Comedians Fumi Abe and Mic Nguyen met in the stand-up comedy scene three years ago, and soon started making short videos and writing sketches. And though they’ve continued performing on stage, they’ve brought their jokes to the airwaves with “Asian, Not Asian,” a comedy podcast where Abe and Nguyen talk about pretty much anything they want to.
Often, those topics are rooted in Abe and Nguyen’s experiences as Asian Americans. From Yelp reviews of Panda Express to the talking points of Asian American masculinity, Abe and Nguyen frame “Asian, Not Asian” as a podcast discussing “American issues no Americans seem to care about.” That is, except for Asian Americans.
We spoke over the phone about everything from getting vulnerable with listeners to why some Asian men won’t stop talking about dating white women.
How did you meet and start writing together?
Fumi Abe: Mic and I, we met in the stand-up comedy scene three years ago. We were still kind of new and doing open mics, and these terrible shows. And I think I approached him once about writing together. Not necessarily stand-up, but sort of bouncing ideas off each other and writing funny video ideas. So we did that, meeting once or twice a week, coming up with sketch ideas, show ideas. We made a couple funny videos. We did this for like two years. And one of the things that would happen during all of our meetings, naturally, was just talking about things that were happening in the Asian American community. And what being an Asian comic in this industry [means when] that’s sort of run by non-Asians, where they don’t really know how to market us per se.
Or [we’d talk about] other things that were happening, through mutual friends, where the overall social commentary of where Asian people were at in entertainment and media and that kind of thing. And sometimes we’d get funny jokes about it, sometimes we’d get to interesting analysis of certain things. And after a couple years of that, we’d always talked about doing a podcast.
I used to be a musician, so we had some basic audio equipment, and we got together and we recorded like a super unfiltered raw episode of the original Asian, Not Asian podcast. We didn’t have segments or anything. And we took that and we said, “what are the best parts of this current unfiltered podcast we have now?” And that kind of turned out to be what it is today: more segmented, purpose-driven, a little easier to pitch and explain to people.
And it all kind of just started from weekly writing meetings.
Mic Nguyen: I think the cool thing is that Fumi and I, the whole Asian, Not Asian thing comes from the two of us, where even though we’re similar in a lot of ways, we’re both comics, and live in New York or whatever. We’re really different. Fumi’s like a lot more Asian than I am. And he’s just not as informed. Just a young millennial that doesn’t read the news and doesn’t like reading books and stuff.
MN: But he’s also way funnier than me. So there’s a contrast between these two things and I think that’s really important, where it’s not just two guys agreeing with each other. There’s a lot of times where he and I don’t see eye to eye and are trying to figure it out. Which is the whole point of comedy in a lot of ways, riffing on differences and seeing from different points of views.
You’ve discussed some pretty serious issues in recent episodes. Someone wrote in talking about mental health in the Asian community, so you talked about mental health. But it’s a funny podcast. So it reminds me of what critics said about Jon Stewart, which is that he discussed serious issues, but had the fallback of being “just a comedian.” How do you approach those issues while sticking to your roots of comedy?
FA: Well, I think that the mental health thing, that’s a new thing we started doing. I think other than that the only serious thing we’d ever talked about was Anthony Bourdain’s death. And that was focused on why he was “one of the good ones,” as opposed to [talking about] mental health and suicide.
But to your point, I think as comics, sometimes Mic and I both have quote-unquote dark jokes. Joke about things that are not — I don’t want to say taboo, but — I don’t have one personally, but it’s very common for comics to joke about abortions, or like a rape experience. But if they’ve experienced it themselves and have a strong point of view on it, then it gives you that license to talk about it a little bit.
Really, comedy is serving as a way to get someone’s attention, but the underlying objective is for people to start talking about it. With the mental health thing, I think the issue is that it’s not really talked about in the Asian American community, where all the stats say there are higher suicide rates and it’s not a thing many Asian kids would feel comfortable talking to their families about.
So while we had some jokes about it, hopefully by us kind of bringing it up and sharing our experiences with it, more people will talk about it to their friends. I think we brought this up on the episode, where maybe it just starts with two Asian bros having brunch and talking about how shitty their week was. Like maybe that’s a really good first step, because it seems like a lot of Asians can’t even talk about their feelings to other people, let alone their parents.
I don’t want to angle ourselves as Dr. Phil or something like that, but I think we use comedy as a medium to get your attention and then analyze important issues.
MN: I think the weird thing about being Asian is a lot of times you start off trying to be funny. We always try to be funny, ‘cos that’s the whole point. We’re comedians, but as we’re talking there’s a lot of stuff that’s not funny.
