Inside ‘Asian AF’ with Will Choi

Asian AF, an enormously popular variety show in LA featuring exclusively Asian-American performers, has yet to see a single empty seat. Will Choi and Keiko Agena have hosted sold-out show after sold-out show, featuring guests like Margaret Cho, Sheng Wang, Kulap Vilaysack, Suzy Nakamura, Amy Hill, Lewis Tan, Lilan Bowden, and Eugene Cordero. On June 27th Asian AF made its New York debut to yet another completely sold-out crowd. While there’s no official word on whether the show will continue to run in New York, it seems abundantly clear that east coast comedy goers are just as enthusiastic about the concept as their west coast counterparts.

I recently spoke with Will Choi about some of the adversity facing Asians in the entertainment industry and beyond, his hopes for Asian AF, and the often misunderstood level of diversity contained in the term “Asian-American.”

Was there anything specific that inspired you initially to start the show, or was it just something that you’ve thought about for a long time?

I had an idea for it when I first started getting into acting. I wanted to do some kind of Asian-American show. At the time, didn’t have the resources or the connections to build it, but once I started doing improv and taking classes at UCB out here in LA, I got a little bit more plugged into the community and started making friends with different standups and just different people and groups. It kind of just happened. Before Asian AF, there was another show I put together, which was called Scarlett Johansson Presents, and that was an all-Asian-American improv show, or at least it started off as an all-Asian improv show. Since that was so successful from the very beginning, it kind of led to Asian AF on the UCB main stage.

Why do you think that the entertainment industry is so slow to respond to things like whitewashing in general?

I think – and this is just my opinion – I think that whoever is calling the shots is afraid of change, and they’re afraid of trying something new. Because they have this model that was working for a while, where you just have the top A-lister guy or girl that usually is white, not always, but usually. Now we’re seeing that that’s not really the case anymore. There are certain successes and certain failures, but usually it seems like the movies that do well are the ones that are franchises, like series, like The Fast and the Furious, or Star Wars, and stuff like that. Those are all pretty diverse casts. I think that there’s something there that seems to be working. But I also think that it’s time to tell new stories from new perspectives; I think that’s interesting to audiences. Like Get Out, obviously. It’s so much more captivating than seeing the same recycled movie over and over again.

And it’s nice when the industry allows for people to just be characters and not token representations of minorities.

Yeah, I know. It’s true. And you know, hopefully things will change. The cool thing about our show that I think a lot of people gravitate to and like is that at our show we do sketches and improv and a lot of times they don’t address race. It’s just these characters that are just funny, and they could kind of be played by anyone. The cool thing is that you’re seeing an all-Asian cast doing all of these things. I think that’s just new for a lot of people. They just don’t get to see that, and I think that’s why people gravitate towards it. Because, especially in improv, anyone can play anything. It’s so free and you don’t have to play into some kind of role or some kind of stereotype like in a scripted show or movie. It’s just people being people. And they’re funny.

What is it about comedy more generally that you think is particularly useful when handling sensitive topics?

Satire is just a way to kind of flip things on their head. There is something powerful in comedy that lets you address things in a way that isn’t so… I don’t know what the word is… off-putting? It’s friendly, it’s fun.

Right. I mean, it’s interesting because… Yeah, comedy allows people to be light-hearted but at the same time, I guess, confrontational. It’s a weird middle ground.

Yeah, there’s a fine line I think. I’m really trying to gauge that, because for us, for Asian AF, when it comes to Asian-American comedy and the Asian ethnic community, I’m not a fan of accents, like stereotypical accents. I don’t think accents are wrong or bad or anything like that. I just think, when it comes to the context of comedy, it’s tricky. You know what I mean? That’s my personal stance. When I book acts or when I read sketches that are submitted to me, I don’t choose people or content that says “stereotypical accent,” because I don’t personally find that funny. And there is a way to make it work, but it’s trickier. There’s a fine line.

