As stereotypes go, there are worse ones to be saddled with than Asian American. Every member of the model minority is a whiz at math and science, hard-working, competent, dutiful and has more than a trace of the Buddha in them. Beats the hell out of being a white man; we can’t jump, have small peckers and are still expected to run the world.
One attribute not commonly associated with Asian Americans–at least for those of us who find comfort in absurd generalizations about a label given an ethnic “minority” from a part of the world where 60 percent of Earth’s population lives and with more land mass than North and South America combined, (seriously, Cyprus—fucking Cyprus—is in Asia! Or might be...)–is a sense of humor.
Blacks have Chris Rock and Richard Pryor, Hispanics have Cheech and Chong (ok, at least Cheech), and whitey’s got Soupy Sales. Asians? There’s the guy from The Hangover and Margaret Cho. Not quite in the same league.
Of course, nearly every word typed thus far has been complete bullshit; while Asian American performers, including funny ones, have historically had sparse representation in Hollywood, and there have been plenty of examples of grotesque whitewashing of Asian characters, they are certainly not invisible, and the past few years have seen a concerted effort on many of their parts to seize that attention.
For living, local evidence of funny Asian Americans, check out Friday’s debut performance of a sketch comedy troupe in Fullerton:
No MSG Added. Comprised of 10 mostly women and men with strong ties to the local improv scenes in Orange and Los Angeles counties, the ensemble is kind of flipping the improv/live theater dynamic you occasionally hear about. Instead of performers fleeing the world of memorizing lines of written dialogue for the free-wheeling, but equally demanding and, arguably, more creative one of improv, they are bringing the skills and focus honed in improv to the structured one of theater and sketch comedy.
Because, really, if you boil improv and sketch comedy down, you get the same essence.
“They both lead into each other,” says Eric Vue, the show’s 28-year-old lead writer, who has worked with two groups that have long blended improv and structured techniques: the Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade. “Improvers sometime are against learning lines; they think it’s against their natural instinct, but you can take a line that is written not to be funny but to establish a setting or something, and you can still make it funny through your reaction and commitment to the moment, just like improv. Both lead to the best comedy, which a natural reaction to what is happening around you.”
Though it is billed as an Asian American sketch comedy troupe, and its members have ethnic heritages from such Southeast Asian nations as China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, No MSG Added is first and foremost about the laughs, not educating, haranguing or politicizing
“We do have a few sketches that fold into the Asian American (motif), but we didn’t want to limit the writers to just doing Asian-centric material,’ Vue said. “I mean, we are Asian American, but that’s just part of who we are.”
So, while there are a couple of sketches that riff on Panda Express and colorful Halloween costumes, there are also sketches about cosplay, a support group for people who have difficulty accepting compliments and “anything the writers feel like writing about,” Vue said.
“Being funny is the ultimate goal, and what that most comes down is making your premises as clear as possible right from the beginning and then subverting them and getting to the joke,” Vue said.
But, that doesn’t mean No MSG Added is just another comedy troupe. It wouldn’t even have existed had Vue, who was born in Fresno, and graduated from UC Riverside with a degree in business administration, but who had long aspired toward a more creative route, particularly writing, not seen a show a couple of years ago called Asian AF, short for Asian as fuck.
“It was just great seeing the energy up there coming from faces that looked like mine on stage,” said Vue. So, after several years of working and studying improv, he started talking to others he’d met on the improv scene and realized that “we have a lot of talented Asian American comedic performers here, and some of them wanted to write, so we figured why not start our own?
During a production of one of Josh Nicols’ long-form improv pieces at Stages, Vue met Shinshin Yuder Tsa, who “wanted to direct” and he “was passionate about doing performing, specifically in the theater, and when we heard that Stages is starting more new comedic endeavors, it worked out.”
But back to that model minority thing: Among the seven men and three women who are part of this first effort, Vue said there are several who have postgraduate degrees, including a practicing doctor. That makes sense right? Of course, a group of Asian Americans has a doctor.
“It’s that kind of expectation that,” Vue said, “is something that every Asian-American has to deal with, to be honest. Being put into this compartment you didn’t even realize exists. Why aren’t your math scores high? For me, I did feel the pressure to succeed, to be a doctor or professor, to be the ideal version of an Asian-American.”
But Vue isn’t even one of those: His culture is Hmong, a people once distributed among several countries in Southeast Asia, who didn’t even get to America until 1975. So he grew up in a community that was just learning to adapt and assimilate into American culture, one with little power, so not only was he saddled with the expectation that he had to succeed academically and professionally, but he was part of a community just trying to establish itself. And on top of that, he was drawn to a non-traditional route of success: writing creatively.
“[Every Asian American] has to battle being part of that model minority every day of our lives and, personally, I did feel this pressure to succeed, but it wasn’t until I got to college and went to Los Angeles and found people who were putting themselves out there trying to find success in their own way, that I realized succeeding creatively was a possibility.”
And one possibly key step on that road, for Vue and the others in the group, comes Friday night.
Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton; www.stagesoc.org. Fri., 8 p.m. $15.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???