“I literally had a car drop me off and I walked in the front door, which is weird,” Jimmy O. Yang says as he speedwalks with a tote bag full of hardcover editions of his new memoir, How to American, to the greenroom at the Bell House, where he’s doing a sold-out stand-up show. Just because Yang is on a hit TV show like HBO’s Silicon Valley and shot a few feature film roles (Patriot’s Day and the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians), doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand the value of the hustle. He arrives well before his call time to make sure that they can set up a table so he can sign and sell some books, too. The sticker price is $27, but as he tells the audience that night during his set, he’s selling them for $25 a pop. “It’s a good deal!” he jokes, quoting his mom. “I take Venmo also. I don’t give a fuck.”
How to American starts with Yang’s carefree childhood in Hong Kong, before his family made the move to Los Angeles when he was 13 years old and became well versed in the survival art of assimilation. After college, he swerved from his parents’ expectations to go into law (or something) and tried his hand at stand-up. Since then, he’s made a career treading that familiar, oft-stereotyped role of an Asian immigrant in comedy, including his Silicon Valley role as Jian Yang, the slightly diabolical app developer often paired with T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman. Before Yang went on for his Bell House set, we moved well past the question of “Is the accent racist?” and discussed schisms within Asian America, why Jian Yang is an anti-assimilationist character, and how Crazy Rich Asians changed his life.
It’s been interesting to see Jian Yang without T.J. Miller’s character Erlich on Silicon Valley. Was it weird to start the new season without him?
Yeah. I love T.J. We were like the pair, like Laurel and Hardy, or Dinesh and Gilfoyle. I was worried and a bit sad, to be honest, that T.J. was gone because I just love working with that dude. We bring the best out of each other. Like, if it’s a scene with me and T.J., we’re going to kill it. We just know that from experience.
It was scary, but I think it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I absorbed some of T.J.’s part, being an asshole of the house. I get to interact with everyone. I think there’s some good pairings this year with my character, some new characters coming in, and some characters that’s been around forever that I never really talked to. The second episode was like his asshole coming-out party, you know, with the pig and everything.
Do you enjoy how Jian Yang has become more of an asshole?
I love it, man. Most people have that little asshole in them but, you know, we’ve got to be functional members of society so we don’t do that. We go around the world as a nice person, but there’s always a part of us that really wants to come out. It’s great that I get to do it fictionally. It’s just so cool to see this kind of docile, small-looking guy being such a diabolical person. I think that’s what’s kind of funny about it. It’s anti-type in a way, which I loved.
T.J. Miller’s exit was very dramatic.
Sure is, yeah. It’s like a show within a show, huh?
Were there problems on set with him?
I can tell you from my perspective only. Other people got their perspective and I hear things, but for me, we worked together very well. Me and him never had any problems. I would say maybe his exiting wasn’t a surprise to some, but to me it was surprising.
When I got the phone call, [Miller] was like, “Dude, you’re the first one I called, man. You know, I’m not coming back.” I was like, “Oh, shit!” It was sad, man. That last scene, that was the last scene with Erlich and Jian Yang, you know? For me, I just feel so blessed to be on the show because I snuck in. I started as a two-line part on one episode. I really think the chemistry between me and T.J. is what helped my character a lot to come to his own. So, who knows? If it wasn’t for Erlich, I don’t know what Jian Yang would’ve been, so yeah. I feel sad about it.
Was he coming late to table reads?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.
Did you buy your parents anything once you became a regular on the show?
Oh, did I? I gave them money to go on a trip to, like, Europe and stuff. I obviously try to always take care of them. I’m like, “I’ll get you guys a business-class ticket. You guys are old, so you guys can chill on the plane.” They’re like, “No, no, no. Please don’t. Please don’t. Just give me that money and I’m going to spend it on something else.” You know how Asian parents are. They refuse to let me spend it on business-class tickets.
The best present is money!
Oh, for sure. The funniest thing is, I gave them however much money to go on this Euro trip, and then my mom called me from Paris. She’s like, “Hey, Jimmy. We’re at Bottega Veneta. We’re going to buy a wallet for you and your brother as a gift. Just tell me which one you want. You want the black one? The blue one? It’s a good deal here.” I don’t want either one. I have a wallet that I use and it’s fine. I don’t need a new wallet. It’s like, I don’t know, $300 compared to maybe $500 here. I’m like, “Fine, just get it. Whatever.” Then I realized, “Wait a minute, that was my money! She just spent my money to get me a gift I didn’t want.” Now I have to use this fucking wallet that I don’t really care for.
How do you respond to criticism that Jian Yang is playing into a stereotype? And how do you think this season responds to that?
It’s a fine line, especially playing somebody with an accent. And playing a geek or a tech person because they’re like, “Oh, you’re just playing into this stereotype,” but okay, first of all, everybody’s a geek. Everybody’s a tech-smart person on that show.
The accent, because I was an immigrant myself, I made sure it was a very authentic Mandarin accent that I took from my mother, that I took from my uncle, instead of just like a cliché stereotype accent. Me and [Silicon Valley co-creator Mike Judge], first day of shooting, we had a conversation about that. He was like, “Yo, you know better than me. You do whatever feel right for you.” Doing that, it’s making him into a real person instead of a cartoon. Because there are people like that that exist.