I think what I’ve learned is, a lot of times I get submissions or whatever where people do accents, and when I think back on the history of it, and comedy, and when it comes to specifically Asian-Americans, the accent was not written by people like us. Because I don’t find that funny, I’m not going to keep on perpetuating that. So I’m going to be like, “No, we’re not going to do any accents here at this show.” It’s a small step. We’re just one little thing in LA. There are so many things that are bigger than us. But at this show, we get to choose to rewrite comedy for us. That, I think, is a powerful thing.

What other misconceptions do you think are impeding the Asian ethnic community in entertainment?

I mean, the accent was definitely the biggest maybe 5 or 10 years ago. You still see it on shows here and there, but I think it’s getting better. But also, when you say “Asian”… It just encompasses so many people. When most people think “Asian,” they think East Asian, but you’re also talking about Southeast Asia, and South Asian, which is like Indians and Sri Lankans.

I think there’s so many different stereotypes, whether it’s the Asian nail salon person, or a martial artist, or the nerdy guy, or the tiger mom, or the fetishized Asian woman. There’s just so many different stereotypes. There’s so many different things that we have to address, and we’re trying to move away from.

Right, and then there’s just the whole issue of whitewashing.

Yeah, I mean, there’s movies and shows that are coming out now that you’re just like, “Okay, well.” You know, Death Note, it’s a new Netflix movie that’s coming out. It’s a story that’s taken from anime, but they kind of adapted it for America. The original story takes place in Japan. Now they changed it to Seattle. They cast a white guy. The original character’s name was Light Yagami. They changed it to Light Turner.

While adaptations are not necessarily whitewashing, the issue I think I have with it was that they tried to cast an Asian person as the lead. Their statement was that they couldn’t find any Asian actors that spoke perfect English. To me, that’s weird. Because it’s like, “Okay. You tried to do this, and then you couldn’t find any Asian actors that spoke perfect English? What?” Like, that’s not true! There’s so many Asian-American actors that can do that. If that’s your excuse, it’s a very flimsy excuse. Also, I’ve heard from people who did casting, and they’re like, “That’s not true. We saw tons of people who spoke English!”

It’s like a weird thing. That, to me, is the issue. It’s not the fact that they changed and adapted a story that’s an anime. You know? The issue is that they’re still giving these weird excuses of not being able to cast an Asian-American person. But yeah, that’s kind of a more recent thing that’s coming up.

One other aspect of that that I’ve seen talked about is this whole idea that Asians are a “safe” minority.

That we’re silent, basically? Yeah. That definitely has been true, because what’s been placed upon Asian people is like, “Oh, we’re the model minority. We don’t complain. We just kind of do what we’re told, and we do it, and we don’t speak up.” I think that was definitely true before, especially with maybe my parents’ generation, or the older generation that was a little bit less assimilated.

But I will say, now with this generation of people like myself where, we grew up, were born here or grew up here as kids, and we see things that are racist or whatever, and even just the representations—maybe we were silent before, but now we have a voice and we’ve been more vocal about it. I’m not saying that people didn’t back then, but now more than ever there’s more people who are willing to say things and be more vocal.

Right. And comedy provides kind of a uniquely approachable route for that.

Yeah, I agree. I definitely agree. I think that you’re seeing Ronny Chieng, for example, on The Daily Show, and Hasan Minhaj; they’re just going to call it out. I love seeing more of that. And also, just the people who have been doing it for so long. A couple of months ago we got Margaret Cho to do standup at our show. If it wasn’t for her just being fearless and going out there and doing her thing, a lot of us wouldn’t feel comfortable – I don’t think a lot of us would be doing what we’re doing. She paved the way. I remember watching her standup as a kid and being like, “Oh my God, this is so funny, because I relate to that, and I understand her when she talks about her mom.” It’s relatable in that sense. So even people like her who have been doing it for a while, now I feel like there’s so much more appreciation for them because my generation grew up watching her and is kind of continuing the path that she paved.

