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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Too Funny to be Asian or Too Asian to be Funny? The Rise of Asian Comedians

In a world that has mischaracterized Asians as stoic and unfunny, these modern Asian comedians are here to rewrite the punchline.
Today, comedians like Ali Wong are stealing the spotlight away from fictitious stereotypes of what it means to be Asian. (Photo Credit: CleftClips, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

It is twelve in the morning. Despite how dark it is outside, the sun’s goodbye seems to be an invitation for the interior grime to make itself comfortable. The overhead lighting is holding on for dear life, as it flickers in and out every so often. Around, around, and around again goes the washing machines that line the walls. The cycle is hypnotic; you almost do not realize that there is anyone in the establishment but you. But between the hum of the wash cycle and the dry cycle, you can just make out a voice. 

The voice comes from someone who is only five-foot-tall, and she looks even smaller in the empty corner. She is lifted slightly off the ground, as the half-inch platform props her to the same level as the standing mic. She fires off a wry one-liner, waits a beat, and moves to the next. With a glass-half-full outlook, the crowd is disinterested. More truthfully, the crowd is just one drunk guy, out cold in his chair. Even in the eyes of this less-than-seasoned audience, she is bombing. It is 2005. 

Undoubtedly, humor is difficult to achieve, and very few have a knack for it. As an Asian-American, I personally have spent much of my life unconcerned by this. After all, if any racial stereotype is tirelessly echoed over and over again, it is the assumption that Asians are destined to be doctors and lawyers, anything without wit in the job description.

For decades, Asians have been the focus figures of the model minority myth, a trope designed to drive racial wedges between Asians and other communities of color. This has most often been utilized by some white Americans to discredit the existence of systemic racism and claim that these struggles can simply be overcome with hard work.

A single image of an Asian-American has been perpetuated time and time again — an obedient worker bee. This caricature is of someone who keeps their head down, even amidst scorn and discourtesy. These detrimental stereotypes come hand in hand with the notion of Asian stoicism: remain calm, detached, and most of all, never make a scene. So was born the archetype of the passive and unfunny Asian.

Moreover, with these destructive expectations, perhaps it is unsurprising how unnoticed mockery of Asian cultures has gone. From the yellowface imitation of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to caricatures of Indian characters like Apu in TV shows like The Simpsons, concerns regarding these startling representations have long been dismissed, under the guise of being “all in good fun.” But when the punchline is race and subjects of these stereotypes are taught not to say a word, it forces us to reconsider who these jokes are really meant to appeal to.

In the 21st century, Asian-Americans are no longer content to just sit back and watch the show. Across the U.S., more and more Asian-Americans are getting up from their seats and onto the stage themselves. Through the art of stand-up comedy, they are going above and beyond to subvert myths of the quiet Asian; they are foul-mouthed, outstandingly relatable, and mercilessly hilarious.

Alexandra Dawn Wong — known more widely as Ali Wong — is now a global sensation. Do not let her petite stature and motherly love for her two young daughters fool you; her punchlines will go straight to your ribs. (Photo Credit: CleftClips, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Back to Ms. Laundromat — today, Ali Wong is a household name across the world.

Born in Pacific Heights, San Francisco in 1982, Wong was raised as the youngest of four children in a half Vietnamese, half Chinese family. Though her mother is a Vietnamese immigrant, Wong’s early life was dominated by Chinese culture, with little exposure to the other side of her ethnicity. Having come alone to the United States in 1960, her mother was forced to shed much of her Vietnamese culture in order to assimilate to American life. A generation later, her children were left with an itch to learn about that half of themselves.

Beginning in 2001, Wong attended to the University of California, Los Angeles and majored in Asian-American studies. Here, she reconnected with her Vietnamese heritage by studying abroad in the city of Hanoi and learning Vietnamese through the Fulbright Program. As she later quipped, Wong’s degree in Asian-American studies has made her “an expert on how to blame everything on white people.”

Not only was this a pivotal period for embracing her culture, but Wong’s time at UCLA set the grounds for her journey to fame. It was here that she joined the Lapu, the Coyote that Cares Theatre Company (LCC) and found her love for show business. LCC is now the longest running Asian-American theater company in the U.S., and Wong thanked these experiences for giving her a creative space to “portray Asian Americans as multidimensional human beings.”

