It’s only been a month-and-a-half, but New York–based writer and comedian Karen Chee is having an extremely eventful 2019. In addition to co-hosting the monthly comedy show Biodiversity Jam at Caveat, Chee racked up some impressive writing credits to her name (The New Yorker, McSweeney’s) prior to landing her first television writing staff job in late December at the Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg–hosted Golden Globes. It all started with two tweets Chee posted after news broke that Oh was co-hosting the event — one asking how to apply for a Globes writing job, and another asking Oh if she could write jokes for her — and by Christmas, Chee made the exciting announcement that her dream of landing the gig had come true.
Thanks to her years of hard work — plus getting to know Amber Ruffin, Jenny Hagel, and Ally Hord while writing for the Globes — Chee has now settled into full-time life as a late-night television writer. Late last month, Chee started her job as the newest writer on Late Night With Seth Meyers, so Vulture caught up with her to chat about her crazy past few months, why she loves late-night television and political satire so much, and what a Karen Chee–hosted late-night show in the not-so-distant future might look like.
You kind of used the Secret to get the Golden Globes gig, it seems like.
Yes, I sort of did, I suppose! It was a mix of that and a mix of a fairy godmother sort of granting me this wish. I had posted that picture to Twitter not really thinking anything would come of it — more just being like, Oh man, this would be a dream — and then it started getting some traction, I suppose, from comedy writers that I really admire and look up to. And at the time I was just like, Dang, I hope I get to write for TV someday, but I didn’t think it was going to happen right away, you know?
And then there was a woman named Priyanka Mattoo, who used to be an agent. She’s the best. I messaged her being like “Hey, do you think this is, like, actually possible?” And she was sort of like, “Let me see if I can make this happen,” and then she just did her magic. Then I think on my end, my manager had reached out to people, but I think it was because Priyanka had mentioned it very kindly to the right people that they reached out to us being like, “Hello! We heard you were interested,” and I was like, “I absolutely am!”
Yeah! Really nuts. It was truly just people being very, very kind to me, and me being like, “Okay! I will take these!”
What was your takeaway from writing for the Globes? What was that whole experience like for you?
It was incredible. That was the first time I had been in a room as a staffed writer, so it was me and then a whole bunch of people who came from other shows that all had really impressive résumés and were doing very well in their careers. The thing that struck me the most was how good they were at their jobs — to an extent that I had not expected. They would be like, “Hey, we want a certain amount of jokes by tomorrow,” and then people would just turn out five full pages of jokes when I was doing one or maybe two. So the rate at which they were writing, and the confidence with which they were putting together jokes and submitting them, was very new to me. That was incredibly inspiring.
One of the really lovely things is that everyone in [that] room was very friendly and very kind, but I think most people knew each other or maybe had worked with each other, or came from the same show to work for the Globes. But I obviously didn’t come from a show, and that was my first thing, and I think I was also the youngest person in the room and very nervous about being there and trying to be chill. But then the people who were so kind to me were [Late Night With Seth Meyers writers] Amber [Ruffin], Jenny [Hagel], and Ally [Hord]. I had never met them before, and they just went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and to make me feel welcome. They don’t have set meal times or set places to write or hang out, and every single time, these three women would be like, “Hey, we’re doing this, do you want to come?” “We’re going to get dinner, come with us!” And I don’t know — I really felt taken care of and loved.
So them taking you under their wing at the Globes — is that connected to you getting hired on Seth’s show?
Yeah, I think so. It was also — my dream for very, very long had been to write for late-night television. I think a lot of people want to do sitcoms more, or even late night and then go to sitcoms, something like that, but in my mind I really wanted to do late-night TV, and I really want to do political satire. And there’s just a handful of shows that overlap in both of those categories.
What is it about late night, over a sitcom or something else, that gets you excited? And what about Seth draws you to working on his show specifically?
He’s very down to engage with politics, which I really love. And I really love political satire — it’s probably my favorite type of comedy to write and watch. And I really like his perspective and his take on it; I think he’s really good at making sure not to punch down, ever. Obviously I think “A Closer Look” is amazing and I love the monologue, and it feels like there isn’t any topic that he feels is too serious. I really love that he grapples with serious issues and is able to sort of cast a fun light on them without shying away from the gravity of the situation. I think he’s just incredibly smart and funny.
