Karen Chee on crafting comedy as an Asian American and how having fun humanizes people of color
This story was originally published in the August 3, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more stories and interviews like this one? Subscribe for free.
I honestly couldn’t have been more charmed by Karen Chee. She speaks so candidly to her identity and experience with such humor and thoughtfulness, and boasts an impressive resume with bylines in the New Yorker and McSweeney’s. This playful bit alone when she made it on The Colbert Show with Keegan-Michael Key is absolutely the best.
After reading so much of her work, including “More Chinese Proverbs by Ivanka Trump” and “If Famous Authors Described My Attempts at Dating,” I was thrilled to speak to her about comedy, on counter-narratives to that of the “Tiger Mom,” and much more.
I was going through your work and I hadn’t laughed out loud at a piece of writing in a very long time. I went through a rabbit hole of reading all of your stuff. It’s so great and entertaining! Before we dive into that, can you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, and your journey into this work?
Sure! Thanks for reading my stuff! Hm, lemme think. I’m from San Francisco — my parents immigrated here from Korea. And because of that I pretty much have a happy underdog perspective. I think I easily empathize with people who are immigrants or people who feel the need to prove that they belong somewhere.
Growing up in the Bay Area, there were lots of Asian people and I felt mostly normal in my environment — I wanted to be white because of what I saw on television and read in books and learned about in school, but I felt good about the actual, physical community that I was part of. To be honest, I didn’t really realize I was Asian until I went to college. I went to school on the East Coast, and there were not only lots of white people, but spaces created intentionally for wealthy white people. I was like, “Oh! You guys look at me differently? I get it, I’m not one of you. I’m going to have to prove that I belong here.”
I’d been embarrassed about my culture and race since the beginning of high school, and college brought out both that shame, but also an intense energy to be loud and proud about my Asian identity. I found friends who were experiencing similar things about their identity in a culturally homogeneous space, and we really bonded and empowered each other. I think meeting smart, bold and defiant people of color in college really helped me to be more proud and less ashamed.
That’s so interesting — that’s what a lot of people can identify with. I also grew up in the Bay around other Asians and was weirdly ashamed of being Asian and [our] culture. Or I would say something like, “oh — I’m not like other Asians.” And I look back on how self-hating and offensive that was. I’m also on a journey of being kinda aggressive of learning more about this Asian American identity. Why has [your identity] been so interesting to you in your career?
I think it’s been interesting because I perform a lot, in addition to writing, as an improviser and a stand up comedian. And I don’t look like what you might expect — i.e. I’m not a white man — so when I go up on stage, there’s already an assumption of who I am, before I get to tell my jokes or tell stories of myself. People identify me before I even get to introduce myself.
I’m very keenly aware that, in general, audiences at comedy shows tend to be very white — so there’s always a mental struggle about how I want you to laugh at me, because I also don’t want you to feel comfortable laughing at Asian people as a joke. I want them to laugh at my jokes. I’m naturally very self-deprecating, but I don’t want to make it okay for people to laugh at people like me — does that make sense?
At comedy shows it’s such a transactional event where it’s me going up and putting out jokes and them laughing at it, but I don’t want it to be an invitation. I don’t know, I hate doing jokes about Asian stereotypes that perpetuates ideas of bad things even more. I do respect it when people do it for their own race and identity and stuff. But I’m always very conscious and I don’t want to give people any more of opportunity to laugh at things that I think are just mean.
That sounds like a tough balancing act. How do you balance speaking about your identity and your audience, and which battles are the ones to pick? How do you choose whether to pander to a predominantly white audience or choose to tap into the more “Asian” experience?
Pandering is a very loaded word. When I first started doing improv in college — I think I was doing a type of pandering, in that I would tailor my jokes and characters to fit in with a predominantly white group and for a mostly white audience. I didn’t even realize I was doing that, I just assumed that the entirety of comedy was supposed to be within this certain sensibility, which is white sensibility.
Since then I’ve realized that there are things that I find funny and people with my background find it funny and it’s just as legitimate to joke about those because for us it’s just regular, everyday life. For example, I see a lot of Asian comics talk about microaggressions, and we want to reclaim them and spin them in a funny way — and that’s something most white people don’t have to go through.
