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Bowen Yang adds new irreverence to late-night comedy

For more on the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV writer Cord Jefferson and activist Mariah Moore, return to the full list here.

In 2014, when Kim Jong-un was absent from public life and gravely ill, Bobby Moynihan portrayed the North Korean Supreme Leader in a cold open “Saturday Night Live”. The impression was typical of Moynihan: strong, excitable, a bit burlesque. He jumped around the stage and whipped himself into a frenzy.

Five years later, Bowen Yang played Kim in her “SNL” camera debut. Yang’s approach was very different. Instead of treating Kim like a loud bloviator, Yang made him mean. He frowned, rolled his eyes, and appeared like bitchy gossip.

It is no discredit to Moynihan’s talents to say that Yang sketch is the one who got stuck. Positioning a dictator as loud and narcissistic is obvious; to find irony in one’s personality is transgressive.

Yang had already spent several months writing for the show, but this was her first as a performer that showed her ability to reinterpret old concepts with a new irreverence. His funniest recurring character is fictional Chinese bureaucrat Chen Biao, a merry swagger who calls herself a “crisis queen” and once turned Megan Thee Stallion’s words into a communist manifesto. Parodying Elton John, politician Andrew Yang and former writer Fran Leibowitz, Yang’s mannerisms turn into well-calibrated caricatures, accentuating the eerie (and sometimes obnoxious) intimacy derived from specific celebrity characters.

Part of Yang’s uniqueness comes from being the first Chinese American actor on the show (and only the fourth Asian-born actor in his 46 seasons). This is one of the many traits that differentiates the 30-year-old from most “SNL” veterans. He’s also gay, extremely online, and possesses an irritable absurdism common among millennial comedians.

Yang’s popular “Las Culturistas” podcast, for example, ends with a segment titled “I Don’t Think So Honey,” in which he and co-host Matt Rogers embrace 60 seconds of fake outrage on prosaic topics like the care of plants, the smell of toenails. , 5G technology and the cinematic taste of Meryl Streep. In an increasingly ridiculous capitalist world where survival depends on building a ‘personal brand’, performative outrage has found a comedic rhythm – and Yang’s version of it is more witty than anyone’s, as in testifies to its recent viral turn as the “Iceberg That Sunk the Titanic.”

“In a way, Las Culturistas gave me a space to talk off the cuff and try out different points of view and aspects of my personality and literally just try out takes,” Yang said in a recent conversation with Zoom. “With ‘I Don’t Think So Honey,’ it’s just that we’re like, ‘Let me try to rig a strong negative opinion on, you know, trucker hats or whatever.'”

The podcast had a humble start in 2016. Shortly after Yang joined “SNL,” he and Rogers signed a contract with mega-conglomerate iHeartMedia to fund the series, putting them in the same league as Will Ferrell, Shonda Rhimes. and Questlove. It currently averages half a million downloads per month, according to an iHeartMedia representative.

When Yang was still starting out, he and his friends would hear the same label: “too much niche”. They would go to auditions or pitch meetings and come away with what could easily sound like a code for “too queer,” “too young”, or “too non-white.” But with Yang’s rise to power, the cheeky, fast-paced, and extremely literate intuition of comic book pop culture in their 20s and early 30s can no longer be considered an outlier. Now is the time and maybe the future. “Las Culturistas” alone spawned a handful of copiers, with Rogers and Yang leading a shifting comic tide like Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the early 1960s.

Bowen Yang adds new irreverence to late-night comedy

Still, Yang doesn’t quite agree that “SNL” is suddenly so weird than before. Of course, his most memorable sketch to date (co-authored with the great Julio Torres) stars harry styles as gay social media manager Sara Lee caught posting arousing comments (“Wreck me daddy”) on celebrity Instagram photos. (Fun fact: Yang wrote a pandemic-themed Chef Boyardee follow-up for Timothée Chalamet, but it was cut.) He thinks the internet’s “snark gallery” doesn’t give the show enough credit for its long-term progress, highlighting queer alumni like Paula Pell, Chris Kelly, Terry Sweeney, Sam Jay and James Anderson, who wrote for “SNL” from 2000 to 2020.

