Asian-American comedians are fighting back against late night television that makes their culture the punchline.
- Critics say late-night TV is driven by ostracizing people of color, especially Asian Americans.
- Late-night comedians including Jay Leno used Asians as props, caricatures and punchlines.
- Hollywood is slowly shifting from its traditional model, launching diverse hiring initiatives.
In the wake of the mass shooting at the Asian-owned spas in Atlanta, the Late Night With Seth Meyers opening looked slightly different.
Instead of the usual sarcastic monologue, comedian and Late Night writer Karen Chee took a moment to speak on how news outlets were sustaining the erasure of Asian-Americans.
"While the news media has been reporting on the incident, most outlets failed to call it what it is. A hate crime," she said.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, since March 2020, around 3,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been reported, with the spread of the coronavirus as a source of the increase in attacks
Following the Atlanta incident, Chee concluded her speech encouraging viewers to read on Asian American history, and at the very least, "call this week's murders what they are, a hate crime."
If this were decades ago, not only would comedians like Chee not have the chance to address this issue on a Late Night stage, but they wouldn't even be in the writer's room. Some Asian-American comedians say say the legacy of Late Night television was rooted in a system that enjoyed ostracizing people of color, including how it continued to reduce them as foreign caricatures.
I think Late Night networks and comedians don't take Asian stereotypes seriously because they don't feel like they have to. Alex Song-Xia, comedian
"The way that people think of Asian Americans is largely impacted by what they see and how they see us portrayed.," said Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). "In order to make fun of Asian people, they'll have our actors speak with an accent."
Like Naomi Ko, some Asian-American comedians grew up having no interest in being part of the Late Night comedy industry for its "white, male, sexist, and racist" blueprint.
Critics say, for nearly seven decades, the Late Night television universe was a problematic one. It successfully started with Johnny Carson (1962 - 1982), followed by David Letterman (1982-1993), and then Jay Leno (1992 - 2009).
It set the standard for the Late Night hosts to come: Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Seth Meyers, James Corden, and Trevor Noah.
Successful Late Night shows like Carson, Leno, and Letterman, were loyal to the formula; a suit, a band, some pop culture news, and some jokes - a simple concept. But, critics have noted they rarely addressed cultural issues and instead relied on using Asian-Americans and people of color as props and really bad punchlines.
In 2002, South Korean skater Kim Dong Sung lost the gold medal in the 1500 meter short-track skating competition to Apolo Anton Ohno.
On The Tonight Show, Leno commented, "He was so mad, he went home and kicked the dog, and then ate him!" He made the same joke ten years later about Kim Jong-un.
Although there were anti-racist campaigns against him for years, like MANAA, who continued to call him out, the host was found making similar comments about Koreans eating dogs as recent as 2019, on set of America's Got Talent.
"I think Late Night networks and comedians don't take Asian stereotypes seriously because they don't feel like they have to," said Chinese Canadian-American comedian, Alex Song-Xia. "I don't think networks and the entertainment industry at large cared enough about what the Asian American community thought to do anything differently."
For decades, Aoki said Leno perpetuated Asian stereotypes with ease, perhaps even with ignorance. In 1998, before Leno's problematic timeline, the comic had met the rising host at a Dick Clark party in Malibu. He had heard nothing but good things, at first.
After thanking Leno for commentary on the OJ Simpson trial that did not ridicule Judge Lance Ito and criminologist Denis Fung for their Asian heritage, Aoki told Insider the late-night host back then responded, "No, there's no reason to do that."
"When he started doing these jokes, just two years later, I was really confused. I said, 'wait a minute, I thought he got it.' I thought he didn't need to be told about why this is wrong," Aoki recalled.
Progress, and accountability, haven't come with time.
Change comes with time, or does it?
In 2013, Jimmy Kimmel asked a 6-year old boy what the U.S should do about its debt to China as part of a segment. The 6-year-old answered, "Kill everyone in China," which Kimmel replied: "OK, that's an interesting idea."