Now I’ve been using my time on stage to express what I find funny, rather than any kind of pandering. Hopefully more people who are kinda like me at comedy shows will recognize there is content for them, and people who don’t my perspective will learn to like it and empathize with it.
My friend and I recently talked about how much media we grew up with that expressly lacked any sort of representation. We became really good at empathizing with white characters and male characters, so it’s ridiculous to me when men refuse to read books starring a woman, especially one of color, when I was taught to identify with boys like Huckleberry Finn and, like, Shrek. That’s sad! Though I do really love Shrek.
Shrek 2 is the best though! And absolutely, our whole lives we empathize with white narratives and white stories. It’s like — we watched your stories our whole lives, so can you take some time to finally watch our narratives this one time?
Yes! And when someone is willing to watch a show that’s not a white-centered narrative, the stakes are so much higher because it’s a rare opportunity. If a person of color makes a show, it has to be good or you might not get another shot. It’s unfair, but I also believe that a lot of people have been waiting and preparing, and are ready to create something extraordinary if given the chance.
Do you feel a lot of pressure or responsibility to talk about about Asian identity?
That’s a good question. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t — when I do, I’m not hyper-aware of it. I’ve been in rooms where I’m the only Asian person and I feel a responsibility to talk about it when people are willing to listen to me. But I also feel like it’s unfair that it’s put on the shoulders of people of color! Sometimes we just want to talk about fun things that aren’t heavy or dramatic. That’s normal. When I go to shows, I really just want to see Asian people having fun on stage! The biggest thing that alleviates that burden is that if I’m there on stage and I’m being honest, then inherently I am giving an Asian American perspective and I don’t have to artificially represent any more people than who I am.
I love that. I remember reading a piece about how your artistic work doesn’t have to change the world. Just have fun — it goes back to taking your work not seriously.
Yeah, I totally feel like making art that’s just plain fun and not saving the world is so often a white privilege — like have you seen Mamma Mia? I love Mamma Mia. It’s just white people singing and dancing and having a good time. I want the rest of us to also be able to just have fun, and not have to be a superhero to feel worthy of being seen. And seeing people of color having fun feels revolutionary sometimes, because it humanizes us in a way that most media doesn’t.
I want to circle back to your comments on microaggressions — I read your post on “A Month of Microaggressions” on the Huffington Post. It was a very helpful display of what microaggressions can be and how [difficult] overtime [can be] — when you’re hit by so many it doesn’t seem like a microaggression. Do you get a lot of microaggressions in the work you do?
I get them less regularly in comedy, I think, because of the particular community that I’m part of here. But when I’m in line-ups or in rooms and I’m the only person of color there, there’s a part of me that wonders if they were like, “crap, we need a ‘diverse person.’” Like they just needed one person. That always comes to mind.
And that’s something I can’t really address to people directly because of the inherent power dynamics — it’s rough because I do want to be in that room, and I want to cause a ruckus, but I feel like I might need more power before I can safely ask to change it without losing my spot and losing the chance to get others into that spot, too. It’s a really tricky balance because on one hand, as a performer and writer, this is a cool opportunity and I’m so grateful for it! But on the other hand I’m upset that I have to even question my place here.
It’s that mindset of “do I deserve to be here?”
Part of me is like, “Of course I deserve to be here! I worked really hard!” But a part of me is “Wait, why do you get to determine if I deserve to be here? Do you think I deserve to be here? Why do I care what you think?”
It’s the labor that goes into thinking that!
Absolutely — there’s tons of emotional labor that goes into that.
In your writing too, you go right at topics like “7 Signs That Your Masculinity is Non-toxic” or “8 Reasons to Feel Bad for White People” — it was so hilarious to me — all those stock photos! You really dig into these issues of being a person of color and you care about diversity and building safe spaces. I was reading an interview with you about wanting to keep “punching up instead of punching down.” That phrase really stuck with me. How do you interpret how you could ever punch down vs. punching up?
