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APA talks to some of the creators of the sketch comedy show TeleMongol about bringing Asian American humor to the masses.
TeleMongol is a collaboration between four prominent Asian American theater groups -- Lodestone, Cold Tofu, OPM, and 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors -- putting on a sketch comedy show that revolves around an Asian American television network, the studio execs that make the decisions, and the content they produce, for better or worse. At the helm of the production is television director Henry Chan, a veteran of such shows as Moesha, Scrubs, and King of Queens.
The show consists of sixteen set sketches -- highlights including The Dr. Pho Show (hosted by a Vietnamese manicurist/therapist), Asian Surreal Life, Desparate Asians of Lotus Lane, Brokeback Gold Mountain, and Kim Jong-il's Very North Korean Holiday Hour. In addition, there is a re-occurring Weekend Update-type newscast, headed by anchors Greg Watanabe and Jully Lee. These particular jokes are new every night, because it is rewritten every show to keep up-to-date with the latest news. Part of the humor of the sketch is to slip through a few groaners, watch if they bomb, and see how the anchors handle it. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses. But that's OK. It happens on Saturday Night Live too.
In addition to having the opportunity to poke fun at Asian American programming and confront the political issues that surround the daunting task of representing Asian America to the masses, the cast and crew of TeleMongol aims to push boundaries and provoke -- whether that means making fun of easy but can't-say-it-enough targets like Bai Ling and Rick Yune, putting a spin on potentially cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes, laughing at North Korean dictator executions, basking in the glory of simulated sex on-stage, or, of course, celebrating the machismo of men-on-men action.
Does TeleMongol actually offend? Depends on the audience. Overall, the show probably doesn't shock any more than any show on cable might potentially shock someone, but we as Asian Americans aren't used to seeing other Asian Americans do the shocking. The point is to be outrageous, to feel free to experiment, not box ourselves in, and not be afraid.
APA chats with a few of the cast and crew about the dangers of limiting ourselves as Asian Americans, the need to create a more inclusive and supportive community, and of course, the wonders of Asian male sexuality.
Q&A with Telemongol's Henry Chan (director), Charles Kim (writer/performer), Peter Wong (writer/producer), Ewan Chung (producer/performer), and Philip W. Chung (Lodestone co-artistic director).
Interviewed by Ada Tseng and Brian Hu
November 19, 2006
APA: The show alludes to AZN TV and other Asian American television stations. Do you guys have any experience working with them or watching them?
Henry Chan: Absolutely none. [laughs]
Peter Wong: The closest we've gotten is that we were invited by ImaginAsian TV to a meeting with one of their marketing VPs or directors. They were interested in some of our material after they saw an OPM show. But then it just halted right there, because at the time, they weren't interested in Asian sketch comedy.
Charles Kim: They felt that sketch comedy was not "viable."
Peter: And, of course, that year they had the Kelsey Grammer show. And you know how they always have Mad TV and Saturday Night Live. And, we actually submitted a pilot to show to AZN and ImaginAsian through Sung Kim, who had directed a documentary, and it was really smooth and really good until the point where they said, "No." And we were wondering why, but then it turns out, a week later, we found out they had the plug pulled out from under them.
Charles: I was in the first season of Asia Street Comedy, which was AZN, and then AZN collapsed or dissolved or transformed into something else. But I was in the first season as an actor. As recent as two weeks ago, a friend saw me on TV in Indiana. I guess they're still doing reruns. So I'm floating out there somewhere.
APA: I was thinking when I was watching the show, that I had a great time watching it here [at GTC Burbank], but if I saw it on AZN, I might have felt a little uncomfortable by it. Because there's something about being here that's a safe space for Asian Americans. We can say what we want, and everyone's going to get the joke, and everyone's going to laugh. Something about it being accessible to everyone else worries me.
Henry: I think that's exactly why we're doing this. You're right, we're in this safe space where we can laugh at ourselves, poke fun at ourselves, and we can feel very safe. But we have to gradually move out of this. Otherwise we'll be ghettoized for the rest of our lives. The idea is that we can put it out there and still laugh at ourselves. Just like, remember, In Living Color. They laugh at all the black jokes, all the stereotypes. They didn't feel uncomfortable, right? So when the mainstream audience catches on, and they think "Oh, we're inside the joke," that's what we're aiming for. I think that's what breaks the stereotypes. We want to cross those lines. Otherwise, we'll always be in the ghetto.
APA: Do you think worrying about being offensive and cautious is something that limits us?
