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When Asia conquers the world, hopefully the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors will ease the transition for all Americans -- with their quips, their political satire, and other sketch comedy hijinks.
Performing together since 1994, the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors have long been a staple of the San Francisco comedy scene. They were named Bay Area's best comedy troupe by San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2005, and in 2006, they took home the top prize at the International Sketch Comedy Championships (in addition to being finalists in 2007 and 2008). Around this time, Sung H. Kim began shooting a documentary about the 18mmw, filming both live concert footage and behind-the-scenes personal stories. In 2007, the resulting film, Mighty Warriors of Comedy, won the regional Emmy for Best Documentary.
In the last several years, the group has completely transitioned from NorCal to Los Angeles, where they continue to earn their reputation (according to their bio) as "quite possibly the world's most psychotic Asian American Theatrical Comedy group." After seeing their "Bow Down to Your Asian Masters!" show, our writers can confirm what many before have told us: they are easily the funniest, most consistently clever sketch comedy performers (Asian American and otherwise) in town. With fifteen years of hard work on their belts, they've become pros at balancing manic energy with sociopolitical criticism, eccentric characters with creative wordplay, up-to-date diatribes with good old-fashioned soapy nakedness.
APA speaks with Michael Chih Ming Hornbuckle and Peter J. Wong of the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors about their comedy roots as well as their latest show, "Bow Down to Your Asian Masters!".
Asia Pacific Arts: Can you start by telling me how 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors began?
Michael Chih Ming Hornbuckle: Basically, we were volunteers/wannabe actors at the Asian American Theater Company, and because of the usual financial crisis these local theaters had, there was nothing going on that summer. So we just started playing -- doing improv and sketch comedy -- under the New Godzilla Theater banner. But after a while the group fizzled out and died, and a few months later, we decided to correct the errors of the previous group and to start a whole new group called the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors.
APA: What did you guys need to fix?
Michael: The approach of the group. We saw some administrative errors and ways of doing things that made it fizzle. The group was actor-driven initially, and we wanted to make this new group writer-driven. And the first group also didn't have any way of giving back to the Asian American Theater, so for the new group, we wrote it into our policy that we had to volunteer for the theater -- sweep the floors or something in order to use it. So we did the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors at the Asian American Theater for about six months.
APA: Would you say that you guys got your training at the Asian American Theater?
Michael: I would say not. [laughs]
Peter J. Wong: Well, I did. I took my very first acting class at the Asian American Theater Company.
Michael: It depends on who you talk to. Greg [Watanabe] went to UC Berkeley and took some acting classes there. I went through the San Francisco State training program. But I would say that we really cut our teeth in comedy at Asian American Theater, 'cause most of us didn't write comedy before. And we just learned how to do it by putting on shows at the Asian American Theater. It was field training. There was no sketch comedy teacher there. It was field training; we just learned on our feet basically. A lot of it is learned from doing and watching -- just watch the masters. Watch the Marx Brothers, watch The Three Stooges, watch Woody Allen, watch Stephen Chow. Watch those guys and you'll learn.
APA: You guys started in San Francisco, but now you are all based in Los Angeles. What has the transition been like?
Michael: We were spoiled in San Francisco, because we were the big fish in a small pond. We were seen, by some people, as semi-celebrities? Not really celebrities, but something like that. LA is just a much bigger town. Physically bigger, and bigger in terms of competition. So the transition has been interesting. Simply putting a show in LA is more difficult because people have to come from miles around, whereas in San Francisco, you never go more than four or five miles. You can walk or take a bus anywhere.
In LA, there's a lot of competition, even amongst the Asian American groups. But the competition are also friends of ours: OPM, Newspeak. And we're also competing amongst all the other actors in Hollywood. But it makes us better. Plus, I still think that we're one of the better comedy groups out there in general. The unique thing about us -- we've been around since 1994 and it's basically the same group of people. Whereas other groups have a lot of roster turnaround. So a lot of groups today aren't made of the same people who started the group.
APA: The idea of staying with anything for 15 years is remarkable. What do you think makes it stick, makes it entertaining, makes you guys keep going back to 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors?
Michael: Part of it is failure. If any one of us had spring-boarded off into a movie or TV career, we probably would have done it. [laughs] But success is another part of it -- we're very successful as a group. I think that even if one of us spring-boarded away, we would still come back and do the show. 18mmw has become a "name" among some community circles. So personal pride plays a part in it; there is a desire to keep the "name" going.
And I think the group provides a wonderful arena for controlling and creating our own material and defining an Asian American comedic aesthetic. When the material is good, it's something we can point at with pride and say "We created that." This is a fantastically wonderful thing. And the fact that one has been around x number of years makes us want to continue the experience even longer. We say "Well, we've done it 10 years, why not 15 years?"
APA: What do you think makes you guys successful? Does it have to do with the way you guys play off each other?
Michael: I think success comes from the material. All our material is internally generated, and I think our stuff is a bit more thoughtful. It gives people food for thought; we don't dumb down our material. A lot of sketch groups do poo-poo, pee-pee jokes and sketches that aren't really about anything. I don't think you necessarily have to have a political agenda, but I think it's important to say something about everyday life, whether it's about eating at a restaurant, about vegetarianism, about life in general. I think that's important in order to make your material stick with the audience, so they can relate to it.
APA: How do you approach your sketch comedy writing?
Peter: I write on stuff that happens to me. Stupider stuff that happens to me.
APA: [takes out the "Bow Down to Your Masters!" program and points to a sketch that Peter wrote called "Soapy Massage"] So... you went to a massage parlor for a "happy ending," and the masseuse turned out to be a dude?