Like one [episode], we talked about getting into Harvard. Which is a hilarious idea. Why are we so obsessed with this one school? Why doesn’t anyone say, “I couldn’t get into DeVry? They must be racist!” Nobody ever says that. It’s always one school, Harvard.
And it’s sort of going back to the theme of Asian, Not Asian. Like how we try to make it funny, and it ends up not being funny, but it goes all the way back around to being so ridiculous it becomes funny again. Like the idea that Asian bros can’t connect with each other unless we’re bench pressing and drinking mimosas. It’s so ludicrous it goes around and becomes funny again.
I agree with Fumi that our angle is that we’re not experts. And Jon Stewart says this, too, that it’s ludicrous that a comedian has to be the one who raises certain points. This isn’t our jobs, but politicians aren’t doing it, so comedians are left holding the bag. Comedians naturally gravitate toward things like elephants in the room, where the thing is you’re not supposed to talk about it. But that’s the funny thing. So I think it’s just natural for us to try to make it interesting in some way.
That’s interesting because you’ve started a mailbag for people to submit questions, right?
MN: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy because we’ve been doing stand-up for a while now, and it’s hard to accumulate fans. But through this podcast we’ve been able to connect with people, which is awesome and totally unexpected. And we’re starting to have something where people can ask us questions and that sort of stuff.
And it ends up being like things which — a little while ago, we talked to this one dude who asked, “how do you handle stereotypes? Is it something where you have to embrace it in some ways, and sometimes you don’t?”
And it’s a really complex issue, and it’s to the point of what I said earlier, which is that sometimes really heavy issues come up from being an Asian person. Like dealing with your mom, which is funny because we try to talk about tiger moms all the time, like a recurring character in our jokes. But that comes from a place where, you know, I don’t get along with my mom. That’s a big thing. So it’s kind of walking that line between being funny and talking about something that’s really hurtful.
FA: I think with the mailbag, the interesting thing is that, maybe to the general public, there’s a list of five problems that are considered “Asian American.” Like, “oh, I can’t date white girls.” Or “I can’t get into Harvard.” Or “my parents are mad at me for not getting into Harvard.” But through these e-mails, the most fascinating part is obviously we’re complicated people because we’re humans. And so many people deal with so much more than that. Like, they don’t care about piano because their issues are so much more complex, like with mental health.
So one of our goals is to unveil that complexity of what it’s like being an Asian American, and the different, unique kinds of issues we deal with that are different from other minorities. So fan interaction is one of the interesting parts of the podcast.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because one of the issues you discussed more often in your early episodes is Asian American masculinity. And I’ll be honest with you, I was a little nervous when I started listening, because sometimes discussion on Asian American masculinity devolves into asking why white women won’t date Asian men.
MN: Yes. Yes. So funny.
So I kinda breathed a sigh of relief when you not only talked about issues beyond that, but also poked fun at that surface-level conversation. So I’m curious what it is about issues like Asian American masculinity that grab your interest.
FA: I think with issues like that Asian American masculinity thing — I’m glad you feel that way, because we often talk about how that seems to be the only thing that people ever talk about. They’ve been talking about it for twenty years and nothing has happened. I think there’s so much more as to why that — there’s so many things that play into that.
For example, I find it way more interesting to talk about why the media has trouble talking about Asian people who are not kung-fu masters or teachers. You know, like if there’s an Asian veteran — we talk about this on the podcast — there was an Asian veteran who went back to his mental institution and shot a lot of people. It didn’t really make the news, and it didn’t get clicks, because people see the words “Asian” and “veteran” and were like “I don’t know what that is.”
So all that stuff, to me, all that stuff goes back to Asian masculinity. But solving these other problems first is more interesting and I think it’s more productive than simply whining about why you can’t get laid.
And also I personally think if today, you can’t get laid as an Asian dude, that’s mainly your fault. [laughs] I think things have been getting a lot better especially in major cities. Like in the last five years, I’ve noticed a significant change, and I see Asian dudes with all kinds of different girls now. So I think it’s getting better, but to your point, people love talking about that one thing for sure.
MN: Yeah, uh, you shouldn’t listen to Fumi though, because he’s got a white girlfriend, so he’s got the game, you know.
MN: He got his. He’s out. But I think that in general, masculinity is — we’ll look back and say gender was the hot topic, coming up with the #MeToo Movement and everything. I think masculinity has been going through this redefinition.
And I think for Asian men, who have always had a problem with masculinity as it’s been defined in the West, there’s been a little bit of a vacuum. We don’t know how to act and we end up having to act Black a lot of times. A lot of men, like Eddie Huang, who we’re big fans of, he is masculine because he doesn’t act Asian. That’s kind of a thing.
