How late-night comedy turns Asian culture into a force
- Critics say late-night television is driven by ostracism from people of color, especially Asian Americans.
- Late night comedians, including Jay Leno, used Asians as props, caricatures and punchlines.
- Hollywood is slowly moving away from its traditional model, launching various recruiting initiatives.
- Visit the Insider home page for more stories.
In the aftermath of the mass Atlanta spa shootout, the opening for Late Night With Seth Meyers was slightly different.
Instead of the usual sarcastic monologue, Late Night comedian and writer Karen Chee took a moment to talk about how news organizations are supporting the erasure of Asian Americans.
“While the news media reported on the incident, most of the media did not label it as such. A hate crime, ”she said.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, as of March 2020, around 3,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been reported, with the spread of the coronavirus driving the increase in attacks.
Following the Atlanta incident, Chee concluded his speech by encouraging viewers to read the Asian-American story and, at the very least, to “call this week’s murders what they are a crime.” of hate ”.
If it was decades ago, not only would comedians like Chee not have the chance to fix this on a Late Night scene, they wouldn’t even be in the Writer’s Room. Some Asian-American comedians say Late Night’s television legacy was rooted in a system that liked to ostracize people of color, including how it continued to reduce them as foreign cartoons.
I think Late Night’s networks and comedians don’t take Asian stereotypes seriously because they don’t feel pressured to. Alex Song-Xia, actor
“The way people think of Asian Americans is largely influenced by what they see and how they see us portrayed,” said Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). “To make fun of Asians, they will make our actors speak with an accent.”
Like Naomi Ko, some Asian-American comedians grew up with no interest in being part of the Late Night comedy industry for its “white, male, sexist and racist” plan.
Critics say, like Ko, that for nearly seven decades the Late Night television universe was problematic. It started successfully with Johnny Carson (1962 – 1982), followed by David Letterman (1982-1993), then Jay Leno (1992 – 2009).
This set the standard for Late Night hosts to come after 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 true to the formula; a costume, a band, pop culture news and jokes – a simple concept. But, critics noted that they rarely addressed cultural issues and instead relied on the use of 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 1,500-meter short track skating to Apolo Anton Ohno.
On The Tonight Show, Leno commented, “He was so crazy he went home and kicked the dog, then ate it!” He made the same joke ten years later about Kim Jong-un.
Although there have been anti-racist campaigns against him for years, such as MANAA, who continued to call him out, the host was found making similar comments about Koreans eating dogs as recent as in 2019, on the set of America’s Got Talent.
“I think Late Night’s networks and comedians don’t take Asian stereotypes seriously because they don’t feel pressured to do so,” Chinese-American comedian Alex Song-Xia said. “I don’t think the networks and the entertainment industry in general cared enough that the Asian American community thought they were doing something differently.”
For decades, Aoki said Leno perpetuated Asian stereotypes with ease, perhaps even ignorantly. In 1998, before Leno’s problematic timeline, the comic had met the rising host at a Dick Clark party in Malibu. He had only heard good things at first.
After thanking Leno for his comments on the OJ Simpson trial that didn’t ridicule Judge Lance Ito and criminologist Denis Fung for their Asian heritage, Aoki told Insider that the late-night host then responded, “No, there is no reason to do this. ”
“When he started making 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 why it was wrong, ”Aoki recalls.
Progress and responsibility did not come with time.
Does change come with time, or does it?
In 2013, Jimmy Kimmel asked a 6-year-old boy what the United States should do about their debt to China as part of a segment. The 6-year-old replied, “Kill everyone in China,” to which Kimmel replied, “OK, that’s an interesting idea.”
Three years later, SNL quickly fired Shane Gillis for homophobic statements and racist remarks about Asians in a 2016 interview. Instead of apologizing, he justified his comments as comedians often do by pushing back just the limits.
Aoki noticed that the Late Night hosts suddenly took things seriously and doubled down on their jokes when attacks on marginalized communities escalated over the past two years.
Last March, UX writer Riri Nagao tweeted quote a short clip of James Corden talking about the occasional racism that harms Asian-American communities. His tweet read: “As one of the few late night hosts who recognized this and took a stand, I respect him. But also acknowledge that you have demonized the staples of Asian culture in your segment. “Spill Your Guts,” which is also an “occasional 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, not to mention how hate language increases violent crime. Nagao felt it was also crucial that the host “acknowledge and apologize for the way he has contributed by demonizing foods from Asian cultures simply because it does not match his culinary preferences.”
Activists say joking Asian Americans is not only harmful to the community, but also harmful to their safety.
“When the comics joke Asian Americans, it dehumanizes us and sends a message to others that we are not worthy of our lives,” Ko said.
Responsibility has been slow for a Hollywood focused on recording duck into an already fractured system, launching recruiting programs aimed at recruiting various writers for already problematic late-night platforms.
As diversity hiring initiatives create more opportunities for racialized communities, Ko explains that typically, diversity hires are funded from different budgets and a separate paycheck – the creation of a climate strengthens writers of color do not belong.
“The whole room knows you’re not real staff, they don’t see you as staff, because you are not part of the show’s budget,” Ko said.
While diversity departments appear to be a solution to establishing value in diversity recruiting, Aoki says, “There is a kind of power disconnect between the diversity department and those who make decisions about who. hire.”
According to a 2016 Writers Guild of America West study, only 2.9% of Asian guild members worked on television than its 86.9% white members.
The continued absence 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 I had to be in competition with other Asian comedians because the comedy was directed by white men,” Yang told Insider.
“I thought there would only be one place for an Asian comedian, and I wanted it to be me. It took a long time to decolonize my thinking, to accept me and to accept other Asian artists.”
Since the start of the Trump presidency, there has been a slow change in Late Night television, where hosts could not avoid speaking out on political and cultural issues. Silly games and celebrity culture have been overshadowed by political commentary, meaning hosts have seen the benefits of having a diverse writer’s room.
Asian-American comedians like Bowen Yang, Karen Chee, Alan Yang and others have finally got their flowers.
Is the writer’s room equivalent to a “seat at the table”?
Since the start of the Trump era, the murder of George Floyd and the rise in attacks on Asian Americans, there has been a wave of blank apologies, including from Jay Leno.
And some white hosts have started to take responsibility for public media, including Seth Meyers, who hires writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel to deliver the punchline for Jokes Seth Can’t Tell ‘because he’s a straight white man. . ”
But Asian-American comedians want to see more awareness, as well as changes in the system where diverse voices are valued and not exploited. For Ko, the apologies mean nothing if they aren’t followed by reparations to help Asian-American comedians continue their careers.
“If you don’t have individuals who really think in a way that makes non-white men feel safe in a room, that doesn’t really change the cycle,” she told Insider.
Stand-up comedian, actor and writer Bryan Yang argues that “Jay Leno is just a guy” and that changes come from empowering “people more powerful than him.” [Leno] put it on the air night after night and gave it a huge platform. ”
“The apologies are great. But the industry as a whole has to come to terms with itself and make fundamental changes.” Like the host behind the wooden desk, the late night backstage always looks pretty white. While there is still work to be done in its repairs with the Asian-American community and people of color, some comedians are anxiously awaiting action to make it happen.
Aoki thinks that “comedians can be funny, but they can also be responsible”.