IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jimmy O. Yang on levity in the age of COVID-19, doing race jokes right, and Asian haircuts

“I think I just try to do my job as best I can to entertain, to make people laugh, and hopefully do that they see me, who happens to be Asian, in a positive light,”
Image: Jimmy O. Yang
Jimmy O. Yang in Amazon's comedy special 'Jimmy O. Yang Good Deal'.Amazon Prime Video

With no established end to the lockdown, comedian Jimmy O. Yang said his signature adult “bowl cut” — a description that prompted him to cackle — is lengthier than usual but still iconic. After all, Asian hair, he insists, is difficult to cut and tough to nail down but given the lack of trips to the barber, he’s doing pretty well.

“If my hair is super short, I look like I'm 10. If my hair's a little longer, I look like an older Asian accountant,” he joked. “And if my hair gets really long, I look like I'm an 18-year-old college student. I think I'm getting back into my college student phase and I'm okay with that.”

It's reflective of how Yang is finding levity amid the pandemic’s emotional blows.

“I’m making the best out of it,” the seemingly perpetually optimistic actor said, speaking to NBC Asian America over the phone. Yang, best known for playing Jian-Yang in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” still manages to sound sunny and in good spirits in spite of the lockdown.

Yang acknowledges that it hasn’t been so frictionless for many others in quarantine. Many Asian Americans are struggling with the toll of the virus, and as they grapple with social or linguistic isolation or increased hate incidents around the country. But Yang -- whose Amazon comedy special “Good Deal” premiered earlier this month and whose Netflix series “Space Force” is slated for a release this week-- says that for him, this is where a dose of laughter comes in. Humor, he feels, can potentially humanize Asian Americans.

“I think I just try to do my job as best I can to entertain, to make people laugh, and hopefully so that they see me, who happens to be Asian, in a positive light,” Yang, who’s Chinese American, said.

He said he’s aiming to shore up some levity and unity at this time, which can be a delicate, fragile task when racial humor is involved. If not deployed correctly, comedians risk reducing an entire community, who’s already dealing with a heightened amount of misconceptions, to a contextless, simple depiction. It’s a mistake that landed former presidential candidate Andrew Yang in hot water among some Asian Americans, after quipping on the debate stage that he knows many doctors because he is Asian.

But the comedian, whose special is seasoned with jokes about his heritage, said he seeks to avoid such missteps by getting personal in his stories, organically widening the notions of what it means to be Asian.

The actor said he’s not trying to replicate any generic material like many comics do in the early stages of their careers, but add to the conversation with a humorous retelling of his specific perspective, whether it be about seafood tanks at Asian supermarkets, or tai chi.

“I always try to look at my own experience and tell it through my story in a humorous way. And try to say that, ‘Hey, maybe this is everyone, maybe it's not everyone, but this is what happened to me.’ From a personal side, it's relatable,” he said, citing George Lopez and Dave Chappelle as influences in storytelling.

Laughs come first, of course, but Yang said he isn’t ignorant of the value that prioritizing Asian American representation has, given the strides made in the industry.

“I'm definitely conscious of the biases out there and always try to make Asians look good, especially now I'm getting a little more seasoned in my career. I do see what positive representation can bring like, a movie like ‘Crazy Rich Asians,” he explained.

When it comes to Asian Americans’ place in the industry, the comedian says he’s witnessed a metamorphosis of the industry in recent years and credits the 2018 blockbuster film, which he was featured in, for a lot of the momentum. Many others have agreed with Yang in that the film had undeniable impact. Daniel Mayeda, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition previously pointed out to HuffPost that virtually every actor involved had been offered new roles since the film premiered. More projects and pilots featuring actors of Asian descent that weren’t affiliated with the movie were greenlighted or bought.

Asian American characters seemed to have become more vivid, as well, and Yang believes it’s got a lot to do with the louder voice the racial group now has in the industry. Yang’s “Silicon Valley” role, which had been accused of having little depth in the earliest seasons, gained its own complexity over the show’s six seasons, he said. It’s made him look at the industry more optimistically, and he feels the ecosystem has become more conducive to pointing out mistakes Hollywood has been guilty of making in the past.

Asian American actors do need to take the initiative and speak out if the role feels uncomfortable or inappropriate, he admits. But in his experiences, he says that colleagues have been receptive to criticisms and he’s sensed a genuine interest in getting the details right.

“They don't mean any harm or try to misrepresent the Asian community, but they really want to hear the authentic opinion from the actor, from the Asian creative, of what maybe I have been through,” he noted.

As more Asian American actors begin to fill the screens before us, Yang said the next iteration of the movement for representation should include noise for inclusion behind the scenes, particularly among writers. As an actor, Yang said there’s only so much power one can exert when it comes to bringing authentic stories to life.

“Every successful movie that tells a great story gives more room to five other creatives to open the door,” he said. “Now, not everybody can find a great script. Everybody can develop something, right? And there's going to be some growing pains in that but I think just opening that door has been the most important thing that a movie such as ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and many others are doing.”