About a week or so into May you might notice your social media feed has way more anime and George Takei memes. This month has been designated to celebrate Asian American historical and cultural contributions for the past 40 years (thanks to a 1977 resolution by Norm Mineta). What started as an attempt to proclaim an Asian American Heritage Week officially became Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in 1992. I don’t remember that happening in 1992. In the early ‘90s I was holed up in the suburbs avidly watching whatever cable-based standup clips shows I could (anyone remember the Ha! Network?). This was the standup comedy boom era where I rarely saw any Asian faces reflected back through that screen (and we had basic cable).
Margaret Cho was the most visible Asian American comedian of the 1980s, (we’d also throw Henry Cho, no relation, in that running) leading to the first Asian-centric sitcom, 1994’s All-American Girl, which was quickly cancelled by ABC. It took another 30 years for a primarily Asian cast heading up a sitcom with Fresh Off the Boat (which boasts comics Ali Wong and Sheng Wang among its writing staff).
Asian representation in show business recently became newsworthy for whitewashing casting decisions. It’s telling that the issues are more about cultural erasure and invisibility than who wore what to a gala. It’s also easy to conflate what happens in front of the camera and what happens behind the camera, and it’s also to conflate comedic acting and standup.
We wanted to spotlight an existing station dedicated to Asian comedians (not strictly Asian American) that have been taking on the subjectivity of a diaspora, talking about their parents, speaking truth to power, and making fart sounds since the 1980s. (It’s easy to forget that one half of the biggest comedy act of the ‘70s, Cheech & Chong, was Asian Canadian Tommy Chong.)
As if one needed a reminder that Asian America is not a monolith, the acronyms for the month have also evolved to AAPIHM (Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month) and even APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American). On a bill of mostly East Asian comedians at a recent Los Angeles showcase for AAPIHM, Indian American performer Pallavi Gunalan refers to herself as “the wrong kind of Asian.”
This, despite the trend of the biggest comedy breakouts of the 2010s being of South Asian descent. What performers had a better 2017 than Kumail Nanjiani (nominated for best screenplay for The Big Sick), Hasan Minhaj (fresh off the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner and a Netflix special), Aparna Nancherla (Crashing, Corporate, High Maintenance, 2 Dope Queens), and Hari Kondabolu (a documentary about Apu and a Netflix special)? If one wants to get into deeper cuts of independent and self-released albums from South Asian comedians, here are a few with tracks available on Pandora: Raj Desai, Sumukh Torgalkar, Kiran Deol, Paul Varghese, Mona Shaikh, Kabir Singh and Sid Singh.
Comics may prefer to be identified by their point of view or subject matter rather than parentage, so it’s worth noting recurring themes for Asian American comics. Joel Kim Booster’s bit “Bad Asian,” as well as Corey Stroffolino’s “Super Adopted,” and “Pupu Papipi / Teased” by Amy Anderson all tackle being brought up by adopted white families. Steve Byrne, Ahmed Bharoocha, Jo Koy, KT Tatara, Dan Gabriel (check out his bit “Halfie”) and Bri Pruett all use their multiracial identity for comedy fodder.