How Jimmy O. Yang Is Using Humor to Combat COVID Racism
On this week’s episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, “Silicon Valley’s” Jimmy O. Yang talks about upending stereotypes in his new stand-up special “Good Deal.”
When I ask comedian Jimmy O. Yang how he’s been occupying his time under quarantine, he replies with what sounds like the seeds of a new stand-up bit. He tells me his “guilty pleasure” has been watching the local news anchors broadcast from home. “You get to see all the weathermen’s houses to see how they’re living,” he says. “Like who’s making the real money in this news station?”
Yang, best known for playing the quietly devious Jian-Yang on HBO’s Silicon Valley, has been performing stand-up comedy since the late 2000s. This past weekend, he dropped his first ever hour-long special, called Good Deal, on Amazon Prime Video.
“Ever since the acting thing started, it’s been going pretty well and I haven’t had a lot of time to do stand-up,” he tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this special is that a lot of people think I am just that foreign guy on Silicon Valley. To people who only know me as an actor, it’s like, you should know the real me, this is how I started and this is what I’m about.”
He started doing comedy because he was “bored and desperate,” explaining, “In order to type in ‘local open mics’ on your Google search engine, you are one step away from typing in ‘What’s the best way to kill myself?’” It was the summer between his junior and senior years at UC San Diego and the “panic was starting to set in.” He thought to himself, “What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Am I going to sit behind a desk and be a fucking financial adviser?”
On Silicon Valley, Yang risked perpetuating Asian-American stereotypes by playing a heavily accented coder who angers his roommates by leaving smelly fish heads in the sink. In his stand-up, he is able to upend those stereotypes by speaking more directly to his own experience.
With anti-Asian-American racism on the rise during the coronavirus crisis, Yang hopes that his comedy can help in some small way.
While he has not experienced this phenomenon himself—“because I don’t go outside,” he half-jokes—he is very aware of the problem. “It’s extremely disheartening, especially because recently we’ve made so much representation progress,” he says, citing 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, in which he co-starred, as an example. “It’s extremely disheartening to see that kind of racism in the news,” he repeats, “but I feel like there’s just always going to be ignorant people out there.”
Yang wants his stand-up special to help people get to know him and his Asian family “intimately” in a way that makes them feel less foreign. “I think that’s what I can do best as an entertainer,” he says, acknowledging that he’s “lucky enough” to be in the position where he can “use humor” to break down those barriers.
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
On subverting Asian stereotypes on stage
“A year or two into stand-up I was pretty good. But you can tell that material was pretty generic. I hadn’t dug deep into my truths, my family, where I came from. And I think that’s what I try to do in the special now. You can still talk about stereotypes. I have an Asian dick joke, but it’s trying to subvert the standard stereotype and turn it on its head. I have an Asian math joke. But these are all jokes based on my own experiences instead of generic stereotypes. And I think that’s what differentiates newer comics from someone who has graduated from that and is willing to open up.”
On embracing his identity as ‘weird foreign guy’ in high school after moving from Hong Kong to L.A.
“I mean, 13 is a weird age for anyone. Now I have to go to a new country, a new continent, speak a new language. I learned how to speak English the way American kids learn how to speak Spanish. But if I had dropped you off when you were 13 in Tijuana, you would’ve died, probably. So it wasn’t easy. I couldn't understand the simplest slang terms. I felt like everybody was talking too fast. So there was a learning curve. It wasn’t even about making friends or being popular, what other 13-year-old kids would be worried about. I was just trying to survive, just trying to find one friend and not get beat up, you know? And luckily I think that’s why I developed some of the humor. Being the funny, weird foreign guy became my identity. Instead of just being weird, I was trying to be funny.”
Why T.J. Miller’s exit from ‘Silicon Valley’ was the ‘end of an era’ for him
“He called me one night, it was like midnight and he said, ‘Hey man, I don’t think I’m going to come back next season.’ And that was his choice, you know, but he was my partner on the show. And I was like, ‘Dude, you should stay, man.’ I was financially worried for myself. I was like, oh shit, now they're just going to write my character off. That was the end of an era for me. Silicon Valley ended twice for me. It ended the first time when T.J. was gone. For me, it became a different show. It actually was a blessing in disguise because my part got a little bigger and you know, the show went on and we were just fine. All I could tell you from my perspective was, every scene I had with T.J., it was great. And he was a great friend to me. To me, he’s been nothing but sweet and to other people, I can’t speak to that, you know? I don’t know.”
How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ changed his life
“That was life-changing, man. Going in, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was just another movie. Like, I get it on paper. OK, it’s the first all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club. I mentally get it, but I didn’t feel it until I got there. It was like the Avengers of Asians gathering in Singapore. And there was just this common understanding. I was no longer just the only one Asian guy trying to fit in with everyone on a set. Or like the foreign kid in school trying to fit it. Now, I am the people, with the people. And that felt so special, man. I just remember thinking, man, if the audience could feel just one bit of this camaraderie, this happiness that we felt, this joy that we felt, it’s going to be a success. And I think that’s exactly what happened.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, whose new stand-up special I Love Everything premieres on Netflix Tuesday, May 19th. Plus, look out for a very special bonus episode with the cast and creators of Reno 911 this Friday.