Are there any responses to these problems that are well-meaning, but are actually somewhat toxic in their approach?

Scarlett Johansson gave a statement about the casting of Ghost in the Shell where she was like, “This is a big deal for women.” And I was like, “Yes, of course. A female-led blockbuster movie is super important,” but… I think there’s room for more than one diversity answer. I mean, I don’t know. I just feel like it’s not just a one-issue thing. Tilda Swinton said something along the same lines about Doctor Strange. And again, it’s totally true and very important, but at the same time, you’re ignoring another aspect of it. You’re not addressing another issue when it comes to Asian-Americans, and that’s also important.

It’s like the use of diversity to downplay the Asian element that they’re stepping on.

Right. Because it’s like, “Well, we did cast diversely, we casted a woman.” But, you know, she’s also white. She’s still white. And these movies are still very Asian-inspired, and have Asian elements in it. So, while I don’t want to say that… Yeah, it’s complicated. What I’m trying to say is, it’s all very important. You don’t want to ignore one thing by only addressing one other thing when they are both important.

What’s your highest hope for Asian AF?

I always joke about this, but I always say I can’t wait until the day when the show doesn’t need to exist, because we solved the problems with diversity.

You know, we’re not seeing many Asian people on SNL. I think mainly Fred Armisen, who’s 1/4 Japanese, and Rob Schneider was on SNL and he’s part Filipino. So we haven’t really seen Asians on that show, really. So, for Asian AF, I would love to see it if it could get adapted to screen somehow, or just a way to find a wider audience. Like, maybe like an Asian In Living Color. Because you think about In Living Color and it was a majority-Black sketch show in ‘90s, and now it’s 2017 and even the thought of a majority-Asian sketch show is still somehow crazy.

I would love to see Asian AF reach a wider platform, whether it’s a digital space or on TV. I think that would be a really cool thing for Asian-Americans, and non-Asian-Americans to get to see that and be say, “Oh, cool. This exists and it’s not weird.”

Is there anything that you think people keep overlooking when it comes to discussing this topic that you just wish you had more of an opportunity to discuss?

Definitely. A lot of the interviews that I’ve done are just very, like, kind of just one-note, I guess. They don’t really delve into this too much, but I think the main thing that I would love to talk about is that “Asian-American” represents so many different types of people. I think that’s something that, with other interviews, it just kind of either gets cut out or they don’t really talk about it in the questions. I think it’s really important because it also comes down to representation. That’s just inherently an issue when it comes to just the term “Asian-American,” because it just encompasses so many different types of people, and we all don’t look the same. You know?

Right. It’s a huge continent.

Yeah. It’s a huge continent, and it… You look at me, and then you look at a Filipino person, we look very different. We experience different issues. Or you look me and you look at an Indian person, and we’re very different. It’s a whole different set of issues that they’re facing. I can’t speak about the things that they’ve gone through, or the different stereotypes that they face. There is common ground, obviously, but there’s also very specific things too. When it comes to the whole talk about Asian-American representation and stuff like that, I don’t want any other ethnicity, or any other different types of Asians, to get lost in that mix. And I don’t want to make it seem like I’m only talking about myself.

When it comes to the performers that we put on the show, I want whoever is seeing Asian AF to look on stage and see how diverse it is. Because we feature people who are East Asian: Korean, Chinese, Japanese, but also Southeast Asian, like: Vietnamese, Filipino and Lao, and then South Asian with Sri Lanka and India. Also very important are mixed-race people. Because that’s a whole different set of issues that I personally don’t have the experience of either. A lot of our performers are half-white and half-Asian or half-black and half-Asian.

My hope is that when people come to Asian AF, they see how different everyone looks. I’m essentially trying to make sure everyone knows, “This is Asian America. This is what our community looks like. It’s not all people that look like me.” Yeah, just trying to get people to come to the mindset of, “Oh, yeah. Everyone is included in this and it’s not weird.”

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

Inside ‘Asian AF’ with Will Choi