Michelle Liu / STANDING UP: Asian American Identity, Comedy, and Belonging

Submitted by Henry J Laufenberg on
Margaret Cho taking the stage at a comedy festival. Photo by Charlie Nguyen.


Asian American Identity, Comedy, and Belonging

By Michelle Liu

reprinted with permission from Humanities Washington's Spark magazine

What does laughter tell us? I’ve been asking myself this question ever since Humanities Washington gave the green light to my idea for a Speakers Bureau talk on comedy, Asian Americans, and inclusion. I was suddenly beset with nerves. What business do I have in talking about laughter? Sure, I have a fascination with Asian American comedians, and as an English professor, my trade is to examine ever-shifting narratives of who we are and how we connect. But doesn’t everyone laugh? Does the world really need someone to talk about laughter? Wouldn’t everyone rather hear from a comedian than an English professor?

As to the last question, you got me. But while I am not a comedian, I am curious about laughter. The itch to do a talk about humor came from a student comment long ago in my Asian American Literature class. While we were discussing the varied feelings people had about the raunchy jokes and impersonations of the stand-up comedian Margaret Cho, an exasperated student piped in with her takeaway from another class: comedy isn’t for thinking about. You either laugh or you don’t. Move on.

I can’t remember what I replied, but I do know part of me continued to conduct class while another part did exactly what annoyed my student—I thought about comedy. Laughter bursts out of the body with the exuberance of a compressed spring, no thought required. But what compresses this spring?

As anyone who aims to amuse knows, a joke is more than the content. It’s all about you, the teller. About your sense of… timing. Your sense of what the audience anticipates a person who looks like you will sound like. Knowing how people move in the cultural landscape.

This attentiveness is why I’m so interested in Asian-American stand-up comedians. In the American imagination, “Asian American” and “comedy” are an unnatural pairing. Comedy is all about extroversion, and so much of the Asian American experience has been about being boxed in–packaged as model minorities or threats to the American way. These tropes appear to be contradictory, but really, they describe simultaneous lived planes of existence. The model minority and Asian peril: two sides, same coin.

This simultaneity makes Asians, according to the writer Jay Caspian Kang, “the loneliest Americans,” with “no more reference points for how we should act, how we should think about ourselves” beyond model minority or threat. We are the nonplayer characters of the democratic experiment, performing whatever roles needed to make the actual players feel more like agents of their own destinies (hello, Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard).

But the unexpected can happen when a person tunes in to where the script dictating how we “should” act and think drops off. And so many Asian American comedians (more than a few who have left behind steady careers as scientists, programmers, and medical professionals) have been making this unexpectedness funny. And it starts with changing what people think an Asian person sounds like.

“I would describe my comedy as noises, sounds–weird, but also really relatable.” So says the comedian Atsuko Okatsuka in a blurb for her HBO Max special. Playing with what Asian American sounds like–accented American English and not, drawing on everything ranging from childhood experiences to very adult, un-Joy Luck Club material–is all part of making relatable the “untelegenic” range of emotions that the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong calls in her book of the same name the “minor feelings” that arise from being cast as nonplayer characters. From a distance, Asian Americans are orderly, disciplined, and comely even, adding richness to the stories of others. But upon closer examination, that attractive appearance is jarringly pixelated, quaked by the emotional tremors that come from this unsettling realization: you are seen reliably performing the same motions ad nauseam, but if you speak, you are not meant to be heard.

So just telling stories about these minor feelings alone isn’t what makes them relatable. Without the life Margaret Cho gives to her material in her delivery, the transcript of her one-person show, I’m the One that I Want, reads like a deeply unfunny tale of coming-of-age with addiction and ambition. Reading the transcript of her show is like witnessing the struggle of an insect caught in historical webs, woven of the spidering intersections of family and nation that wrap us into who we “should” be. This struggle indeed looks lonely and alarming. But through her performance, she turns her story into a series of jokes that calls in the audience to listen with her. Cho, like so many Asian American comedians who follow in her trailblazing footsteps, makes it possible to talk about things otherwise only shared with friends, family, or therapists. Humor surfaces the restless thoughts and emotions running just below the surface of day-to-day life so that a room of strangers, in laughing along, become strangers no more.

Ali Wong
I marvel at the Asian American comics who create outlets for untelegenic feelings that may be, well, untelegenic. As comedian Ali Wong’s partner relates in her book, Dear Girls, when people buy commemorative posters to remember the night they laughed so hard they peed, he glows, knowing the mother of his children has succeeded. Succeeded in creating unexpected moments in which an Asian woman (pregnant and nonpregnant) jokes with ebullient crassness about sexual desire, materialism, and gender roles. Successful in doing what many who seek to create community through humor want: for you, the laugher, to know that the sore core muscles that come from belly laughing means that your body is gloriously yours, necessarily entwined with the other people around you. To realize that to have “no more reference points for how we should act, how we should think about ourselves” is not loneliness, but creative flux. A place where entangling historical webs that have affixed who we should be are broken, leaving new space to weave our various histories together into tapestries rather than traps.

Everyone knows that not all laughter leads to a good place. Poking fun at the backwardness of Those Other People. Snickering at those not Normal Like Us. These jokes work because everybody already knows what they should do–laugh at rather than laugh with. These jokes release the coil of laughter only to repack it tight. They emerge from the cynical subtext that there is nothing to do about the suspicions and dissatisfactions built into everyday life.

It’s so easy to get people to laugh in a way that subtracts rather than adds, which is why I’m full of admiration for people who do the daring work of experimenting with getting people to laugh with rather than laugh at. What laughter tells me is that to be heard is not just to speak, but to use humor to create different ways of listening to voices we otherwise don’t know how to hear.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people coming to my Humanities Washington talk expect that it will be about laughing, so they anticipate not taking things too seriously. Certainly, laughter can be an escape. And it can help us be so much more. The most challenging part of putting together a Humanities Washington talk about humor is that so much of the humor that gives release to minor feelings is untelegenic, its unprettiness connected to the grim conditions of their making. But that challenge has been the most fun part of giving this talk. How to make inclusion happen is a laughing matter. It’s looking to stand up comedians as guides for standing up–standing up for new ways we can hear and feel who we are together.

Michelle Liu is a professor of English and the associate director of writing programs at the University of Washington. She is also a member of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau.



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