And I think what we’re trying to do on the podcast — we’re two bros. We’re not that bro-y, but we’re kind of two bros and you can hear us, and there’s still not really a space where you hear two Asian guys talking. There’s never a time on TV where you see two Asian guys talking. That never happens, ever. That’s something unusual. And to Fumi’s point, the Asian guys not getting white girls thing, that’s a symptom of something much bigger. And if we focus only on the symptom, it doesn’t address the root problem, and it ends up being boring. And it ends up being weird and creepy. Like you’re looking at the wrong thing, and it ends up being bigger.
Interestingly enough, a lot of the fans who reach out to us are women. And that’s awesome. We must be doing something right — we’re clearly not offensive enough, like we need to up our alt-right thing and talk about why everyone’s a cuck or whatever. But going back, we just need to be honest and bring up those stupid jokes that Fumi and I did in the cafe out to the public.
Do you think that having an audience that’s not just “Asian American bros” gives you an opportunity to talk about other topics besides masculinity? Have your fans asked you to talk about dragon ladies, or LGBT issues, or things like that?
FA: I think the diversity of our fanbase hints to the potential of what this could be. I think when we started this, it was like anything you start in comedy or entertainment. It’s good to have an angle, so we started with the whole Asian thing. But we’re starting to move away from that, as fun as it is to talk about Asian things only. Once we gain the trust of fans, I think they’re interested in our lifestyles and what we think about a lot of things.
Some of the e-mails we get, they don’t have anything to do with Asian things. Sometimes they’re like, “I lied to my mom about a job and then I moved to California.” Like sure, they were Asian, but it had nothing to do with being Asian, just a parental relationship gone wrong.
It might be a little too soon to go totally that way, but it’s definitely exciting to think about — looking at the stats, our audience is mainly women. And some of the people that come to our live shows are Latino or Black women. They’re not all Asian women. So, that leads me to believe that this is more relatable to anybody who has experiences similar to us, and that gives us opportunities to slowly move away from Asian American issues.
Like, we haven’t gotten questions about LGBTQ things, but if somebody e-mailed us, we’d totally sit down and make a segment out of it.
MN: I think one of the things in stand-up, where we always fall back to because it’s sort of our core competency, is that the specific is universal. The more specific you get, the more universal it becomes. If I have a joke, which I do about tiger moms or whatever, the more specific I make it, where it’s really something that’s happened to me, I find more often than not other people will go, “that happened to me too.” Even if they didn’t have a tiger mom, [like if] they were white. Some of our biggest supporters are these random white dudes who are like, “oh my gosh, I don’t know what you’re talking about with Filipinos and breakdancing, but that reminds me of this other thing that happened to me, and now I can really relate.”
I think the more true we are to ourselves and our opinions, the more people will say “hey, these guys are just like us in a lot of ways, even if they have a certain point of view.”
What are your goals for your podcast right now, given your direction toward less “Asian American” topics?
FA: I think immediate goals are to find more people who are into this kind of stuff. Just finding an audience has been our biggest challenge. Interacting with fans on Instagram and getting their e-mails, I think there’s a large population of people who this podcast could entertain. So I think immediate goals is expand our fanbase,.
But long-term goals, comedy-wise, I think we want to market ourselves as like, the “Desus & Mero but Asian version” for sure.
MN: Yeah. We were — I mean, you saw that podcast that Still Processing did?
MN: That was huge, right? There were tons of Asian American people where that resonated for them. We want to reach those people. Somewhere out there, there’s a bunch of people drinking boba and going to LA Fitness, and doing all the Asian stuff. And they need to have — they’re waiting for us.
MN: When you’re ready, your audience appears. When you’re, you know, there’s a match that happens when your voice is strong enough and your audience is ready for it, and there’s a beautiful lovemaking session there. And [laughs] we’re trying to get to that, where we’re connecting with that audience. They’re out there somewhere. They’re looking for us and we’re looking for them. And we’re trying to get that Tinder right swipe on them. We don’t know where they are. But that’s the big immediate goal.
And down the road, obviously we’ll take over the world or whatever.
I want to talk about Twitter, because Fumi, I know you post jokes every day, and Mic, you’ve started recently too. And I don’t know about your feeds, but for me, it’s like “doom, doom, doom” and then Fumi will tweet something about Starbucks and it’s a little ray of sunlight.
MN: Oh my god.
And obviously comedians have made their careers on Twitter, like Rob Delaney. And even in this climate you’re out there making funny tweets that don’t necessarily have to do with, say, the president or something. So I’m curious what your perspective is there, where you get a little political if you’re talking about Asian America, but not necessarily otherwise.
