Q&A with Jenny Yang of the (Almost) All-Female, Asian-American Dis/orient/ed Comedy Tour
The Dis/orient/ed Comedy tour has been selling out venues up and down the West Coast and lands in Portland this weekend! There's a lot to be excited about at Dis/orient/Ed: the show features national-touring and local Asian-American female comedians, while also providing space on the roster for other great comics from diverse backgrounds. In the world of mainstream comedy, shows like Dis/orient/ed are a necessary gust of fresh air. I chatted with co-producer Jenny Yang about how Dis/orient/ed got started and what's so crucial about diversity in comedy.
ARI YARWOOD: So, why don't we start with how Dis/orient/ed got started. What was your goal in making the group?
JENNY YANG: Well, when you first start out as a standup, at least for me, it feels very solitary. And so what I realized is that if I didn't organize something with like-minded people, I wouldn't find those people, because we're just grinding it out on our own.
And so after I had been doing it for about a year, I had noticed the different Asian-American female comics as well as female comics and comics of color who were out doing things. So actually I had a lot of camaraderie with white female comics, but I definitely made note of when there were Asian-American female comics. So much so that I found an article about a woman named Yola Lu. Yola had just graduated from the University of Washington and was just starting out doing standup comedy, and there was this coverage of her. I was like, "Oh, this sounds like someone I want to meet." And I literally just Google stalked her, and found her, and she was super cool, and I was like, "Hey, I just want to know what you're doing, because I'm doing it." And we actually ended up doing a little Skype date just to get to know one another. And we hit it off! And just half-joking at the end of that Skype chat, we were like, "Oh, wouldn't it be great if we had enough critical mass of Asian-American female comics that we could do a whole tour of just us?" Like, someday, someday.
A few months later, she emailed me and she was like, "Jenny, remember how you were saying about that tour? I kept on thinking about it and I feel like we should just do it." She instigated it, and we sat down and really thought about what it would look like. Then we recuited a good buddy of mine in LA, Atsuko Okatsuka. That created the initial trio of us who founded the tour.
Nice! So when you originally got started, was it more of a community-building goal rather than a political one, necessarily?
Yeah, I would say so. I think there's a kind of necessity when you're just starting out, and sucking, and not knowing exactly what to talk about, or what's funny. It's all very confusing. So it's nice to have a regular community or at least a sense of camaraderie around people who might be like-minded.
It's not to say that all the people that we featured are exactly alike. In fact, one of the main things that we wanted to focus on when we started this was to be like, "Yeah, the quick and easy way to put this is that this is the first ever all-female Asian-American standup comedy tour." But the real goal, overall, is to showcase a diversity of what that means, because it's a very complicated identity. And if want to feature people who aren't just female and Asian-American, who are those people?
So we have someone like D'Lo, who's a transgender man, and we're happy to feature someone like D'Lo as a special guest headliner. We're happy to feature someone like Maria Shehata, who is female but Egyptian-American. We're like, you know what, Dis/orient/ed Comedy is broad enough, because in all of history, the Orient has been a shifting boundary, so why not? Let's just get all-inclusive, because the main point is that we want to see the people who aren't necessarily often featured in mainstream settings.
So it's expanded out into trying to showcase people who might not necessarily get the stage space?
I don't know how much you know about weird standup comedy etiquette, but there's this unspoken rule that there can only be one woman in a general, mainstream comedy show. Or, if you have more than one woman, God forbid you put them back-to-back in the lineup. Standup comedy, as much as it is progressive in that it really values free speech and it really encourages people who might have voices on the edge to speak out—for being that kind of a space and art form, that's so independent-minded, it actually is very backwards in its culture in terms of being so male-centric and almost antiquated.
That's what we like to think we can bring, which is a sense of diversity and putting together a lineup of quality, that's also what you might not typically see at a general show, which is a lot of whiteness and maleness.
Video break! Here's Jenny Yang talking about the show (and eating tasty donuts) with the Always Summer Project:
Right! I was going to ask—in the context of mainstream American comedy, how have you seen the show fit? Have you gotten any backlash or have people mostly been really excited about it?
