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Unpopular Opinions: Asian Youtube Comedy Might Be Why We Don’t See Asians On Primetime

Ashley Yang |
January 17, 2014 | 4:09 a.m. PST


Asian comedians on Youtube actually harm other Asians' chances to advance in comedy (AgentAkit, Creative Commons)
Asian comedians on Youtube actually harm other Asians' chances to advance in comedy (AgentAkit, Creative Commons)
Back in September, when the Emmys bestowed lofty recognition upon this year’s outstanding television programs and performances, a slew of online social commentators remarked on the notable absence of Asian-Americans from the small screen.

With the recent broadcast of the Golden Globes and immediate unveiling of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards at a venue right across from the USC campus, both of which honor achievements in television as well as film, this fact again becomes blatantly obvious. 

As an Asian-American and the roommate of an avid Youtube-user, what I find most distressing is the disparity between the popularity enjoyed by Asian Youtube comedians and the absolute lack of Asian personalities visible in comedy on network television. 

According to the 2010 census, people of Asian descent make up less than six percent of the US population. Therefore, it would make sense that other races are relatively more represented in the entertainment industry.

But even though they are few and far between, actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li are prominent names on the big screen (usually as the stereotypical “karate guru”), and Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and Maggie Q star in several popular network TV dramas ("Elementary," "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Nikita" respectively). Asian-American faces are, however, notably missing from both scripted comedy series like "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," as well as improv programs like "Saturday Night Live" and "The Colbert Report." 

This phenomenon becomes more puzzling when we consider the fact that KevJumba, a Chinese-American Youtube comedy personality, has consistently maintained one of the most heavily subscribed channels to date. His level of fame is shared by Freddie Wong, Peter Chao and Mychonny, to name just a few, all of whom exceed at least 750,000 followers and undoubtedly reach much more of the Youtube-viewing generation. We know that several hopeful entertainers have skyrocketed to fame after being “discovered” on Youtube (*ahem* Justin Bieber), so why has Internet fame not transformed into a well-compensated TV series for these talented individuals?  

It can’t be because network executives don’t know they exist. How can they not, when every day they seek out new talent, most of which promote themselves online?

And it is doubtful that these Youtube personalities are getting offers to jump to the small screen and turning them down: judging by the quality and content of their videos, they evidently spend a significant amount of time creating them, enough that they wouldn’t find monetary compensation for their efforts unwelcome.

But analysis of the subject matter of their videos does reveal a striking reason for why they have remained stuck in the Youtube world.

Most Asian Youtube comedians distinctly embody a style of humor that revolves around the Asian dynamic. Specifically, they focus their content on stereotypical Asian “quirks” and the comical culture clash between East and West.

For example, one of Kevjumba’s most viewed series is endearingly titled "My Dad Is Asian," featuring his bespectacled, frugal, disapproving, no-nonsense father speaking in a thick Chinese accent, the epitome of America’s “Asian immigrant” stereotype. His claim to fame, then, is reducing his own people into caricatures for the consumption of an overwhelmingly Western-minded audience. 

At first glance, a Youtube channel appears to be an easily accessible way for Asian comedians to showcase their talent to a global audience and assert their right to participate in comedy, a sector of entertainment that Asians have been largely left out of (recall that the Asian stock character is never intentionally funny). But by making their race the sole basis of their comedy persona, they are only boxing themselves in. The longer this continues, Youtube audiences will have greater reason to believe that Asian comedians aren’t capable of branching out to other subjects to be funny about.  

Being an Asian guy who pokes fun at his own race is easy, and on some level even expected. His viewers who are of Asian-American descent might laugh at these videos knowing full well that this only represents one side of their identity. But those who aren’t part of the Asian tradition, who likely weren’t informed of the whole picture prior to absorbing this content, are left to believe about Asians only what they saw. And this is damaging to the advancement of Asians in non-stereotypical fields, such as entertainment, in Western society. 

This opinion was not written with the intent to undermine these personalities as comedians, but it does encourage them to consider the impact their work has on how non-Asians view a culture that they may not be exposed to in ways beyond Youtube. None of them have a duty to advance Asian representation in TV comedy or to correct an entrenched stereotype by virtue of their existing fame, but they might want to extend their reach beyond exploiting what’s already over-exploited.

Because when you think they’re laughing with you, they’re actually laughing at you.


Ashley Yang's column "Unpopular Opinions" runs Fridays.

Reach Ashley here.



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