I think punching down is joking about someone who’s already genuinely hurting. Punching up is making fun of someone who’s powerful and doing something wrong. Jokes rarely actually affect a powerful person, but they hit extra hard against a vulnerable one. I think it’s important not to do mean comedy, because then you’re just a bully. And when it comes to race, well, Asian Americans are not well represented in media and entertainment, so anytime I have a chance to make a joke or do something, I want to make sure I’m not making it worse by having people laugh at Asian people for the wrong reasons.
I was speaking to another Asian American comedian about weird questions he gets asked. He told me he gets asked a lot of “what his parents think about this work?”
And he goes: “it’s implying that I have an uptight tiger mom” but he said his parents are super chill about it.
Oh my god!
I was reading more about something about your parents and was hoping you could speak to that.
I also get asked this question a lot and I definitely get more annoyed by it than he does. Growing up, I was naturally very academically inclined — I loved school, was a total nerd and embraced that a lot. I think ever since I was little, I noticed things like, if I were good at math, people would say “that’s so Asian of you,” instead of just legitimizing the fact that I happened to be good at math. And especially when the whole tiger mom thing came out, people just assumed that I only did well because I had this, like, terrifying tiger mom who forced me to study. It stripped me of any agency and self-motivation.
It’s honestly pretty dehumanizing both for me, and for my parents who are actually very sweet and supportive, for us to all be flattened into this stereotype because I happened to be doing well at school. My mom’s told me about multiple people who have asked if she’s upset that I’m a writer or disappointed that I didn’t become a doctor, and she’s like, “What? No?”
It’s also crazy to me because my parents are truly so chill and incredibly supportive. When I was applying to college there was no pressure to get into a certain school. They were like “Getting into college is hard, we get it — it can be a crap shoot. And when I said I wanted to do comedy, they were like “Okay, cool!” and asked questions like, “What shows do you watch? What do you find funny?” And they started watching those shows to better understand my sense of humor and my career aspirations.
Natalie: Oh my gosh, that’s so kind!
Yeah, it’s very wonderful. I got very, very lucky with my family. And we’re a big extended family that’s really close, so it made a huge difference to me. I’m very close to my grandparents, and a couple of years ago, after I started pursuing comedy, I was hanging out with my grandpa and he mentioned that he wanted to talk with me about my career and goals. And my mom was like, “Hey, if Grandpa gives you a hard time for pursuing comedy, don’t worry about it. I will talk to him.”
Then I talked to my grandpa and he was just very excited. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was one of the few American things that made it Korea and he loved watching it every night. He was very honestly like, “It’s probably going to be hard to financially to get started so if you need help, let me know.” And it’s not like he’s very wealthy, so that really meant a lot me.
That’s so amazing! I find that my grandparents are super chill — they were so supportive of any new weird alternative trend I got involved in.
Oh, 100 percent. Grandparents are the best. My grandparents lived in the U.S. for a couple years a few decades ago, but moved back to Korea after. My grandparents were aware of some American culture and maybe it’s because of that, but there’s no pressure to be perfect. My family is very excited when I make weird choices because they’re like, “yeah, that’s why we moved to the U.S — for you to fuck up and keep trying new things . So please keep making your own weird choices.”
That’s why we’re here, to be able to mess up, not to just succeed. On topics of weird — what’s a weird question you get a lot?
Hmm. People sometimes ask me, “Why don’t you do more neutral comedy?” which means they don’t like that I do jokes about race or politics — they’re asking me to not do anything provocative. But provocative to who? Because my jokes are cathartic and funny to people of color and silly to white people, and only provocative to defensive, kinda bad white people. I don’t really care for them to be in my audience.
Also, I’m walking around as a visibly Asian American woman in this political climate, so if I’m not actively political then I’m making a choice to ignore that. Does that make sense? It must be really nice to not inherently care about race.
Where are you at at your career right now?
At the beginning! At least, I hope it’s not the end. I’m working mostly as a freelance writer but recently worked for a television show, and I want to do more TV and film!
Karen Chee is a comedy writer and performer based in New York. She’s written for the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Splitsider and Funny or Die. Some gems include “More Chinese Proverbs by Ivanka Trump,” “If Famous Authors Described My Attempts at Dating,” and “Wow! This Woman Made Her Skin and Face Look Years Longer by Being Asian!” Read more on her website or find her on Twitter.