With this glimpse into a life of performance, she was from that moment unbridled in her pursuit of a career on stage. Just after graduating in 2005, she was determined to share her fiery wit behind the mic. Equipped with dirty one-liners and sporting her later iconic cat eye frames, 23-year-old Wong took up her first open-mic set at San Francisco’s BrainWash Café, which she later described to Vanity Fair as a “half café, half laundromat, 100 percent homeless shelter.” Countless nights were spent in small joints like these, test-running millions of crude jokes and honing those which would eventually comprise her stand-up. In her memoir, Dear Girls, she writes that she is grateful for her failure at this juncture in her life: “It’s the only way to get good.”

Soon after, Wong realized she could only get so far in her home state. The restless city of New York was the perfect match to her crass humor. As she told Variety, “I had people telling me, ‘People who live in New York have a lot of ambition and talent; people who live in L.A. have a lot of ambition and no talent; and people who live in San Francisco go to Burning Man.’”

So, she packed her bags for the Big Apple — and it wasn’t easy. Wong shared her SoHo loft with six other roommates, where she “literally just ate lentils and brown rice at home,” (aside from rare occasions on which she spent $3.50 to treat herself in Chinatown). At ungodly hours, she’d bounce from venue to venue and perform as many as nine sets in one night, endlessly perfecting her craft. While Wong’s stardom can be described in many ways — frank, inspiring, and electrifying — a lucky or overnight success certainly is not one. To date, the comic has refused to step away from stand-up for longer than two weeks over the last decade of work.

It was only through relentless practice and commitment that Wong’s talent began to come out of those dimly lit clubs and into the spotlight. In 2011, she booked a guest comic slot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, gaining her a preliminary following in the comedy scene. And in 2014, she was brought on as a writer for ABC’s soon-to-be hit sitcom, Fresh off the Boat

Even still, Wong had yet to be a household name. But that all changed in May of 2016. It was the release of her Netflix special, Baby Cobra, that catapulted her into the spotlight. Performing even while in the third trimester of her pregnancy with her first child, she delves into the nitty gritty, honest truths of sex, pregnancy, feminism, the struggles of Asian Americans, and the double standards for women in the comedy industry. Wong’s Baby Cobra is unapologetic, candid, raunchy, and positively hilarious. Her self-proclaimed “naughty Oprah” style of comedy had from that moment grabbed the hearts of millions.

Wong does not just reference the taboo — she makes it her focal point. Raised eyebrows are not enough to shy her away from serious discussions of Asian fetishization or even her own miscarriages. It is without a doubt that Wong squashes the Hollywood myth of a demure Asian woman. But she is an inspiration not just to Asian-Americans, but also to women in general. Her dedication is a source of worldwide admiration, a sign to color outside the lines. She is the voice of anyone who has ever felt exhilarated, frustrated, ecstatic or outraged. The presence of Ali Wong is as refreshing as it is fiery. In the span of a few minutes, she will soften your heart and render your mouth agape. 

“My husband is Asian. Which a lot of people are shocked by, because, usually, Asian-American women who, like, you know, wear these kinda glasses and have a lot of opinions, they like to date white dudes. You go to any hipster neighborhood in a major city in America and that s*** is turning into a Yoko Ono factory.”

Throughout 2024, venues across the U.S. will welcome one of the world’s modern stand-up kings — Ronny Chieng. The comedy wonder has already sold out tickets at major venues such as Radio City Music Hall, and fans only continue to clamor for more. (Photo Credit: FUNG BROS., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, 3,000 miles across the U.S., thousands are outside and standing in line, the energy buzzing and warm despite the biting wind of the New York winter. Huge lights of red, blue, and yellow illuminate the letters RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL. The sight is hectic, animated, and teeming with anticipation. In this whirlwind of colors, sounds, and visual overload, it is almost possible to miss the main attraction.

Almost. The frozen poster of a man still captures your eye amidst it all. He is clad in a burgundy, velvet tuxedo. His hair is combed perfectly and gelled back. But more powerful than anything is the glint in his eye, that seems to already see the hint of the next punchline. 

This is Ronny Chieng.

Unlike Wong’s many years spent living and growing up in the Golden State, Chieng spent his childhood and young adult years in various parts of the world. The Malaysian-Chinese actor and stand-up star was born in 1985 in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. He grew up in both New Hampshire and Singapore before later moving to Australia for college. 

