At the Upright Citizens Brigade theater on Sunset, comic Jenny Yang was on stage wishing aloud Hillary Clinton had beat Donald Trump.
“You know why?” Yang asked.”Because it was time for a matriarchy.”
Yang’s face goes blank as she peers into a sold-out theater packed with 20- and 30-something Asian-American comedy fans.
“I’m a feminist, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I don’t want equality. I want to oppress men!”
Howls and claps meet the opening set of a show filled with improv and sketch comedy that’s sweet at times, raunchy at others and often profane — appropriate for a show that’s called “Asian AF,” as in Asian As F***.
It’s the first all-Asian-American show on UCB’s mainstage, a milestone, its organizers say, for a demographic of entertainers who struggle to get noticed in Hollywood, and who’ve had a particularly trying year that’s seen high-profile Asian roles reinvented with white film actors. (Think Dr. Strange and Ghost in the Shell.)
“Just to say it’s on the mainstage gives it a feeling of ‘Wow, this is a big deal,'” said Will Choi, one of the producers of “Asian AF.”
The improv comedy world has turned out superstars like Stephen Colbert, Kate MacKinnon and Amy Poehler, one of UCB’s founders. Fewer comedians of color, however, have emerged from this corner of comedy, and improv schools have been called out for having a diversity problem. But Choi said that UCB’s eagerness to play host to “Asian AF” signals changing attitudes and that yes, Asian-Americans are funny.
Much of the show does not play to race, but some of the biggest laughs came from nods to shared Asian-American experiences. One sketch is a game show hosted by UCB regular Mike Lane where you decode what your hard-to-please Asian mother means when she says things like ‘Are you hungry?’
The correct answer? “I love you.”
“I know my mom can never say those three little words but whenever she offers me food I know deep down in her heart that she loves me, OK?,” Lane said.
Asian-Americans comedians have been carving out their own space, with special success in Los Angeles. This fall, the city played host to the second year of The Comedy Comedy Festival featuring comedians of Asian-American descent (comic Yang is a co-organizer.) It’s also home to the Cold Tofu, the country’s first Asian-American comedy improv and sketch group.
But at improv training grounds like UCB, Asian-Americans are in scarce number.
Backstage at “Asian AF,” Zach Oyama waits in the greenroom to go on with his improv teammate Dhruv Uday Singh.
“This is the first time I’ve been in this room and looked around and said, Oh there’s only Asian people in the green room,” Oyama said.
“As far as Asians go, there’s an even smaller community of Indians,” Singh pointed out.
UCB’s roster of regular performers is overwhelmingly white, which is the norm in improv and sketch. Take comedy behemoth Saturday Night Live: after more than 40 years on T.V., there are no Asian-Americans on it. That’s how the show’s sole Latina cast member Melissa Villaseñor ended up playing Filipina-American journalist Elaine Quijano in a recent sketch about the vice-presidential debates. Villaseñor addressed the casting choice at the top of the sketch, breaking the fourth wall.
“I’m the new Hispanic cast member,” Villaseñor said in a deadpan. “And tonight I’ll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano because…baby steps.”
Asian AF producer Choi said the lack of Asian-Americans on such a long-running show is a “bummer,” because it’s important to see people who look like you. Choi said he was first inspired to try improv when he saw Korean-American actor Steve Yeun — Glenn on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” — perform with a comedy troupe several years ago.
“Seeing that he’s doing it made me think I can do it too,” Choi said. “That’s the power of representation.”
The “whitewashing” of Asian characters in films spurred Choi to produce and co-host with the Gilmore Girls’ Keiko Agena a couple of free all-Asian American comedy showcases this year on a smaller stage at UCB. They were called “Scarlett Johansson Presents,” a not-so-gentle jab at the actress for taking on the lead role in the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime series Ghost in the Shell. Buoyed by the enthusiastic turnout, Choi joined other UCB performers Mike Lane and Connie Shin in pitching an all-Asian-American show for the mainstage.
It wasn’t a hard sell, said Mano Agapion, who coordinates UCB’s diversity program.
“We know that we are lacking and we do want more Asian American performers on our mainstage,” Agapion said.
UCB had already hosted shows that were exclusively African-American, Latinos, LGBTQ — performers who Agapion said have been traditionally sidelined.
“For years, people in charge have said, ‘Oh, they’re funny but I just don’t think they’re quite there whereas they would see a frattish white guy and be like ‘Yes! I completely get his voice,” Agapion said.
UCB has taken some steps to develop a more diverse group of performers. The theater gives scholarships to students from underrepresented groups so they can take free classes at UCB’s training center. Other talent incubators like The Groundlings and Second City have similar programs.
Also, Agapion hosts a weekly “diversity jam” that bills itself as “a fun, inclusive improv jam for everybody.” Agapion, who is gay and Middle-Eastern, said the comedy scene needs different voices to be relevant and funny, not just “the straight white males in their 20s” who dominate improv.
“It’s a sport of leisure and traditionally that privileged population had the most time to pursue such a silly artform,” Agapion said.
Eugene Cordero, a long-time UCB performer and a Filipino-American, the improv scene is more diverse than when he started out at UCB in New York about 15 years ago. There were hardly any other Asian performers.
“I mean, I’d be able to count them on my hands,” he said.