A New Chinese Lunar Year, Still an Old Yellowface SNL

Feb 10, 2014 | Updated Apr 12, 2014


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Early this month, conversations about race in America were sparked by three videos. Two aired during the Super Bowl: one, a Cheerios commercial, the other the now viral "America the Beautiful" ad spot by Coca-Cola. The third was a video by the National Congress of American Indians which was unable to air during the SuperBowl due to lack of funds, but took the Internet by storm anyways by taking on the term "redskin."

Do you know what video got barely a peep? Melissa McCarthy's opening monologue on Saturday Night Live.

"What's the big deal?" you might ask. To recap: Melissa McCarthy battled cast member Bobby Moynihan by flying around the stage in a slapstick version of "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" while Taran Killam did a bad impression of Iron Chef Chairman (at least I think that's who he was channeling). I am going to clarify here by saying I refer to original Iron Chef Chairman Japanese Takeshi Kaga , not the now white-washed version on the Food Network hosted by Alton Brown.

So, at the end of this recap, you still may ask, "So? What's the big deal?"

The big deal is that here again are white people doing bad, and yes, at points offensive cultural imitations and appropriations of Asian people and culture -- essentially yellowface -- and no one said, or is saying anything about it.

Where are the outraged tweets? The blog polemics? The YouTube response videos? The pickup by mainstream media op-eds? There was barely a decent comment thread about the entire incident.

"So, it's not a big deal then," you may reply. "No one else is taking offense. No one else sees anything wrong. It's just comedy. All in good fun. Stop taking things so seriously."

The problem with that is, I can't. This should be talked about. People should take offense. It's not just comedy, and I take it very seriously.

I was born 27 years ago in Seoul, South Korea and I came over when I was barely six months old. I was adopted and raised in the middle of Massachusetts surburbia, becoming a naturalized citizen before I was 2 years old. I am American. I am a citizen.

But I never see me on T.V. I never see me in the movies.

Why is a corporation that sells soda more likely to classify my cultural heritage and traditions -- and more importantly, people who look like me -- while on a national TV network, I see white people being "funny" by appropriating Asian traditions, dress, and "speech"? Why is it still acceptable, in an earlier sketch, for Nasim Pedrad to portray a Japanese chef at a Japanese restaurant, because she's the closest thing they have to someone with East Asian origins?

Again, you may ask, why is this a big deal?

When I came to New York, it was my dream to become, if not a stand-up comedian, then a comedy actress and writer. The problem with that was, in the first improv class, I was surrounded by white people. In my last improv class, I was surrounded by white people. In almost every sketch, improv or comedy scene I've entered, I've been surrounded by mostly white people.

This isn't a problem identified solely by myself. Upright Citizens Brigade, the premier improv and sketch comedy theater in New York City, has started a diversity initiative in order to broaden the racial and ethnic numbers in its students and performers.

But still, what does this all say to a young Asian girl sitting in the living room, watching TV; the teenager dreaming of winning an Emmy for best comedic actress; the young college performer and writer hoping to make a mark on the NYC comedy scene?

It says Asian people aren't funny, but making fun of Asian people is.


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I will admit that lately, there seems to be a push for more diversity in Hollywood comedy I applaud and wholeheartedly love such shows as the Mindy Project, Key and Peele and comics like Aziz Ansari, Margaret Cho and Eliot Chang. But I still have to look long and hard to see anything close to me being represented. The well-known mainstream Asian actresses in the U.S. I can literally count on one hand. When I google "asian comedians" I get a search result that, in the description says, "I didn't even know there were mainstream Asian-American comedians!" Ask anyone for a specifically recent "Asian" comedic actor and you'll probably get Ken Jeong, who has always come under fire for his exaggerated, stereotypical portrayals of Asian men (The Hangover, anyone?). In fact, Asian Americans have been traveling BACK to Asian in order to establish decent entertainment careers.

This begs the question, why can't Asian people just be funny in American without being "Asian"? True, there are cultural and physical differences, and people might argue one has to assimilate to the dominant culture in any country. But America is supposed to be diverse. "American" is supposed to be continually redefined. So why is it I've lost count of how many times I've been told I'm cold, I'm inexpressive, and "don't be grumpy, smile!" when I'm perfectly fine, I am emoting, and I'm not being grumpy, I'm calm--even content.


Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

SNL has been applauded for attempting to diversify after receiving criticism by the African American community by hiring the young black sketch performer Sasheer Zamata to join its ranks. While I am happy to see any attempt at comedy that truly represents all of America, sometimes it seems too little too late. SNL, Melissa McCarthy is one funny lady, but you make it hard for me to laugh when you put her in sketch that is filled with racist tropes. Yellowface just isn't laughable. Humor can be a powerful weapon--look at what the Daily Show did alone for the 9/11 Bill Passage. And I know you can do smart, pointed satire, as exemplified by your recent "Black History Month" sketch. So why can't you be that way with Asians?

I'm not saying I don't enjoy a silly slapstick routine as much as the next person, but when you have a national platform, you should be conscious of the responsibility you have to be funny, not to make fun: especially when an important Asian calendar mark just passed: the Chinese Lunar New Year.