. Margaret Cho, Ronny Chieng, Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee, to name a few, have paved the way in representation. And very recently, there seems to be a cultural shift with Asian American women in pop culture, with funny ladies Ali Wong, Constance Wu, and Awkwafina becoming popular.
“I think Asian women definitely have more visibility in comedy right now than they have had for a while,” says Chinese American New York City comedian Lily Du, who tours with the Upright Citizens Brigade and has had small roles in Broad City and The President Show. “But I think people are still very limited in the way that they view demographics. They’ll be like, ‘I can’t imagine ABC having a second show about an Asian American immigrant family,’” she says, referring to Fresh Off the Boat. “And you’ll hear it with managers or casts: ‘Great, we have one Asian, let’s check that box.’ While it is progress, it’s still kind of calculated.”
Fellow comedian Ann Marie Yoo, who is Korean American and performs with the group AzN PoP, has also experienced the absurd logic of attempting to include Asian American actors in casting calls for TV shows.
“They expect you to have an accent. You can’t be Asian too and act American. It’s weird that that blows people’s minds,” says Yoo, who has appeared in Gotham and Death Lives. “I feel like I’m fighting that all the time.”
Some casting calls specifically call for the sassy, supporting character to be Asian, which Du describes as a double-edged sword. “I guess I have mixed feelings about tokenism being a necessary thing.” She laughs halfheartedly.
Even though tokenism doesn’t necessarily solve the lack of diversity problem, she agrees it still presents an opportunity for representation. “It’s necessary in a sense,” she says. “I’d rather they say, ‘Hey, let’s put someone of color on this show,’ than make it all white.”
So why is it SNL — perhaps the most influential comedic variety show that has spearheaded many comedians’ careers — has yet to even cast a token Asian American cast member?
One reason may be the show’s emphasis on celebrity impersonations. Dan Lee, a Korean American who performs at UCB Theatre East Village, says that an Asian male would possibly have to subject himself to playing Kim Jong-un every weekend, given the show’s attention to political satire. But Du disagrees that an Asian American man would be limited to playing Asian roles, especially when white cast members have played people of color.
“I don't think an Asian man playing a white man is anymore inappropriate than Bobby Moynihan playing Kim Jong-un,” she says. “There's just not that many recognizable Asians in media in order to do an impression.”
Du herself favors accents over impressions, but often wonders if this skill will fall by the wayside. “I love doing a Cockney accent like Michael Caine, or like an Australian accent, but I just know that I'm not the person that you're going to ask to be an Australian person in a skit.” She quickly changes tack. “Or maybe that's me limiting myself in my thinking because there's a lot of Asians in Australia, actually. I don't know why I'm kind of just like, ‘Well, I'm already Asian, so I don't get to be British,’ which is maybe me limiting myself. I kick myself out of the game too.”
Another reason Asian Americans are ignored for comedic opportunities is because audiences may find their presence in traditional white roles “distracting.”
“I think for some reason we've built up that Asians in American culture are so different, an ‘exotic race,’” Yoo says. “I think having us visually on TV is just so striking for a lot of people that it takes them out of whatever reality the TV is trying to portray, therefore we're not that cast-able.”
Both Du and Yoo say that the lack of diversity is also related to cultural attitudes within the Asian population.
“I don't want to make a racial generalization, because I think a lot of modern Asian Americans have been very outspoken lately,” Du says, “But sometimes, like culturally, I think Asians don't want to rock the boat, they're not as aggressively outspoken about it.”
“I feel like we're very late to the game,” says Yoo. “I feel like it's because Asians tend to want to fly under the radar. They want white people to like them. Unfortunately, white people will just see that Asians will do whatever they want, and they can be stepped on. I hate to say it, but I kind of think that dynamic exists a little bit.”
Du remembers a moment early in her career when she was subjected to this stereotype. During a bit, a man in her practice group said to a fellow player, “Oh! Well, you should try dating Asian women, they’re so docile!” He then signaled at Du to step into the scene. She refused to participate.
“I was like, ‘No, this sucks. That makes me feel uncomfortable. Maybe I don’t want to do shows like this ever again,’” she says. “Then, you eventually get more confident and also your self-worth and understanding of what is okay and not okay expands. Now, I have more social cachet as a performer to say, 'don't do that to me.'”
To avoid being “othered” in skits, she used to try not to draw attention to her race. “I very much just tried to kind of assimilate and blend in, and I never tried to other myself or bring up the fact that I'm Asian or female or whatever.”
She admits there are times when you need to step in and take on that caricature. “A Korean American performer will sometimes do an Asian accent if he wants to in a scene for a comedic purpose or whatever, and I'm like, honestly, fine, because I don't think anyone else should. If not him, who else?”
Besides facing uncomfortable situations when their race is put into the spotlight for the sake of a punchline, the reluctance of Asians Americans to band together due to ethnic tension could also be hindering progress.
“One of the running jokes in our show is that a lot of Asian cultures hate on each other,” Yoo says, referring to her show AzN PoP (by pure coincidence, each member represents a different part of Asia: Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, and India). “Culturally, I feel like Asian countries are still learning to get past that and I feel like that's another added struggle amongst all of it. That’s not helping our cause.”
But that doesn’t mean spaces where Asian Americans accept each other, despite differences in ethnic background, are nonexistent. Last year, actor Will Choi founded the Asian American variety show Asian AF at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles. The show spotlights Asian American actors, and includes sketch, improv, and standup. Choi approached Lee to run Asian AF in New York City. Along with fellow comedian Alex Song, Lee has hosted a sold-out show every month since July 2017. Some critics may call out the show as another example of Asians secluding themselves from other races. However, even though the audience is primarily Asian, Lee sees people of all kinds of races come in to watch the shows.
“Personally, I would love to be in those spaces more and I think those spaces are really a good thing,” says Gideon Bautista, who is half Filipino and the creator of Brooklyn-based comedy group Not Quite NASA. He refers to a metaphor he learned from diversity training when he was an undergrad at Boston’s Emerson College.
“It's like building a house,” he says. “If you build a house a certain way, you know where you want everything. If someone else is going to come into that house, they can't move anything, they can't rearrange the furniture. They have to feed into this whole place and figure it out. So, whenever I see an underrepresented or marginalized group getting together and creating their own space, I see them getting a chance to build their own house and see where they want to put things because they've been living in someone else's house for a while. If they have a chance to build that, maybe other folks will eventually come in and see what it's like to have to live in someone else's house. If Asian Americans can finally have a space, the white person who comes in can be a minority for once and realize what that's like.”
Still, it would be revolutionary if SNL opened its doors to Asian talent. But perhaps change is on the horizon. Yoo says an Asian friend made it to the final round this past casting.
“That’s huge for us,” she says, “I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
top photo courtesy AzN PoP
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Amanda Furrer was a baker in Boston living on cookie dough before returning to journalism and moving to NYC. She is a marathoner and ice cream fiend, and gets her daily dose of news from late night shows. You can see her obsession with running shoes and sugar on Instagram at @dessertgrrl.