Phil: But he's talking also from the perspective of Asian Americans creating our own work. I think if I saw this show, and I saw that white people wrote it. I'd be like, "Screw that." But I think it really is about where it's coming from and having ownership.
Ewan Chung: That's the thing about theater. In theater you can really be more fearless. Own your own material, create your own material. That hasn't quite happened for Asian Americans on film or TV yet. So I think we just need to get more writers and creators in that field, because that's really the only way we can get ourselves out there and eventually own our stereotypes and take charge, and not have other people dictating who our characters are.
Charles: We need writers, directors, producers, people with clout. People that will make that happen. And I agree whole-heartedly with what Henry said. Because as far as Asian stories are concerned: they're pouring out of Asia. American studios are remaking Asian movies. This has been happening since Kurosawa, with Star Wars. Asian American stories, though? We're still on the frontier. Last time we had a really big stab at it was All American Girl, and we know where that went. Margaret Cho will be the first to say that it wasn't an ideal scenario. And then before that was -- Kung Fu? And we know what happened there. So Asian America, I feel like we're still mavericks. And America doesn't know what to like, and neither do Asian Americans, because they haven't really seen it yet done well.
But look at the black aesthetic. It doesn't stop the black aesthetic from being so magnetic and captivating. If we listen to black comics in stand-up, doing their black humor, we're still engaged. And even music. Rap music they're making references to particular things going on in their neighborhood, but we're still interested, because they're just being true to whatever it is they're going through. And I think if we're true to what we're going through, with our own vision and our voice, and we just plow forth, it's going to happen. But right now, nobody knows what to miss, because it hasn't been done on that scale yet.
APA: Do you think it's possible to be true to ourselves? Given what happened to AZN, are there really viable spaces for that to happen?
Charles: I mean, if you ask me. There are always a few apples in the bunch. Proverbial apples that kind of spoil the rest, but I don't feel like we should stop the movement as a whole. Just because the AZN guys turned out to be doing this as a tax write-off, it shouldn't stop other people from trying to formulate something solid.
Ewan: I think from a sociological point of view, unfortunately, it's a little more difficult for Asian Americans, just going by sheer numbers. We're only what.. 4-5% now? But unfortunately when you deal with Asian American cable networks, money is involved. It is the ultimate mash-up between commercial and artistic. And in order for it to be viable, it has to be marketable. Take the black community. They've blown up, because they've always been the larger minority, and they have the numbers to back it up. Asian Americans, we're not quite there yet, but I don't think that means it can't happen. We just have to be more creative in terms of how to set something up that will be inclusive.
Henry: Inclusive. We cannot separate ourselves as Chinese American and Korean American. I'm basically "fresh off the boat," but I do believe that there is an Asian American sensitivity that has grown. A lot of intermarriages and second, third generation like you guys, born and raised here as Asian Americans, rather than Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. And even the numbers, look at Jewish people. They thrive, and their numbers aren't bigger than ours, so I think the main thing is that we can't keep saying: "We're going to do these things for ourselves." Yes, that's how we've started. But eventually, you have to go to the mainstream. You have to go outside. Black humor, the same thing. You have to go mainstream. Look at Cosby. It's very mainstream. Eddie Murphy, very mainstream. But then you also have the other side. But until we can cross the line and get out of the ghetto, we'll never be successful. We'll never be viable as a business. It's still business and we need money to sustain it.
Charles: We can really reach out and claim people who really aren't being cast as Asian. Like, Tiger Woods. He's been great. He'll acknowledge both sides. But there are a lot of undercover Asians. Like what about the Tilly sisters? What about Keanu?
APA: Mark Paul-Gosselaar. Rob Schneider.
Ewan: Dean Cain.
APA: Shannyn Sossamon.
Charles: Kristin Kreuk. There's just a whole slew of them out there. Tyrese. Naomi Campbell has Chinese in her. We can claim so many people. You look at BET, the whole palette of black. You have anyone as light as Maya Rudolph to Don Cheadle. And why can't we claim all these people and really reach out and get the hapas involved.
Henry: Because people try to pass. [laughs] There are people who don't want to be identified as Asian.
Peter: As Asian Americans, as a collective group, we only have 4%, but we do dominate certain areas. We're at the forefront of new technology. But as groups, we tend to segregate each other, which is one of the problems. Because when a black film opens, everybody goes to see it. Over here, if an Asian American film opens, we go "Oh who's the star? Jason Scott Lee?" Not everyone will go see it. And I'm guilty of it too. Like, Filipino film, The Debut, I don't necessarily go see it. As a collective, we don't all support it.
