Beyond 'Ching-Chong,' or The Changing Face of Comedy
May 13, 2010 - Addressing the intersection of race and comedy, a panel of Asian
American comedians shared remarkably different perspectives and experiences
with the Asia Society Northern California. Titled "The Next Generation: Asian American Comedians,"
the panel featured comedians Tina Kim from
Los Angeles, Mumbai transplant Samson
Koletkar, and San Francisco native Edwin
Li. Also joining the panel were moderator Oanh Ha, reporter for KQED
Radio, and ethnic studies professor Darby Li Po Price of Laney College.
Ha kicked off
the discussion by asking the comedians when they discovered they could produce
laughs for a living. They all pointed to iconic Asian comedians—Margaret Cho,
Russell Peters, and Steven Chow were singled out as role models. Nevertheless,
each of the panelists faced an uphill battle. One central challenge is
stereotyping. Price argued that historically, Americans have maintained a
"dominant perception that Asians don't have a sense of humor." Worse still has been the historical prevalence of what the panel called "ching-chong," stereotypical humor
that reduces the performer to an Asian caricature for the sake of cheap laughs.
Kim originally followed in the footsteps of "the only person who was Asian
on TV," broadcast journalist Connie Chung, before turning her attention to
comedy. Meanwhile, Koletkar started out as a software engineer; as he described
had "no point of reference" for standup comedy. Explaining his choice to become
a comedian to his mother, she could only reply, "What's that?" Li, on the other
hand, started working clubs at 16 years old and had to rely on his mother as a chaperone.
The comedians also diverged in their approach to race and
identity. Though they all agreed that a good comedian responds to the audience,
Koletkar explained that he has a "core of jokes" based around his perspective
as an Indian Jew new to America. Kim uses the makeup of the audience to adjust her routine. While her repertoire includes jokes about her Korean heritage, she pulls them out only if the
audience includes Asians. Finally, Li said that he likes to play with Asian stereotypes,
turning them around and transforming them from a hindrance to a benefit. "Yeah,
I know kung-fu," he joked, "Watch out!"
Despite these differences, the panel agreed that Asian American comedians are still underrepresented in today's mainstream media. They suggested that only when the comedy and
entertainment industries take a wider view on what—and who—is funny, will Asian
American comedians really be able to represent their point of view in the American mainstream.
program is presented as part of Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center's United
States of Asian America Festival, and is cosponsored by Center for Asian
American Media, Hyphen Magazine, Kearny Street Workshop, and SOMArts Cultural
Center. Southwest Airlines is the official sponsor of Asia Society Northern
California's Asian American programming.
Reported by Carlos Cajilig, Asia Society Northern California Center