Fumi Abe Is Indie by Default

Fumi Abe. Photo: Phil Provencio/Courtesy of Fumi Abe

Fumi Abe (@TheFumiAbe) is a New York–based stand-up comedian and the co-host of Asian, Not Asian, a podcast where two Asian guys not from Asia talk about American issues no American seems to care about. He also produces a monthly comedy show at Black Cat LES every third Wednesday called Hack City Comedy.

This week, Abe talked with me about shortening his name, doing comedy in different cities, and finding inspiration in daily interactions.

My full first name is Masafumi, which is simply too long and complicated for most people in the U.S. (even though it’s all phonetic). In my social life and comedy, I’ve shortened that to “Fumi” so people can easily remember my name. When I go to Starbucks, I dumb it down one more level to eliminate any confusion, and go by “John.” Even after all that prep work, the fine employees of Starbucks will still mess up my name AND revert back to assigning me an Asian-sounding one. I guess I’ll try “Bob” next time and hope they don’t think I said “Bao.”

Wow, this exact thing has happened to my uncle! His name is actually John and the person at Starbucks wrote “Jong”! Did you purposely use Fumi instead of Masafumi for the internet? Do you feel the need to dumb down cultural specificities for people online?
Your uncle is a true hero for not making a scene. At this point in time, I think it’s all about making foreign things palatable for the dominant culture here. I know this will get better in the future, but for now Fumi seems like a fair compromise.

I traveled a lot this year for comedy and weddings, and the first thing I noticed is that every city in America has its own “Brooklyn” — the cultural epicenter and home of delicious eateries and alt babes with wolf tattoos on their thighs. After paying $3 for a Blue Moon instead of $8, you start thinking, Why am I paying so much to live in New York when I can do the same thing right here? But then you’re denied service at a “late night” food truck run by a Chad-Bro because they close at 8 p.m., and you realize New York has you by the balls.

What’s another city with great comedy that you especially like?
Chicago and San Francisco for sure. Chicago because I feel like the city appreciates and takes pride in its comedy scene. San Francisco because the Asian-American presence is strong there, so I don’t have to over-explain Asian stuff if I want to make a nuanced cultural reference. They don’t really care that I’m Asian, and that’s a refreshing experience for someone from the East Coast.

Note: Kara-age is Japanese fried chicken.

There comes a time in every Asian person’s life when you have to decide if your white friends are “ready” to accompany you to an Asian restaurant. Even if you tell them not to play drums with the chopsticks, the inexperienced will always find a way to embarrass you in front of your people.

Also, I am FULLY aware that this tweet has grammatical errors, but sometimes you’re just too excited to check for stuff like that.

How did you first get into comedy?
I grew up in Ohio where I was one of about five Asian kids in my entire school (including my sister), so I’ve always used humor as a tool to survive in the Midwest socially and to “fit in.” As far as stand-up, one time I was chilling with some friends at Three of Cups Bar on Avenue A (RIP), and an open mic just happened around us. It was so awful, and it ruined our evening. Inspired by the horrific performances, I went back the next week to try it myself. I bombed.

I tweeted this when every Asian person on my Instagram and Twitter feed was going nuts about Crazy Rich Asians, specifically about its positive impact on Asian representation in the media. As much as I want to agree with this, during the movie, I couldn’t help but think about how I’m still going to get rejected at all of my auditions because I’m five-foot-seven and don’t have abs.

What kinds of comedy do you prefer watching versus doing, if there’s a difference? 
For watching, I definitely like more unconventional or experimental stuff — acts that will never be “mainstream” but push the definition of comedy in a good way. I think it’s a by-product of me being around comedy too much. You know how the only people who listen to the band Rush are other nerdy musicians? It’s kind of like that. For doing, I guess my comedy is more “mainstream,” but at the same time it’s still fairly rare to see an Asian-American stand-up, so maybe I am indie by default? That sounds way cooler.

Where do you draw inspiration for comedic material from?
Most of my jokes come from really upsetting, embarrassing, or unpleasant interactions I have with various people throughout the day. I consider myself to be a good tax-paying citizen, but New Yorkers don’t give a damn about you and your stupid journey, so they’ll just chip away at your soul EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I’m getting mad just thinking about it, but it’s good for comedy, so I guess it’s chill.

Karen Chee is a Brooklyn-based comedian who writes for The New Yorker, McSweeney’sand Shondaland, among other cool websites.

Fumi Abe Is Indie by Default