Producer/Writer Alan Yang had the answer to Asian American invisibility in all
of Hollywood. And he said it on the Emmys telecast live before millions watching
around the nation.
He had just won the comedy writing Emmy for co-authoring the “Parents” episode
with comedian Aziz Ansari in the Netflix original series, “Master of None.”
It was the first Emmy win for both. Since it was early in the show, and perhaps
anticipating future blessings later in the program, Ansari, the star, deferred
to his co-writer and producer Yang.
And Yang delivered the jab and the knockout message.
“There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million
Italian Americans. They have ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Rocky,’ ‘The
Sopranos,‘” Yang said. “We got Long Duk Dong. So we have a long way to go.”
It got a modest laugh.
But Yang, a Harvard grad and a former member of the school’s humor organization,
the Lampoon, wasn’t done with the thought.
“I know we can get there, I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard
work,” he told everyone in TV Land. “Asian parents out there, just a couple of
you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.”
That got the big laugh, so big it drowned out his faint apology, where Yang
sounded like he was saying, “Just kidding.”
Perhaps that was for all the parents who pre-paid for the Suzuki lessons.
Or for the ones who preferred their kids become a cellist like Yo-Yo-Ma, or a
concert pianist like Lang Lang.
But Yang’s point was clear for the one-dimensional thinkers out there who put
Asians in a familiar takeout box.
To paraphrase the venerable country music outlaws Willie Nelson and Waylon
Jennings, “Tiger Moms don’t let your babies grow up to be stereotypes.”
Go ahead. Break the mold. You don’t have to be traditional Asian anything in
You’ve got Snapchat now.
There is another way. The world doesn’t end if you’re third violin, third chair.
There are Asian American inroads being made in just about every field
imaginable. Even those that involve imagination.
You no longer have to push your kids sadistically into the STEM fields.
Now there’s the HAHA fields, humanities and the arts, squared.
Yang has made a healthy living since his days as a writer at “Last Call with
Carson Daly,” “Parks and Rec,” and the venerable “South Park.”
But it wasn’t always clear he’d allow himself that path after graduating from
Harvard. (Oh, he’s one of those.)
Yang grew up typically Asian American in Riverside, Calif. His dad was a
physician and his mother taught high school, according to the website
Harvardwood. Comedy wasn’t in the cards
yet. “I majored in biology at Harvard, because I figured I could keep all my
options open,” Yang told the website. “I could go into business, medicine, law
Because that’s what Asians did, right? Bring that keen sense of biology to
anything they do.
But then Yang competed for and won a place on the Harvard Lampoon, and there he
found his comic calling.
“When I got on the Lampoon junior year, I felt more at home,” Yang told
Harvardwood. “It was people who just wanted to do comedy all the time. It was
unbelievable. It was a huge change.”
After Yang graduated in 2002 and moved to Los Angeles with two fellow ‘Poonies,
the showbiz path had begun.
In truth, the path to a real career in show business had been well worn since my
own years at the Lampoon during the mid-to-late ’70s when the club’s president,
then Jim Downey, a senior majoring in Folklore and Mythology, proclaimed to me
in the actual castle that is the organization’s club house, that he wanted “to
Of course, that’s what Folklore and Mythology majors do in the modern day. They
make the new fairy tales. And Downey became the first from the Lampoon to become
a producer/writer at “Saturday Night Live.”
It was just the beginning of a comedic supply-chain that lasts to this day,
populating writing staffs on shows like “Late Night with David Letterman,” “The
Tonight Show,” and “The Simpsons.”
Of course, I thought that was all easy for Downey to aspire to.
He was a white guy from Joliet. Me, an Asian American of Filipino descent?
When I gave the funny speech, the Ivy Oration, as class humorist during my own
graduation week, I, too, thought about showbiz.
But it was still early in the game. And most of my classmates were still
thinking about business school and law school and dreamed of their goal of
joining corporate America.
That all seemed like the “good” dream, or, at least, the safer bet.