I really like late night because — oh man, maybe it’s kind of inexplicable, but my grandpa is one of my best friends and also my hero, and my actual family is from Korea, so they didn’t really watch American television, but the only person who knew American television was my grandpa because he loved Johnny Carson. And Johnny Carson would air in Korea — my grandpa speaks English — so he would always watch Johnny Carson. So when I started getting interested in television, he and I would sit and watch old Johnny Carson episodes together. So in my mind, at some point in high school, the idea of late-night television got cemented into my brain as the ultimate and cool type of television.
Are there certain issues that you hope to write about and bring to Seth’s show yourself?
Oh, totally, yeah. A lot of things that I like to think and write about come from race and gender issues, and obviously I can’t divorce that from my personal identity as an Asian-American woman, so I definitely want to write a lot of jokes that come from that perspective. And I think he’s also very kind and inviting about writers doing short bits on the show, so I don’t know if I will be successful at all, but I will definitely try to pitch small things where I get to say those jokes — just because I think there are very few faces and voices in late night that could share that perspective.
You covered up-and-coming comedians for Splitsider’s, and now Vulture’s, “Follow Friday” column for a long time, so you’ve sort of straddled the line between being a comedian and covering comedy. Do you have any thoughts on the way comedy is covered — what’s done right, how you think it could improve, how we could make it better?
One of the things that I tried to mentally do was really draw a line between me and writing about comedy, just because I was very afraid of being a comedian at a show and then maybe the other comics there being like, “Oh, what if she writes about us?” That’s something I never wanted to straddle the line on, if that makes sense. So I loved doing the column, but I’ve definitely approached it more from, Oh, who’s doing well that maybe would be excited about press? or like, Who deserves press but no one’s really found them yet? I would get emails from random people who are comedians being like, “Hey, can you cover my show?” or “Can you write about this?” Oftentimes I’d just be like, “Hi, I’m not a comedy journalist!” I’m worried about being seen that way, just because I am trying to be a performing comic also, if that makes sense.
But, yeah, comedy journalism! I think it’s such a hard, hard thing to do and is so helpful, especially in terms of alt-comics and new voices and highlighting people who aren’t straight white men with Netflix specials. Something that is off-topic that is maybe fun to note is that, something that I’ve realized while running the column is that people don’t really pitch themselves at you to be featured in this column, except … like I went back recently, and I looked at everyone who has ever emailed or Facebooked me asking to be featured, and they were all, except for one person, white, and except for two people, they were all men.
That’s something I’ve noticed, too. White men seem to be the most confident about pitching themselves and their comedy.
Yeah! And a lot of times, they’re not very funny, and they’re not very consistent in their work. So I have to be like, “Oh, you know what, thank you so much for asking, but unfortunately I’ll pass,” or I won’t respond to that email. But there are so many funny women and people of color who just don’t have the gall to be like, “What about me?” So yeah, I don’t know. I remember telling lots of my friends who have a minority background or identity in some way, “Hey, you gotta really pub yourself! You’re up against white people who have no idea how bad they are!”
Ha! Okay, last question, a big-dream question: Since you’ve loved late-night TV your whole life, let’s say someday you get your very own late-night show. What would it look like?
Ahhhh! I think right now, Hollywood is in a really wonderful time where lots of Asian-Americans are being very loud and unabashed about how Asian they are, and I love that so, so much. I do feel like the pattern seems to be that once a previously unseen and unrecognized identity gets very present, after that, they sort of get to settle down into becoming seen as normal, which seems like such an incredible privilege. Like, when Hasan [Minhaj] got his late-night show, I feel like everyone was like, “Wow, this is the first Asian man, the first brown comedian to have that sort of a thing!” And then, I bet if another person got one like ten years from now, it would just be like, “Hey, this comedian is awesome.” And they get to talk about being Asian and they get to talk about all these things without that insane sort of fanfare.
I don’t know — I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I got a show years from now, I hope it could be one where I talk about issues that are relevant to Asian-Americans and to women and people, but in a way that is very normalized and not, like, put on a pedestal in some way. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where it’s like, “Yeah, duh, she’s covering this,” and it doesn’t have to be the adjective that precedes every single thing.