Three years later, SNL quickly fired Shane Gillis over homophobic statements and racist remarks about Asians in a 2016 interview. Instead of apologizing, he justified his comments as comedians often do as merely pushing boundaries.
Aoki noticed that Late Night hosts suddenly took matters seriously, and doubled down on their jokes when attacks against marginalized communities increased over the past two years.
Last march, UX writer Riri Nagao quote tweeted a short clip of James Corden talking about the casual racism that harms Asian-American communities. Her tweet read, "As one of the few late-night hosts who actually acknowledged this and took a stand, I respect it. But please also acknowledge that you've demonized staple foods from Asian culture in your "Spill Your Guts" segment, which is also "casual racism.
-The Late Late Show with James Corden (@latelateshow) March 18, 2021
Although Corden was one of the few Late Night hosts to mention the Atlanta spa shootings, let alone how hateful language increases violent crimes. Nagao felt it was also crucial for the host to "acknowledge and apologize for how he has contributed by demonizing foods from Asian cultures simply because they don't fit his culinary preferences."
Activists say making Asian-Americans the butt of the joke isn't just hurtful to the community, but it's also harmful to their safety.
"When comics make Asian Americans an object of a joke, it dehumanizes us and sends a message to other people that we're not worthy of our lives," said Ko.
Accountability has been slow for a Hollywood focused on duck taping an already fractured system, launching hiring programs aimed at recruiting diverse writers for already problematic late-night platforms.
While diversity hiring initiatives create more opportunities for racialized communities, Ko explains that usually, diversity hires are funded from different budgets and a separate paycheck - creating a climate reinforces writers of color don't belong.
"The whole entire room knows that you're not actual staff, they don't consider you staff, because you're not part of the show's budget," said Ko.
Although Diversity departments seem to be one solution to establishing value in diversity hiring, Aoki says, "there's kind of a disconnect in power from the diversity department to the ones who make the decisions on who to hire."
According to a 2016 study from the Writers Guild of America West, only 2.9% of Asians guild members worked in television than its 86.9% white members.
The entrenched lack of diverse voices in the writer's room encourages a competitive environment among people of color, including aspiring Asian-American comedy writers.
"For a long time, I felt like I had to be in competition with other Asian comedians because comedy has been ruled by white men," stand-up comedian, actor, and writer, Bryan Yang, told Insider.
"I thought there would only be one spot for an Asian comedian, and I wanted it to be me. It took a long time to decolonize my thinking, accept myself, and accept other Asian artists."
Since the start of Donald Trump's presidency, there has been a slow shift in Late Night television, where hosts could not avoid speaking out on political and cultural issues. Silly games and celebrity culture were overshadowed by political commentary, which meant hosts saw the benefits of having a diverse writer's room.
Asian-American comedians like Bowen Yang, Karen Chee, Alan Yang and more were finally getting their flowers.
Does the writer's room equal a 'seat at the table?'Since the start of the Trump era, the murder of George Floyd, and the rise of attacks against Asian Americans, there has been a surge of white apologies, including from Jay Leno.
And some white hosts started embracing their responsibility in the public media, including Seth Meyers, who enlists writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel to deliver the punchline for Jokes Seth Can't Tell' on account of him being a straight white male."
But Asian-American comedians want to see more awareness, along with change in the system where diverse voices are valued and not exploited. For Ko, apologies don't mean anything if it's not followed up with reparations in helping further Asian-American comedians' careers.
"If you don't have individuals who are really thinking in a way that makes non-white men feel safe in a room, then it doesn't really change the cycle," she told Insider.
Yang argues that "Jay Leno is just one guy" and that changes comes from holding accountable the "people more powerful than him [Leno] got him on the air night after night and gave him a huge platform."
"Apologies are great. But the industry as a whole needs to reckon with itself and make foundational changes." Behind the scenes of late-night still looks pretty white. While there is more work to be done in its reparations with the Asian-American community and people of color, some comedians are looking forward to the steps taken to get there.
Aoki thinks, "comedians can be funny, but they can also be responsible."
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