“The thing with ‘SNL’ is that it’s this container for all kinds of different things to coexist,” Yang said. “I don’t think there is this new phenomenon that there is suddenly a queer sensibility in the show. It may have been at a different volume, and we’ve improved some of those tracks.

In general, Yang has chosen to distance himself from the Sunday morning quarterback that accompanies “SNL”. Scroll Twitter after another episode, and you’ll see plenty of bloated people declaring the show’s irrelevance – despite clear monitoring of its every move. Partly inspired by Jenny Odell’s book How To Do Nothing: Resist the Attention Economy, Yang left the platform (more or less) because he anticipated what it might do to her. sense of self.

“I’m not saying this snark gallery is flawed in the way it has existed all this time, but it’s not necessarily helpful for me as an artist to get bogged down in the snark of it all,” he said. he declared. “Don’t make that terrible capitalist comparison, but ‘SNL’ is Amazon and the sketches and people in them are products, and everyone is just leaving reviews – but the way Amazon reviews Give them that tone where it’s like, ‘Well, I hate that thing because it came in the broken mail. It’s the same frequency of people saying to themselves, “ Let me come in warm with my take because it’s these granular units of things that I can tie my opinion to because I’m going to watch something and consume it in them. four minutes. ”

As a stand-up who’s performed everywhere from dark Brooklyn basements to HBOs “2 Dope Queens, “Yang is used to being evaluated in real time. But where a live audience’s reaction is fleeting, a tweet or review can go on forever. Sometimes the feedback involves his identity, like the time he saw someone say, “Bowen only plays Asians. There is nothing he can do but play Asians, ”which led him to think,“ OK, so you say there is a deficiency in being Asian. Ultimately, this speech colors your self-esteem no matter how famous you are, and so, like the other “SNL” stars, Yang had to turn away.

“It made a lot of sense to me why people who have been on the show for a long time and are still in the cast, like Kenan for example, are just like, ‘I don’t care,'” Yang said. “It sounds a little cruel and maybe a little callous, but it’s the necessary and healthy thing to do.

Yang however finds validation from his peers. (He is closest to Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Ego Nwodim, and Heidi Gardner.) He is encouraged by seeing props of the proverbial New York comedy scene, like his friend Patti Harrrison, achieve their own eminence. And for what it’s worth, he’s also received claims from unlikely sources. Take Andrew Yang, whom he emulated in the 2020 presidential race. After Dave Chappelle’s post-election broadcast in November, he and Nwodim were taking photos in their locker room when Yang received a phone call saying that other Yang (no parent) was downstairs and wanted to meet him. He was there for the recording. It was a “beautiful” conversation. They exchanged numbers.

Bowen Yang adds new irreverence to late-night comedy

About a month later, as Yang was about to take a shower in her Clinton Hill apartment, her phone rang. “I heard on the other line, ‘Hi, Bowen! It’s Andrew Yang! », He remembers. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, how are you?’ He was in Georgia at the time to help in the second round, and he said to me: “I will announce my candidacy for mayor”. People had speculated enough so far, so I wasn’t surprised. I was just like, ‘Great! OK, it’s happening. I wished him luck, but I was naked when he told me.

It is not uncommon for politicians to commune with the comedians who roast them, especially on “SNL,” where President Gerald Ford once delivered the introduction “live from New York …” and Tina Fey has landed a seismic boost after playing alongside Sarah Palin. But there’s something about Bowen Yang that makes people want to know him beyond the enchanting charm of fame. Because “Las Culturistas” is so focused on personality, and because it emphasizes the cultural vocabulary of his time, and because Yang made such an instant noise on TV, he seems like someone who crystallizes the next decade of comedy right before our eyes – the familiar and the new rolled into one exciting package.

“I have to indulge myself or introduce myself to an audience,” Yang said of his upward momentum. “I feel like with people who say ‘I’m listening to you on’ Las Culturistas’, ‘I’m like,’ OK, you kind of have a better idea of ​​who I am compared to someone who’s like. , “I loved you in ‘Nora from Queens.’ “There’s not much more to say than ‘Thanks for watching’. People who say they listen to “Las Culturistas”, I’m like, “OK, thank you, what do you think of” Bling Empire? “”


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