Many of them made it. Me, I found a glass ceiling of my own design. I went into
television journalism, even though there were probably just as few Asian
Americans in that business as there were in the TV and movies of Hollywood.
But I could imagine being a TV reporter. I’d never seen many Filipinos or Asian
Americans on primetime TV shows, beyond a guy named Poncie
on a show “Hawaiian Eye.” Or Leon
who played a limo driver on “Burke’s Law.”
And then there were the white guys with the bronzer sticks.
Filipinos like me? We were invisible.
I just thought it would be easier to be the first Asian American in TV or radio
news somewhere, rather than being a pioneering Asian American in a Hollywood
anything. You won’t say no to me if I can tell you which public official is
siphoning cash, or burning damning documents in that suspicious 3-alarm fire.
Film at 11.
Remember, this was a few years after Bruce Lee began making his impact in his
Hong Kong movies like “Fists of Fury.” As Lee’s widow claimed, Hollywood had
taken his idea of selling kung fu as a concept to American audiences. But it
cast the white actor David Carradine instead.
About 40 years later, I admire what Yang has done in collaboration with Ansari,
winning an Emmy for the episode that defined “Master of None.”
The win was for penning the series’ great “Parents” episode, which honors the
immigrant, their struggles and sacrifices.
They told their stories.
It’s the stuff of comedy because laughter is the only antidote for the pain of
being less than what we all could be if only our choices were based on equal
access and opportunity.
In that way, the “Parents” episode is emblematic of all our Asian American
stories. It was a comic, mini-“Roots” moment for all to see.
Jimmy Kimmel joked about the Emmys being so diverse this year. Only it wasn’t a
“There are more shows and more roles than ever before, and more diversity than
ever before,” Kimmel said. “This year’s nominees are the most diverse ever. And
here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating
ourselves on how much we value diversity.”
Yeah, funny how they’re actually doing something about it.
But then Kimmel got in his needling reality check.
“In all seriousness, this is a very positive thing and people must take a moment
to appreciate how far we’ve come,” he said. “In fact, if you’re a person of
color in our audience tonight, especially if you’re a nominee, find a white
person right now, it shouldn’t be hard. There’s a bunch of them right here. Just
take a moment to reach out and say thanks for your bravery.”
Diversity hug! #Emmys
pic.twitter.com/cp3OZfPLL9 — Master of None
(@MasterofNone) September 19,
Ansari, seated in the front row, got up and demonstrated how TV brings people
together. He started hugging people around him.
But the truth is “Master of None” didn’t take much bravery–not on the part of
the major networks.
It wasn’t made for the big network audience. It was made for the digital
subterranean streaming world of Netflix, where audience size isn’t as critical
and doesn’t determine or water down an artistic message.
Maybe that’s what hinders good shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and even
“Dr.Ken.” At least Constance Wu and her FOTB co-star Randall Park got some Emmy
face time, if not a statue. But as good as their show is, going down a
mainstream network, geared for the Peorias and the Joliets, is more restrictive
than the auteur visions that one finds on an HBO or Showtime, a Hulu or Netflix.
That’s where we find the “Master of None” shows. Not on the not-so-brave main
networks. Not yet.
But as the storytelling medium changes, where television, movies, cable, and
digital all seem to blend, and as the audience changes, demanding new stories
that reflect them, Emmy-winning shows like “Master of None” will begin to open
It took nearly two generations, and there’s still a way to go. But with emerging
Asian American producers and writers like Yang and Ansari, telling it like we
exist, Hollywood stories are starting to include us.
Now, if only Asian Americans give up a few violins in order to discover their
Readers know in the last two years, I’ve been on my own personal storytelling
trip about being a Filipino American in the media and U.S. history with my
one-man show, “The Amok Monologues: All Pucked Up.” I’ve performed excerpts of
the show in San Francisco and New York. There’s just something about the Asian
American story that still remains under wraps, and it’s time to unravel it and
tell it all now.