Beyond 'Ching-Chong,' or The Changing Face of Comedy

Tina Kim, Samson Koletkar, and Edwin Li share their perspectives on stand-up comedy in San Francisco on May 13, 2010. (4 min., 41 sec.)

SAN FRANCISCO, 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 it, India 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.

This 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