Charles: Maybe we still have residue of our upbringing. Because if it was a very "Asian" upbringing, then it was very: "This isn't good enough. You can do better. This isn't right. This isn't perfect." There's a very exacting and demanding vision that is enforced on us, so there's that residue of thinking. So you ask: "Oh is that Korean? Oh, it's Chinese. Well, I'll go see it later." But you know, if it's a Korean film. John Cho! Then... you go. But there's always a hierarchy. "Oh Mom I got an A." "Um.. anyone else get an A+?" Everything's in a hierarchy. Even when she's cooking food. "You like this, don't you?" "Yes." "Better than the restaurant we went to last week, right?" So we're automatically always putting divisions, and maybe it still affects us.
APA: So how do we get people to break out of that?
Charles: I guess we gotta break out of it ourselves. Make a new vision. Call each other on it. Be real about it.
Peter: But that's why groups like ours are so necessary. Each one of our theater groups has a diverse amount of Asian Americans participating in it.
APA: Is the goal to define Asian American humor?
Henry: I wouldn't say "define it," but there is an Asian American sensitivity.
APA: Can we talk about some of the specific sketches? Charles, there's one sketch you wrote where you play an overbearing Korean mother...
Charles: Well, I'm drawing on family life, and I felt like it had to be done! You know, let's face it. This is a little opportunity to have a cathartic release. If you're watching that sketch and you totally don't relate, cause your parents weren't like that, then good for you. I'm so happy for you. But if you do relate, I would love it if someone said, 'Thank God! This is totally my childhood.' But, as a disclaimer, I have to say: Mom... it wasn't based on you!
Peter: Phil suggested some ideas to tackle. One was The Surreal Life with Asian stars. And I have this thing where I cannot stand Bai Ling. She's probably a very nice person, but everything she does makes me want to cringe. And I'm a big fan of Sammo Hung and George Takei, [so they're in there.] And at one point James Hong was in the script. And as I was writing, I made a little remark about Rick Yune being a stick of wood, and people liked that.
APA: [to Phil] What kind of ideas did you suggest?
Phil: It would just be things like: Let's do something on Asian porn stars. And Aaron went off and wrote the public service announcement. And I would have never thought to do it that way. And even Kim Jong-il. I suggested, I'd love to see him in a holiday show, and Charles just took that idea and ran with it. So it's really the writers. One of my favorites is Brokeback Gold Mountain. That just came out of me saying, "I want to do something with Ang Lee." Michael took that, and that's what he came up with. I certainly wouldn't have done that. [everyone laughs] But you know, that's what the writing process was like. Hopefully we inspire little things that will make the writers go off and come back with something that's better than what the original idea was. And I think that's generally what happens.
APA: In the press release, Henry talks about how he wanted to do this show because it was a chance to do something outrageous. Can you guys talk about that? Partularly, it seems like you guys had a lot of fun with gay humor.
Charles: Well, I'm the top. So I'm good. [everyone laughs]
Phil: Well, for me personally, it might not be true for everyone else, but there's something about heterosexual gay humor that's really funny. Cause you see it in almost everything. You see it in Wedding Crashers. You see it in 40 Year Old Virgin. That scene in Starsky and Hutch, where Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller are running along the beach in slow motion. There's just something about that I think is funny. Right?
Charles: Are you justifying your stash of gay porn?
Phil: [laughs] I'm justifying you and Aaron [Takahashi, writer/performer/re-occuring onscreen partner of Charles].
Charles: For some reason, Aaron and I get to hook up multiple times. Genghis condom, Brokeback, the spinners.. at the closing. It's funny how it's all sort of...
Ewan: I mean, American society is always so macho-centric when it comes to men anyway, it's always fun to flip it and poke fun of it and call it what it really is sometimes.
Phil: The thing about Brokeback Gold Mountain is: it's about the bachelor's society and no one really talks about these guys in the woods. It's having fun with it. And let's be honest. With Asian American culture, and Asian American masculinity, there's the stereotype of being effeminite, the asexual or the gay thing. So it's having fun with that.
Ewan: And admitting to it. Because as Asian Americans, we tend to be more conservative. Your parents probably never talked to you about the birds and the bees, so it's good to bring it up.
Peter: Right. Some of the most macho cats I know are Asian guys
Ewan: There you go. We have to show that. Because the networks aren't going to show that. So we have to show it.
The show plays through December 17th in Burbank, CA.
Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.
Date Posted: 12/4/2006