FA: I think for comedy, or writing in general, you want to talk about things you know. And so, if I have a personal stake in something Trump did, I might have a very strong opinion about that. But people use Twitter in different ways, and I use it as a soundboard to see if an idea is funny, and also as an exercise to make sure I’m writing at least one joke a day. I’m not necessarily trying to get Twitter famous, but it’s funny you mentioned that your feed is all Trump news and then I have a joke about Asian moms or something. ‘Cos the people I follow are all comedians, so it’s actually the opposite, where it’s everybody’s stupid hot take on Trump, and trying to make that funny.
So my feed is everyone trying to be funny, and then a couple articles. I mean, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not super into politics, but if there’s an article that has to do with immigration or something and I can find an interesting take on it, I’ll tweet it. But for the most part, it’s just me sitting in my office, and my coworker does something to piss me off, and I tweet about it.
MN: [laughs] I mean, I’m scrolling through Twitter, and it reminds me every single time why I’m not on Twitter. It just — everything’s so — they’ve perfected how to make you upset. You ever think about that? The Internet has perfected how to make you mad. And everything — you’re on there for like a minute and your heart is pounding because you read something upsetting. Whether it’s from a gun rights guy or whatever, it’s optimized to be like, “how can this be?” You know? Ugh. God. Oh my god. Ugh.
I’m sorry I made you do that.
MN: This interview is over. This is terrible. Thank you, Fumi, for writing some jokes about lattes or whatever it is. But I don’t know, social media and Twitter in particular — we were talking about mental health earlier, and I was having a mini panic attack a couple weeks ago. And I really think it’s because of Donald Trump in some way, shape or form. And it’s just like this weird alternate reality we live in.
For me, comedy is my way of working through that. It’s a safe haven for us. It’s a way for us to say something, like with the elephant in the room, and when you’re on stage or performing you get a little bit of sanity back. Weirdly enough, it’s the comedian that’s the one who’s sane, right?
So that’s where I’m trying to come up from. I guess I’ll try to tweet more but it’s making me so sad. It’s alright. I gotta do it. I’ll toughen up.
[laughs] So our last question is actually from our last guest. We always ask a question from the last guest, and give you the opportunity to ask another. So this is from the Ishibashi sisters, who are actresses and writers, and their question is “if you had to smell something for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
FA: If I had to smell something? Hmmm.
MN: That’s a good one. What’s a good smell?
FA: This sounds like one of those Google interview questions where there’s a right answer. It’s like a market sizing thing.
MN: You know what Davidoff Cool Water is?
I have no idea what that is.
FA: I don’t know what that is, either.
MN: That’s because I was a 90’s kid. And there were three colognes that were acceptable for Asian men in 1999. Hugo Boss. Cool Water. And C.K. One. That’s it. And I had Cool Water. So that was the one. Smells so good, dude. I still have a little bit left in case I wanna go clubbing.
MN: So good.
FA: I think I would say — because on the inside, I’m a suburban white boy — I like the smell of fresh-cut grass.
FA: I don’t know if anyone here can relate to that. Fresh-cut grass, dude. Can’t get better than that.
MN: That’s good, dude. That’s good.
And is there a question you all want to ask the next guest?
FA: You should ask them market sizing questions.
MN: Yes. What’s the one that — how many airplanes are in the sky right now?
You’re gonna — all right. I don’t know if —
FA: You know, if you interview a normal, working Asian American, chances are they’ll be able to solve that, so I think you’re good.
Asian, Not Asian is “a podcast by two Asian comedians not from Asia talking about American issues no Americans seem to care about.” Each week, Fumi Abe and Mic Nguyen discuss everything from race to urban myths to Urban Outfitters. New episodes release every Monday. Find Asian, Not Asian on iTunes and Soundcloud, and on Instagram @AsianNotAsianPod.
Fumi Abe is a Japanese American stand-up comedian based in New York City by way of Columbus, Ohio. His comedy has been featured on Rooftop Comedy, MTV Decoded, and Seriously.TV. In 2017, Abe was selected as a semi-finalist at the Stand Up NBC competition, and also co-produced Hack City, a monthly comedy show in the Lower East Side that was recently featured on Time Out New York as “One of The Best Comedy Shows in NYC.”
Mic Nguyen is a writer and stand-up comedian based in NYC. He’s written for all sorts of places including NBC News and Esquire.com. He loves camo pants and probably has like 15 pairs. Catch him @nicepantsbro on Insta and @nicepantsdude on Twitter.