For the past few decades, steady progress has been made in one of the last frontiers of Asian American occupation: the entertainment industry. More recently, things seem to be approaching a tipping point – with Asian comedians boldly leading the way. Comedy has the unique ability to bring audiences across racial barriers to come together and is the first genre to experience breakthroughs. Asian comedians are beginning to get more leading and supporting roles in Hollywood, with increasing diversity in characters. The internet has been crucial in the discovery and dissemination of new Asian comics, allowing some to cater entirely to Asian audiences and sustain a career. The Asian comedians on this list range from the goofy, to the nerdy, to the intelligent and everything in between. Some play to the mainstream, others to ethnic niches or both. But they all have one thing in common: in an Asian American entertainment scene where the odds are stacked against you, the following ten comics have left their mark.
10. Jo Koy
Asian connection: Jo Koy is half-Filipino and originally from Tacoma, Washington but started his career in Las Vegas. He often touches on race, stereotypes, growing up with a Filipino mother and does various accents.
Jo Koy reminds you of your funny friend who always got told they should be a comedian, except that Jo actually followed the advice and became a star. Armed with a frenetic physical style that reminds you of Dane Cook but with Carlos Mencia’s material, his ethnic jokes are definitely surface level (i.e. Asians can’t drive, Mexicans don’t have insurance) but are often based on solid observation (his bit on the questionable service at Chinese restaurants is on point). The most notable thing about Koy’s act is its universal appeal – he makes fun of every single group and manages to do it without being offensive.
Final word: Jo Koy is the type of comedian who grows on you as you watch more of his material. His act is nothing groundbreaking but he is a very solid comedian who could perform his act in front of both mainstream and Asian audiences without having to change a single joke.
Check out: Jo Koy – Performs at the Laugh Factory
9. Kal Penn
Asian connection: Kal Penn is an Indian-American who is best known for his role as Kumar in the “Harold and Kumar” comedy movie series. His ethnicity often plays a part in the joke but is rarely the punchline. Ironically, his Indian accent impersonation is quite bad.
Kal Penn was the first Indian-American to play a major character on Hollywood screens. Not a stand-up comedian but a comedic actor, Kal plays the sly frat-house-but-smart persona to perfection. Kal’s strength is his ability to craft a hilarious but believable character that can transcend race without completely ignoring it. Everyone knows somebody who acts like Kumar, which makes the character more hilarious – even if it’s the only one he ever plays. Plus he gets points for putting a hold on his lucrative acting career to serve as part of the Obama Administration and also having taught a class at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania.
Final word: Kal Penn reminds me of Ben Stiller. He’s making audiences of every background laugh by playing a character that’s easy to relate to.
Check out: Kal Penn – Harold and Kumar: Weed
8. Rex Navarette
Asian connection: Rex was originally born in the Phillipines but raised in the Bay Area. All of his jokes are geared towards a Filipino audience, often going in-depth into the culture, history, and of course – the Filipino accent.
Significance: Rex Navarette started his career in 1989 and was the first Asian comedian to ever sustain a career doing shows for a predominantly non-white audience. In his many years on scene, Rex has become a legend in the Filipino community (while remaining relatively unknown outside of it) for his hilarious parodies of working-class citizens which are intended to educate as much as they were supposed to make you laugh. Even those who are not Filipino can relate to the spot-on accents and 1st-generation immigrant characterizations.
Final word: Rex Naverette is the first Asian comedian who did comedy directly targeted for Asians and may be the only Asian comedian more popular in his motherland than in America.
Check out: Rex Naverette – SBC Packers
7. Dat Phan
Asian connection: Dat Phan was born in Saigon, Vietnam but raised in San Diego, California and is best known for winning NBC’s ‘Last Coming Standing’ reality show in 2003. He has built a career touching upon stereotypes and doing ridiculous caricatures of his parents. Asian topics make up the vast majority of his act.
Dat Phan is controversial within both the mainstream comedy and Asian communities but for entirely different reasons. Comedy critics felt his winning the first season of ‘The Last Comic Standing’ was undeserved, while many Asians (who initially liked Dat) found out he has a tendency to repeat the same material – year after year. This has led people to begin throwing around the term “hack” (an unoriginal comedian) when describing Dat and his career. Nonetheless, Dat Phan still continues to successfully tour and get laughs from both mainstream and Asian audiences and is one of the few Asian comedians to have headlined network television. He also managed to be included in an exhibit by The Smithsonian Institution for ‘The Top 10 Most Influential Vietnamese-American Individuals.’
Final word: Dat Phan came out of the gate with a bang, doing the ‘Asian parents’ bit as good as anyone had before. We’re still waiting for him to move beyond it.
Check out: Dat Phan – Performs at Comedy Zen
6. Bobby Lee
Asian connection: Bobby Lee is Korean and was born and raised in San Diego. He is best known from his many years on the MAD TV sketch comedy show where he played a variety of Asian characters, ranging from Kim Jong Ill to Connie Chung.
Bobby Lee is one of the most well-known Asian comedians due to the nine seasons he spent on the popular sketch comedy show MAD TV. He has a crazy anything-goes style that is perfect for playing characters, although he does employ the same generic Asian accent for most of them. Bobby Lee is a polarizing figure, most people either love him or hate him. Some Asians felt he “sold his soul” playing stereotypical characters simply to find work, while others are just happy to see an Asian face on TV. Bobby seems unfazed by any debate and just does whatever he wants – and it seems to be working. With MAD TV coming to a close, Bobby has already finished roles in several different major motion pictures.
Final word: Bobby Lee doesn’t care about exploiting Asian stereotypes to get laughs – often playing effeminate, grown-baby type roles that would make any Asian American activist cringe. But as one of the most well-known Asian faces in comedy, he has undoubtedly made things easier for the next generation.
