Within the last few weeks, I came across “Saturday Night Live’s” (SNL) SoulCycle skit. The skit opened up with an Asian American comedian, who, unbeknownst to me, was Bowen Yang, playing a “motivating” SoulCycle instructor. Yang begins his spiel with “good morning white Harlem,” throwing shade at SoulCycle for contributing to the gentrification of Harlem in the recent decade. After watching the skit, I was overcome with pride to see someone on stage who is Asian American like me.
The list of white comedians goes on and on, but I can count the number of Asian American comedians on my fingers. After 44 seasons of sparse Asian American representation, SNL announced their new cast members for season 45: Chloe Fineman, Shane Gillis and Yang.
Before Gillis could even begin his run as a cast member, SNL cut him because of the racist and homophobic comments he made on his podcast. Gillis ridiculed Chinese accents when discussing Chinatown and perpetuated racist Asian slurs. It’s important who SNL chooses, because the show has launched the careers of many famous comedians, such as Bill Hader and Tina Fey. Although SNL may have made an honest mistake by hiring Gillis in the first place, Asian Americans shouldn’t have to prove themselves as much as they do in comedy. There are clearly two different standards for Asian Americans and white comedians, forcing Asian American comedians to work twice as hard when they’re just as funny.
The history of Asian Americans in comedy is rather bleak. White men (as they often do) have defined their identity as one-dimensional stock characters through yellowface performances throughout the 20th century. They are even present today with Scarlett Johansson’s “Ghost in the Shell,” a remake of the popular Japanese anime, and Emma Stone’s portrayal of a half-Hawaiian woman in “Aloha.” Mickey Rooney’s wildly inappropriate portrayal of a Japanese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is one of the most notorious examples of yellowface. Despite the decades of overtly racist depictions of Asian American identity, Asian American comedians have persisted with some support.
Some people say that if you’re funny, you’re funny; it doesn’t matter what race you are. However, Yang is an anomaly in a sea of middle-aged, not-half-bad white comedians. He rises above the mediocre jokes and SNL’s impersonations of Trump. Through Yang’s immense experience with hosting comedy podcasts, doing stand-up shows and writing sketches for SNL like “The Actress” with Emma Stone and “Cheques” with Sandra Oh, he has certainly proved his talent. But he still flies below the radar. It is overwhelmingly difficult for Asian Americans to break Asian American stereotypes because many people assume that they’re docile with straight As and have no interest in anything outside the realm of STEM. Asian American comedians struggle to be taken seriously — people have already discredited Asian Americans as “too serious” to be funny.
Although SNL can’t undo its historical lack of diversity, it has the chance to change its reputation by hiring cast members from different ethnic backgrounds. By hiring Yang, SNL finally gives Asian Americans a voice. The show can now accurately represent issues central to the Asian American community — with actual Asian American people. SNL can expand the characters they want to portray, making the show more inclusive to political and social issues concerning everyone.
This past month, SNL ran the skit “Weekend Update: Chen Biao on US-China Trade War,” starring Yang. Without Yang, SNL wouldn’t have addressed the trade issue because they wouldn’t have had an Asian American cast member. If SNL were to feature more skits dedicated to Asian American issues, viewers could learn about news that they wouldn’t know otherwise. SNL’s Yang is not just a trend, but he is a catalyst for a new wave of Asian American comedians.
Erin Louie is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at email@example.com.