Peter: No, but we were talking about Thai massages, and I did some research and found out there were these soapy massages with "happy endings," which is a completely sexual thing. So I thought, that's kind of funny. And then I thought, well I'm kind of broke, so if I was to get a job [as a masseuse]...
Or a better example was in the last show when I wrote a piece about buying a TV and dealing with customer service. And that was exactly what happened to me when I bought a TV: the customer service was horrible and didn't know anything about anything. So, my writing's very observational.
APA: In the new show, you wrote a sketch called "Bob the Zombie" -- where a woman introduces her best friend to her zombie boyfriend.
Peter: I just love zombies. Love, love zombies. And I just thought it would be kind of funny if someone was getting married to a zombie. I don't think I've seen that. And the idea of bringing somebody along to meet your friends and them not being accepted. Why not just take it to the extreme? Michael makes a great zombie.
Michael: For me, there's inspiration writing or there's drudgery writing. I try to vary my writing in the show. Usually I try to write an Asian American Studies 101 sketch. I've done one about Charlie Chan. I've done something on the Chinese railroad workers. I always try to have a sketch that will appeal to the activist people -- learning about history. For this show, it's probably "Kung Fu vs. Kung Fu" [where Bruce Lee goes up against David Carradine.] And I usually add a verbal piece, where there's a lot of wordplay. And that's probably "I Love You." And then I've been having this reoccurring character in the last three shows called Louie, so I wrote "Louie's Genetic Modification and Cloning Clinic."
APA: What inspired the "Vegetarian" sketch? [The tagline is: "Meat is murder! So is...vegetarianism!"]
Michael: That was an inspiration sketch. I was probably getting upset because whenever we're with a group of people and we order pizza, we have to get one whole vegetarian pizza for one person, and then we run out of meat and nobody wants to eat the vegetarian pizza. But usually, I just give myself assignments. Lately I decided I wanted to have a news piece in every single show. And then, there's this group, Asian/Pacific Gays and Friends, who come to see us, and we usually don't have any gay pieces for them, so we thought, we should write something for them. So that inspired "Fatherhood."
Greg [Watanabe] is probably our most political writer. For this show, he wrote "Dick Cheney Show" and "The Clown," which is about racism.
APA: Has 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors always been made of all Asian American performers?
Michael: [jokes] We're the most racist Asian American comedy troupe around. Other groups have had non-Asians in our group, but we've never had a non-Asian in our group. Except for me, actually. I'm half Chinese. I'm the closest thing to a non-Asian we have. [laughs]
APA: Is that purposeful?
Michael: Well, we feel that it helps us control our material a lot more. It helps us develop a marketable niche as a commercial group. I think if we were going to start throwing in other people, it would become a multicultural group instead of an Asian American group. But we've collaborated with non-Asian performers: Culture Clash, Campo Santo, the Latina Theatre Lab.
APA: There's an obvious political value of having an all-Asian American group, but what are your thoughts about the artistic value of having an all-Asian American group?
Michael: You definitely develop an Asian American voice in comedy, which I don't think you would necessarily develop in another group. For example, if you were in the Groundlings, I think you'd probably tend to use your Asianness as a comedic tool or hook. I've actually seen this. Like, you would play the geisha girl, you'd play the wacky Japanese tourist with the camera. I saw this one Japanese American woman who played a character's wife, and the joke was "You're the Yoko Ono of this pair." And something like that wouldn't make sense in our group. It helps us artistically by having more fleshed-out Asian American characters. Or, even when our pieces don't have anything to do with being Asian American, it says something because it allows us to be more than just "Asian."
Peter: We're telling the joke. We don't become the joke.
APA: In all the years that you guys have been performing as an Asian American troupe, the climate must have changed drastically -- in terms of how Asians and Asian Americans are perceived. I feel like even the closing sketch of this show, "When the Asians Take Over" [which envisions the many ways Americans will have to adjust their behavior when Asian countries are in power], would be received differently now compared to 15 years ago.
Michael: The texture of it has changed. Back in the early 90s when we started, the movie Rising Sun, which is about Japan taking over, came out, and there was all this Yellow Peril fear. But nowadays, things have changed so much that people fully acknowledge that China essentially owns American now, cause they own all the foreign debt. So it's no longer the same type of Yellow Peril. It's more about [thinking about] stupid American politics. So it's easier to do a sketch like ["When the Asian Take Over"] where you're making fun of Americans. But the sketch is essentially harmless. You're just talking about cultural differences. It's not really a mean sketch. In fact people think it's not mean enough.
APA: Has your comedy changed?
Michael: My stuff has become more global. We used to be more focused on Asian American topics, Asian American history like the 442nd battalion, the railroad workers, Asian violence in America, but lately I've been globalizing a lot more because there's a whole well of stuff that appeals to mass culture that we hadn't been addressing. Things have changed. They are a whole lot better now. In the 80s, it was horrible.
Peter: Now we have Asian Americans starring in their own movies. We have John Cho, Sung Kang, all these guys. And we have an Asian American A-list director in Justin Lin.
APA: When I was in Taiwan, there was a poster for Fast and Furious, and they called Justin Lin "the light of Taiwan."
Michael: I was born in Taiwan. They don't call me the light of Taiwan. I'm not as big as Justin Lin though.
Peter: What are you talking about? You're the death of Taiwan.
Michael: The shame of Taiwan.
Peter: I don't think Justin Lin realizes he's the light of Taiwan.
APA: I don't think he's the light of Taiwan. I think they're just very proud of Taiwanese Americans in Hollywood.
Michael: Jay Chou's going to play Kato. Maybe he's the light of Taiwan.
APA: Actually, Ang Lee's the light of Taiwan.
Peter: Ah, Ang Lee.
Michael: Yes, he is.
For more information on 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, go to their official site here.
Date Posted: 8/14/2009