Yes. We have been able to sell out all of our shows. What's funny is that I've only been doing standup for a few years, which is considered "baby comic" status, and because of all the sold-out shows that we've done for Dis/orient/ed Comedy and all the attention we've gotten, I've had a bunch of other comics reach out to me individually and just say, "Jenny, how do you do it? How are you able to get all these people to come out to these shows?"
Number one: be a part of a community that is highly underserved by the mainstream market. And number two, I spent most of my young adult life being a part of an Asian-American community, a network of artists and community workers. That's what I used to do, I used to work in nonprofits, and I've just always been a part of a very strong network based out of Los Angeles but also connected to so many other cities of Asian-American artists and performers.
I think those are two things made it inevitable for us to bring people out to something if we just produce it right and put on a good show. Asian Americans are underserved, and a lot of people who come to our show are Asian American and people who usually don't think to go to a mainstream comedy show. Because they might stand out, and standup comics might single them out to make fun of Asian Americans, or say something heinous.
Even just as a comic, sitting in on an open mic, I've had a white male comic pick me out specifically, make eye contact with me, and say to the audience, "I dated an Asian girl once." And proceed to tell a joke about how he reached inside her and pulled out a fortune. I mean, it's just the most disgusting, misogynistic thing—the whole time, making eye contact with me. That's the kind of shit that you get, you know? Comedy shouldn't be off-limits, but you know, we're also people.
There's a line between funny and threatening.
Exactly, exactly. And everyone's line between funny and threatening is different, but I think there is enough of a pattern, where a lot of the people who come to our shows are Asian Americans who are not naturally mainstream comedy club goers.
Does your Asian American identity inform a lot of your comedy, or the comedy of the group?
I personally talk a lot about race and being Asian American, as well as other things, but needing to talk about being Asian American is not a prerequisite for being a part of Dis/orient/ed comedy. It just so happens that I'm very race-aware and want to talk about it.
What would you like people to take away from the show, when they go see it?
Oh wow. The first thing I want people to take away from the show, is like, man, that was a good time. That was time well-spent, I enjoyed myself, I laughed really hard, and this was a really quality show. Secondarily, I also want people to feel like perhaps they see something of themselves in our art. Because I think so much of our art ideally will transcend beyond race and gender borders, but also some of the time, it feels really good to hear someone who knows exactly how you feel along those lines, too. So I think that's what we'd like to be able to offer.
It's important that people walk away understanding that this is the first ever all-female Asian American standup comedy tour, but that also means so many things. And it feels good that it can be so many things. We're constantly fighting, as minorities in the social sense and the political sense, we're constantly fighting stereotypes and assumptions and being two-dimensionalized and simplified. And so to be able to showcase people who are able to add texture and humanity to who we are as people, I think is a great gift that we can give ourselves, as well as share with others.
Yeah, that's so great. I'm so excited to come see the show on Saturday.
Yeah! Hopefully everything that I just said happens. And I think the main thing that I would say, is that even though the primary thing for being at a standup comedy show is that you're there to entertain and be funny, I think secondarily, even if certain female comics don't talk about explicitly being political, or being feminist, just being a standup comic who happens to be female, I think in and of itself is highly subversive. Just because being a standup comic requires a level of control and voice and power that you have to exhibit when you're doing standup, and so it's very powerful to have a woman on an amplified microphone, telling you what she thinks, on top of a stage that's higher than you. Just that act is very powerful to have.
Do you have any tips for women want to start in comedy but who might be nervous about it?
Yeah, I think one of the biggest obstacles for anyone to get into standup is just fear of looking stupid. Because public speaking is already our main fear, as Americans, but add onto that the expectation of being funny!
I think, for me, it's so powerful to just assume that you're not going to be perfect, and it's going to suck. And in fact that's actually super liberating. Just go to an open mike and just sit there and watch, and you'll realize people suck, and you can be like, if they can do it, I can do it. Then, the second time, just go and prepare some thoughts, things that really annoy you, things that piss you off and just rant about it, and even if nothing funny comes out, it feels fucking good. And that's a start! Those are two little steps that anyone can take.
Excited about the show? Portland's show is tomorrow, Saturday, October 5, at Helium Comedy Club. As a Bitch reader, you can get $5 off the price of your ticket with the code 'FRIENDSONLY' up till 2 PM on Saturday! Check out their website for tickets more tour dates in other cities.
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