At the University of Melbourne, he pursued a career in finance and law and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce. A future in entertainment of all things seemed to be the last thing on his mind. But in his final year of university, Chieng happened to take a shot at the campus comedy competition — and won. Meanwhile, he was also struggling to find work in law. So, that same year, this combination of necessity and a newly realized love for performance became the sparks of something spectacular. Shortly after graduating, Chieng began to perform his first stand-up sets in Melbourne.

It wasn’t long before his career took off. In 2013, he performed with fellow comedian Trevor Noah at a Melbourne comedy festival. This eventually gave rise two years later to his big-ticket role as a senior correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, a satirical news program. 

In 2016, Chieng went viral for his scathing response to a racist segment aired on Fox News. In the original Fox News segment, correspondent Jesse Watters visited New York’s Chinatown, following mentions of China in the first presidential debates. After the segment’s release, Watters faced immediate backlash for his stereotyping of Asian martial arts and his disrespect towards his interviewees, many of whom were elderly Chinese residents of the area and did not speak English. Chieng pulled no punches in his criticism of the clip, as he tore into the thinly-veiled racism. At the end of his own segment, he too visited Chinatown for interviews, but spoke respectfully and in the language preferred by its residents.

In 2017, he was cast as Eddie Cheng in Crazy Rich Asians, the first major studio movie (since the 1993 Joy Luck Club) with an all-Asian cast, telling a modern story. “One cool thing about the movie is that it shows Singapore as a character in the film, the way New York is a character in a Woody Allen film. They portray Singapore with poise and dignity and respect,” he told the L.A. Times. “Usually when Hollywood goes to Asia, it’s because James Bond goes there for, like, a one-night stand and then he leaves the next day. This is like, we see Singapore in all its positive lights.”

By 2019, Chieng too boasted the achievement of his very own Netflix special: “Asian Comedian Destroys America!” His side-splitting jabs at absurd aspects of American culture are brutally true. His critique of the country covers everything from American overconsumption to our inane state mottos. He even goes on to describe his campaign for an Asian U.S. president, “We work through public holidays. Any city in America, when it’s 3:00 a.m., and you’re hungry, where do you go? You go to Chinatown…Jewish people will vote for us, because, like I just said, we’re the only ones that cook for them during Christmas, okay? They’re already loving the flavors.”

Though it may not be obvious from its name, Chieng actually describes the special as “a love letter to America”, noting how his perspective as an immigrant has given him a unique appreciation for the country. Settling permanently in the U.S. later in life is precisely what has given him the ability to notice the wacky things that most Americans gloss over. As of today, his career has only skyrocketed with the 2024 announcement of “The Love to Hate It Tour.” Chieng has already performed in major cities like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and more, with dozens more sets and hundreds more jests to go throughout the rest of the year.

“Asian people in America just want s*** to work. We’re not distracted by the spectacle of show business. We just want things to work so we give it to you straight. You can trust us… to tell you the truth…Ugly truths, but truths nonetheless. Like, yo, white people… Yo… ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sucks. Right? It’s a f****** un-danceable song. For the love of God, stop gathering in circles and chanting it at parties.”

Cooking, acting, writing, producing, and of course, stand-up…what can’t Jimmy O. Yang do? The comedian has come a long way since first supporting his comedy career with a day job as a doorman, but he is no less enamored with the art of stand-up. (Photo Credit: https://www.youtube.com/user/FungBrosComedy, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Flashback again, this time to a younger man. He is escorting guests to small tables, each lit by candlelight. You see him here day after day, and week after week. Every so often, you will notice how he pauses for a moment beside the tables. He follows the gaze of everyone else in the room, towards where the spotlight illuminates the comic on stage. The moment is quick, but long enough to see the twinkle of his eye, as he imagines himself on that stage.

Meet Jimmy O. Yang.

The current 36-year-old stand up comic, Love Hard lead, and most importantly, host of Jimmy’s Kitchen, was born in Hong Kong to Shanghainese parents in 1987. His childhood is recounted in his 2018 memoir, How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents. Yang spares no detail, whether it be in stories about his short-lived spotlight as a young Chinese ping-pong star, or his childhood fear of his father’s wrath over his poorly cooked rice. 

However, he also describes the often overlooked struggles of someone with mainland Chinese parents, living in Hong Kong (then a British colony). “I’d speak Cantonese in school, Shanghainese back home and watch TV in Mandarin. These Chinese dialects sounded as different as Spanish and Italian,” he writes. “My schoolmates in Hong Kong always called me ‘Shanghai boy.’” Feeling different, even in the city he was born in, proved to be practice for learning to accept his identity as an immigrant shortly after.