I know Asian actors out there won’t even audition for a role that have an accent. But for me, I was the kid with an accent. I still have an accent to some degree. I don’t agree with that. I never understood that. A lot of that is American-born Asians and Chinese people have different opinions. Being an immigrant, I think I have a different opinion. My thing is, he’s an immigrant. He does have an accent, but he could be funny, he could be an asshole, and he could be cool, you know what I mean? I think it’s not realistic to shun all immigrant characters. That’s shunning a part of society. That’s shunning your own brothers and sisters in a way, but I get it. If you don’t feel comfortable playing it because that’s not how you grew up, I get it. It’s probably painful for a lot of them who speak English perfectly, who grew up English as a first language and the only language, but they were made fun of for being a foreign kid. But for me, I was the foreign kid. I had to fight for myself to assimilate. So it’s important for me to represent these characters in a three-dimensional way.
What was it like encountering Asian-Americans as a kid?
One of the most painful things when I first came here wasn’t the fact that black people [and] white people didn’t accept me, because I expected that. I was different. The most painful thing was the Asians who were born here didn’t accept me. They wanted nothing to do with me more than the white kids and the black kids, because they don’t want to be associated with the fresh-off-the-boat kid. I get it.
I wish we don’t live in that world. I wish we live in a world where we are just as normal Americans as a white person, but we don’t right now. Hopefully it’s going to get more normal with portrayals on TV. There’s a weight that we always have to carry, because there’s only five of us on TV, so we have to represent everyone.
People have accents. My parents have accents. They deserve to be protagonists. I think the question is whether the accent is a punch line in and of itself. Do you ever feel any discomfort with people who are laughing just because your character has an accent?
Even like season one, like the “I eat the fish” scene. I think that’s what clicked for us. In a way, some of the laughs maybe came from the accent or the confusion, but a lot of it is the look, right? I remember Mike coming up to me — he was directing the episode, I think — and he just gave me one note. He was like, “Just look at T.J. for like five seconds. Don’t say anything, and just see how pissed off he gets.” That was a lot of where the comedy came from, where the panic came from. Really, it’s making fun of T.J., this big American being so impatient and maybe racist, or short, with this little kid, so I think that’s where the comedy came from. I don’t think it’s just the accent. It’s just good fucking comedy at the end of the day. I would probably feel pretty uncomfortable if I was on a network sitcom with really canned jokes doing that. It’s a fine line between hack and good comedy. That’s the same exact line between a cartoon character, a stereotype, and good comedy.
Do you feel like he’s an anti-assimilationist character?
Yes. For so long, I desperately wanted to be as American as possible. I listened to hip-hop, tried to rap, I worked at a strip club. But for Jian Yang, there’s something so brave and awesome about, like, Fuck everyone else. I don’t need to be here. I’m Chinese, I’m better. When I was growing up, I was opposite of that. And maybe when I was younger, I looked down at those people, but now I’m like, Dude, I wish I was like that. My life would have been so much easier. And it takes a confidence to do that. I guess I just had low self-esteem — that’s why I wanted to fit in and assimilate. When you are a kid, when you’re 13, that’s what it is. But now I’m more like Jian Yang ever since shooting Crazy Rich Asians. After that, I was just so fucking proud to be Asian. We’re the closest friends, like with Ronny Chieng, we just hung out yesterday in Chicago. Last time I was here doing a book signing, Awkwafina came out and helped me out. We all got each others’ back, no questions asked.
Is there a group text?
Oh, there’s a WhatsApp group! That’s how fucking Asian we are.
I literally was just texting Sonoya [Mizuno] on WhatsApp right now. Ken Jeong just texted me like, “Dude, congratulations!” He wrote the blurb on my book, Kevin Kwan wrote a blurb, and they were the first ones to do it. No questions asked. Nico Santos I’ve known from Bay Area stand-up, and he lives right by me so we hang out all the time. Jon Chu lives right by me. We’re actually like brothers and sisters. It’s not just like we’re Asians and we support the Asian organizations. We’re like the new Asian mafia.
What’s the role you’re playing in Crazy Rich Asians?
I play Bernard Tai. He’s the fat asshole that throws the bachelor party. He’s literally fat. He’s the biggest asshole that nobody wanted to hang out with. He throws them the bachelor party and he’s in business with their dads. So I guess he’s a ladies’ man. That Versace robe that he’s wearing. Dude, he’d just always constantly have like five girls around him. [Shows a photo of himself in character on his phone.]
I know that guy.
Right, there’s a guy that’s like Versace everything. It was so fun playing that. But yeah, the pressure was just off. It’s not like, “Am I being too much of an asshole?” No. Because there’s a whole spectrum of us. I’m just an actor now. I’m not just one Asian actor to represent everyone. We can be funny; we can be romantic. It’s really like a coming-out party for us and it’s really fucking awesome. I made some lifelong friends, man. I found my creative people so I couldn’t be any happier.
What was it like to go back to Hong Kong after all those years?
It’s crazy. I didn’t want to go back, because I was scared that my childhood memories was gonna get ruined. It was a pretty happy childhood, and Hong Kong was like the perfect place looking back. But when I went back, it was just this sense of peace. Not that people look at me weirdly here, but there’s still something. You’re not the norm. If I go eat in Chinatown, people will be like, “Oh you’re being a fucking stereotype,” but in Hong Kong, I’m just a guy eating lunch. It’s just a sense of ease, like I felt like a white person in America for the first time. And it felt fucking good.
Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you stayed?
I thought about that. I think I would not be taking this many chances. The pursuit of artistry or taking a risk to be an actor or stand-up, it’s like you’re not content. I think if I just stayed in Hong Kong, I’d be a lot more content. And my family would have stayed together in Hong Kong and I could have worked a finance job and probably found a lot of contentment and happiness in my family and my friends. But I was so uprooted when I immigrated that I felt like I needed to find something else to fulfill this deep dark hole that’s inside of me. It’s like dislocation trauma. Especially this young, everything’s gone and then you have to start over. That’s why people become stand-up comedians. Normal people don’t become stand-up comedians.
This interview has been edited and condensed.