Check out: Bobby Lee – MAD TV: Chinese Toy Factory
5. Aziz Ansari
Asian connection: Aziz was born to Tamil Indian parents in South Carolina. His humor is geared towards pop culture, social-media, and celebs (he knows Kanye West). He mentions his ethnicity but he rarely makes jokes about growing up Indian and doesn’t do accents because he feels it’s too easy to get a laugh that way.
Aziz is part of a new breed of comedians leading the trend in stand-up where focus is placed on satirical personal observation as opposed to having traditional punchlines. Initially getting his first big break in sketch comedy group Human Giant, Aziz has crossed over to the mainstream in a major way with a spot in the movie ‘Funny People’, a role on NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation’, and hosting the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. His stand-up content is smart, fresh, and delivered in a high-energy nasal tone. By far the youngest comedian on the list at 26, the multi-talented Aziz has long career ahead of him and seems destined for the top.
Final word: With a strong appeal to the Daily Show/Colbert crowd, this hipster-turned-megastar (think Zach Galifinakis) is at the forefront of a movement (and generation) where laughs comes first and everything else second. Aziz may become the first successful Asian comedian where being Asian hardly even matters.
Check out: Aziz Ansari – Interview on Kimmel
4. Ken Jeong
Asian connection: Korean Ken Jeong was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. He mentions being Asian in his stand-up, but it’s just one of his topics. Ken is best known for his roles in big comedies such as Knocked Up and the Hang Over and for having been an actual medical doctor prior to becoming a full-time actor.
Ken Jeong is a controversial figure in the Asian community, as the only Asian comedian to ever have been embraced by the Hollywood elite but having done so by playing off-the-wall stereotypical characters. Some call him a “sell-out”, or cringe at his characters, others just think he’s hilarious. One thing that’s undeniable is his impact. There’s never been an Asian in comedy that stole every scene they were in and then actually received recognition for it from the mainstream. Admittedly, I had mixed feelings about supporting him at first but Dr. Ken has definitely grown on me (he’s an incredible talent) and I’m rooting for his continued success.
Final word: In the current environment, the only Asians breaking through into the mainstream are playing wild stereotypes. But the key is that they’re breaking through. Plus, by being loud and obscene, Dr. Ken is tearing down as many stereotypes as he is creating.
3. Henry Cho
Asian connection: Born in Asian-deficient Knoxville, Tenneesse, Korean Henry Cho is the only Asian comic with a Southern accent. Cho usually opens with a few jokes acknowledging the obvious then moves on to non-ethnic fare.
Henry Cho was one of the first Asian stand-up comedians ever, starting his career in 1986. By the late 80′s he was touring with Jerry Seinfeld and making TV appearances. Being a strong Christian, Cho never swears in his acts and keeps them very clean, it also explains his calm and confident tone that can only be described as pastor-like. Cho is significant because he has experienced some mainstream success by playing to white audiences without any self-deprecating Asian jokes or Asian impressions. He also has turned down numerous movie roles because he refuses to speak in broken English, showing that you can stick to your principles and still have a flourishing career.
Final word: Henry Cho is one of the original pioneers of Asian Americans in comedy and does good, home-grown, Southern sensible jokes as good anyone out there – Asian or otherwise.
Check out: Henry Cho – Late Night with Craig Ferguson
2. Russell Peters
Asian connection: Russell Peters is Indian-Canadian and was raised in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. His humor constantly touches on race and culture and he is known for being able to accurately impersonate a multitude of accents.
Russell Peters is the most groundbreaking Asian comedian in the past decade. He rose from relative obscurity off the strength of a Canadian TV special that went viral on YouTube to being the most popular stand-up comedian ever in the Asian community – all without the support of the mainstream industry. Peters grossed $10 million in 2008-09 independently, showing that speaking directly to the ignored (Asians, particularly Indians and Chinese) is not only a great niche, but incredible for business. Russell has a innate ability to poke fun at cultures and races with a casual insider tone, which has earned him the distinction of being the most popular international stand-up comedian, exposing comedy to entirely new audiences of people around the world. By being both insightful and hysterical, Russell is the perfect example of being racial without being racist.
Final word: Russell Peters has changed the game by being the first ethnic comedian to turn a cult following into a movement. Audiences from all walks of life connect with him as if he was one of their own and laugh, even if they’ve heard his jokes before on an internet bootleg.
Check out: Russell Peters – Red, White, and Brown
1. Margaret Cho
Asian connection: Margaret Cho is Korean and was born and raised in San Francisco. She frequently talks about issues surrounding the controversial topics of race, politics, and sexuality. Cho was also the first Asian comedian to do an ethnic impression for the mainstream.
Margaret Cho is the original Asian comedian. At 42, she’s around the same age as many of the other comedians on the list, but hit the big time far earlier than most of her peers. At 26, she starred in the first and only Asian family TV sitcom in history called, ‘All American Girl’ on ABC in 1994 and although it only lasted a season, she was the first Asian comedian to break into the mainstream. Blessed with a smart conversational voice, Cho still has one of the best deliveries in comedy, although her content has become increasingly campy over the years. Later in her career she would continue to be a pioneer, being an outspoken representative for the LBGT community in her stand-up tours. One interesting thing to note is that despite her success, the Asian community has never wholly embraced Cho – sparking some debate as to whether Asians actually hold themselves back.
Final word: Margaret Cho is a pioneer and the most well-known Asian comedian ever. The first people to do anything always receive the brunt of both success and hate and all things considered, I think she handled it quite well. Without her, Asian comedians would not be where they are at today.
- Joe Wong
- Danny Cho
- David Fung, follow me on Twitter @davidbfung or Email me at makeitinthemotherland[@]gmail.com