At 13, Yang and his family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in L.A. “Me coming to this country when I was 13 is different from Ali Wong growing up in the Bay Area. It’s different from Ronny Chieng coming here much later in life from Malaysia and Australia,” Yang told GQ. Having come to a new country at a notoriously awkward point in any preteen’s life, he grappled constantly with how to both fit in as an American teenager and hold on to the culture he had always known. 

Despite both having successful careers and a comfortable life in Hong Kong, the comedian’s parents gave everything up to give him and his older brother the chance for a better education. But after struggling to find work in the States, his mother decided soon after to move back while the rest of the family stayed in L.A. Though he has since rebuilt his relationship with his mother, the then 15-year-old Yang took this especially hard. Yang admits that this early feeling of confusion and hurt played a large role in propelling him towards the unconventional path of stand-up. 

In 2009, he graduated from the University of California San Diego with a degree in economics — a choice he explains as being the “easiest major that could still please your Asian parents.” However, even then he knew that this trajectory was not for him. The commencement speech at Yang’s graduation was given by TV creator Mike Judge, who told his own story of leaving behind his field of physics to pursue comedy and animation. The speech immediately struck a chord with Yang, and he gave his first try at stand-up not long after. Following long day shifts as a used-cars salesman, comedy club doorman, and DJ, Yang would spend his evenings performing free stand-up sets at The Comedy Palace.

Ironically, in 2014, Mike Judge himself co-created HBO’s Silicon Valley and gave Yang the breakout role that would shoot him into stardom. In the series, Yang plays Jian Yang, an eccentric Chinese app developer. Though the character was initially meant to be a throwaway bit for the first season, Yang undeniably stole the scene each time, earning him a spot as a series regular throughout the show’s entire 5 season run.

Since, he has been involved in numerous other acting escapades, most notable of which include acting alongside Ronny Chieng in Crazy Rich Asians, starring in Steve Carell’s Space Force, and stepping up to the plate as leading man in the 2021 rom-com Love Hard. His stand-up life has not faltered in the least either. In the last four years, Amazon Prime has released two of Yang’s comedy specials, Good Deal and Guess How Much? When he is not busy with all of these projects, you can find him writing, hosting his YouTube cooking channel, or even VR boxing. Truly, he is a modern legend of a multi-pronged life, filled with laughter.

In a conversation with GQ about his ultimate dreams, Yang hopes that, “When I get old, I just want to sit in disguise at a comedy club bar. Nobody knows who I am but I’m paying attention. If a new talent [kills it], someone who has the grit and fortitude, someone who really wants it, I want to make some calls and help that guy out.” 

These comedians are truly bringing about a revolution within the comedy industry. Asians have become agents of humor, rather than the objects of it. 

Like Ali Wong, be fierce, be unapologetic, be brazen. Take the things you have overcome, and make space to laugh about them. Like Ronny Chieng, be appreciative of the smallest things. Use wry humor to call out prejudice, and do not hold back. Like Jimmy O. Yang, be attune to your surroundings. Help the next person with a dream. Like each of them — and every Asian stand-up comic for that matter — take a chance.

Too funny to be Asian? Too Asian to be funny? I don’t think so.

Across the U.S., more and more Asian-Americans are getting up from their seats, and onto the stage themselves. Through the art of stand-up comedy, they are going above and beyond to subvert myths of the quiet Asian; they are foul-mouthed, outstandingly relatable, and mercilessly hilarious.

About the Contributor
Sidney Lin, Staff Reporter
Sidney Lin is a Spotlight Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She appreciates the use of journalism in its ability to give voice to the stories that are hidden at every corner. Not only does Sidney believe that journalism informs, but she also sees journalism as driving readers to see things in a way one may never have otherwise. Sidney loves the way in which photographs are used to immortalize the moments and perspectives that may very well pass us by in our lives otherwise. To her, there is no better a cure than sitting with friends and family, and opening up a photo album. Outside of school, she can be found conducting scientific research, traveling to a broad range of new cities, watching sitcoms, and taking photos of anything and everything. Sidney is drawn to make a difference in the field of biology, but she sincerely hopes to incorporate journalism and photojournalism into her life as an ongoing endeavor in her daily life, continuing to make stories out of the ordinary.