Asian visibility in Western media has long been a hot-button topic. One of the few forms of entertainment in which Asian people have found mainstream success is in comedy. Whether it be in the realm of standup, sketch comedy or YouTube videos, Asian comedians have found a place to express themselves in American media.
In 2019, as social media allows us to empower people from all types of backgrounds, the parameters through which Asian comedians are seen have changed. The typical self-deprecating racial jokes and silly voices no longer fly. Now, the world of comedy allows us to hear from comedians with a variety of perspectives, who seek to further ideas of Asian identity well past the harmful stereotypes.
The following nine comedians each have their own brand of comedy, their own unique personality, and their own vantage point. There are a few classic names and a few up-and-comers, but above all, each comedian is having some sort of moment in the sun this year, and Asians around the world could very well be all the better for it.
We would like to send a special shout out to Bobby Lee, Ken Jeong, and Timothy de la Ghetto among others who did not make this list simply to make room for other comedians who might deserve more attention than they are receiving or who are more specifically establishing themselves in the realm of comedy and tackling Asian stereotypes this year. Regardless, those three are legends and deserve your attention if they don’t already have it.
Onto our list:
Joel Kim Booster
Joel Kim Booster is a Los Angeles-based comic who has featured on numerous reputable platforms, including “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” “Conan,” Comedy Central’s “@Midnight” and Netflix’s “The Fix.” He was born in South Korea and adopted by white evangelical parents in Chicago who homeschooled him through his childhood.
Dubbed one of Variety’s Comics to Watch for 2018, he’s since found virality (sometimes with social media moments) and built a strong reputation for himself as an up-and-coming comic. His identity is unique as a gay man who grew up in an evangelical family; he’s also pretty handsome to boot.
Ali Wong is a stand-up comedian who has gained prominence in part through two Netflix specials, the latter of which, “Hard Knock Wife,” was released in May of 2018 to strong critical reviews. She’s since made appearances on Ellen and is set to debut her first book at Random House this year, a memoir framed as a series of letters to her daughters, according to her New York Times profile.
Wong stands out as a bit of a feminist figure; her last special featured her performing while pregnant, further highlighting her fearless sense of humor. She fits no stereotype; neither the harmless, youthful ABG, nor the traditionalistic elderly woman, making her as fresh a face as imaginable in the Asian comedy scene.
Jenny Wang is a Los Angeles-based comedian with a diverse profile of work. She not only performs tours as a stand-up act; she has also created viral digital comedic shorts, written for multiple outlets including this insightful piece for Elle, and serves as producer and director for the Disoriented Comedy tour, which brands itself as “the first ever (mostly) female Asian-American stand-up comedy tour.”
In a world of increasingly socially aware entertainers, Yang stands out as something of a pioneer. President Obama deemed her a White House Champion of Change in 2016. She’s made a strong presence on social media; for example, she’s had numerous viral tweets, including this tribute to Anthony Bourdain from June. Despite not being a household name, Yang’s penchant for thoughtful commentary and online mastery makes her a legend of this generation’s comedy scene, Asian or otherwise.
Another example of a current-gen comedian with a strong grip on social media presence is Brooklyn’s Bowen Yang. He’s appeared on “Broad City,” “The Outs” and “High Maintenance,” as well as the above stand-up on “2 Dope Queens.” He also creates and produces shows and podcasts, including the “Las Culturistas” pod with Matt Rogers, which was deemed the “#1 Comedy Podcast in NYC” by TimeOut New York.
Born in Malaysia, Ronny Chieng is a globally-sourced comedian and actor who currently serves as a senior correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” He also stars in the show “Ronny Chieng: International Student” which features on Comedy Central’s app and debuted on ABC Australia.
Chieng has spent ample time in Australia, the U.K., as well as the States, and his comedy often offers a global perspective with very little sense of heavy-handedness. He’s willing to call a spade a spade and a dumbass a dumbass, but he’s also a friendly face and a reminder that Asian comedians from overseas are just as lucid and interesting as any comedian; that the “Asian accent” is not merely a prop to be played for laughs.
Karen Chee floats a bit more under the radar as a comic, possibly because she serves more prominently as a writer: she’s currently writing for NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” She’s also written for the 2019 Golden Globe Awards, Comedy Central’s upcoming late-night show “Reductress,” and writes pieces for numerous outlets including The New Yorker, where she contributes regularly.
Chee is also a stand-up act, though you won’t catch her act much on YouTube just yet. She’s currently putting work in as a personable but highly talented full-time writer, and has been featured in magazines like Vulture as a result. She still stands out as a much-needed fresh face in comedy whom readers would be smart to keep tabs on as she continues to propel herself to stardom.
We’ve now arrived at the point wherein it’s harder not to know Hasan Minhaj than it is to know him. First, he was a highly successful correspondent on “The Daily Show,” much like the aforementioned Ronny Chieng. After roasting Trump at the 2017 Correspondents Dinner, he became a rising star. After fusing comedy with heartwarming tales of family and racial struggle in his 2017 debut special “Homecoming King,” Minhaj became a household name.
His newest endeavor, “Patriot Act,” falls perfectly in line with his history of comedic success: do what others are doing, but with more sincerity, more thought, and a more youthful verve. It’s a successful Netflix series in which he analyzes issues a la John Oliver, but with a technological interface and stage worth dreaming about. So why feature Minhaj in this piece if he’s already so successful?
Perhaps it’s because Minhaj is an Asian comedian just like Ken Jeong, but his South Asian-ness often excludes him from East Asian discussions even though he’s just as Asian American as anyone. His identity and his story prove that the Asian diaspora has many faces and identities, and his success proves that any Asian person could be the next big thing in the industry.
Margaret Cho is far more of a legend than an up-and-comer. She’s long been one of the first names to come up in the category of Asian comedians; her having done this despite being an openly gay activist who is far from the traditionally represented Asian-American woman makes her achievements all the more remarkable.
Now, as Asians continue to be represented more and more, Cho’s legend status stands out even more. And instead of sitting on it, the comedienne extraordinaire is currently touring a show called “Fresh off the Bloat,” which you can read about here. She is on this list as a result; her continuing to push boundaries through comedy deserves to be highlighted. She still has a lot to say in 2019, during a time period in which the issues she’s highlighted throughout her career have become hot-button topics.
We conclude this list with a rising star from the Land of the Rising Sun. Yumi Nagashima, a self-described “Japanese jokester,” is based in Vancouver and has been featured on CBC as well as HBO’s “The Man in the High Castle” as an actress. Her fame, however, comes more via viral bits which she’s posted to YouTube. The above video of her “best savage moments” has eclipsed one million views in a month.
Her style of humor seems rudimentary — an unassuming Japanese girl spitting biting barbs through an accent — but her jokes and her charisma are well above expectations. Though she hasn’t quite surfaced on the American mainstream, she has all the talent — and the viral attention — to bring her career to the next level. And she’s just released her debut album, which was covered in a feature for VICE. When she becomes a breakout star, don’t say we didn’t call it.