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APA took advantage of Kickin' it Old Skool publicity to interview Bobby Lee about his popular MadTV sketches, the power of YouTube, and how his "Asian eyes" affects his comedy. It goes without saying that we got more than we bargained for.
Bobby Lee Video Part Two Here
Bobby Lee Video Part Two Here
If Bobby Lee were to have shown up at the David Henry Hwang Theater on the bright but overcast April morning of our scheduled interview, and started spewing out profound, intellectual assessments of his comedy, its intentions, and cultural implications, we were ready. We had the questions.
Namely: How is it that Rupert Murdoch's network came to produce some of the most provocative, yet accessible, commentary on Asians in the media today? And from someone who generally gives the impression he'd rather avoid the burden of any responsibility that this might hold, and just do his own thing?
Not to place unreasonable expectations on the guy: Bobby Lee's performances are largely memorable for their low-brow humor. Sure, his Korean drama parodies (Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) have been widely circulated and the North Korean scientist propaganda bit is great ("Sometimes I do!"), but he's widely known for running around naked, cross-dressing, and making lewd jokes about his small but sturdy body. Plus, if you watch interviews with him from mainstream journalists, his responses are often colored by that weird, maniacal grin he pastes on his usually boyish face when it seems he doesn't want to answer the questions.
But if you look closer, you get glimpses that he knows exactly what he's doing. He'll throw out Asian stereotypes, and make self-conscious asides: "I'm really excited tonight because I don't have to play a woman in any scene. But unfortunately I still have to play Asian, because of the eyes." During live interviews, when he's speaking in his submissive accent, bowing, or talking about karate, he's doing a bit and being funny, but at the same time, he's dangling the bait, daring the interviewers to bite. In a world of political correctness where other people's levels of shame are likely more vulnerable than his, he knows how to play around with the upper hand. With the unsuspecting Caucasian male reporter from San Diego, maybe it's about making jokes about their secret gay affair and assuring him he doesn't have SARS. With the Asian American female who might just stare back only half-amused at bird flu or unoriginal penis jokes, perhaps it's about being more creative, doing the unexpected.
It worked. There were many moments during the APA interview -- usually when blatant flatulance or references to Red Vines were involved -- where I was just stunned into silence. Stealing a glance behind my shoulder, I would give my telepathic plea for help to my loyal teammates (the talented Mr. Hu and Mr. Chien), only to find them struggling (really, really struggling) to contain their laughter.
Bobby Lee knows mischief; he's gotten himself in some serious, seemingly soul-crushing mischief. But comedians are often very serious, especially about their craft. With the drought of Asian Ameican comics on sketch comedy shows to make fun of society, parody other Asians, bring criticism and attention to subjects such as Memoirs of a Geisha, Gwen Stefani's Harajuku girls, Kim Jong-il, or Korean soap operas, Bobby Lee is currently the only one in a position to help fill the void.
Love him or hate him, whether you consider him a comedic genius or are confused at the sincerity in which he jokes about accidentally having sex with his cousin as a child (two reactions that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive), Bobby Lee has emerged as an underground landmark for Asian Americans in television. This year will be his sixth year on Fox's sketch comedy show MADtv, and the vast access of the internet, coupled with the difficulty of monitoring the illegal sharing of copyrighted video, has only increased his exposure and given him a whole new audience: the YouTube demographic. Viewers that might not have caught his work on Saturday nights can easily see his sketches on YouTube and spread the word in seconds.
Granted, while speaking to Bobby Lee, we found that some of our speculations might have been too much to ask for: for example, his nudity probably doesn't have deeper connotations, and sometimes sketches he's involved in work as cultural commentary merely by happenstance. But in the midst of his coffee-drinking, incessant chain-smoking, unnecessarily raunchy coughs, hypnotic drops of spit that periodically flick out of his mouth in a delicate arc as he speaks, and outbursts directed at loud, headache-inducing helicopters that wouldn't fly away -- Bobby Lee likely isn't a morning person -- he gave honest feedback about the sketches that he's proud of, anti-exoticist anger, regrets he's had, the power of YouTube, and his female body double in the new breakdancing film, Kickin' it Old Skool.
Bobby Lee: not quite a class act, but thoughtful, reflective, aware, and genuinely well-intentioned. But kind of gross. In a funny way. --Ada Tseng
Interview with Bobby Lee
April 4, 2007
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Additional questions and research by Brian Hu
Camera and video edit by Oliver Chien
Asia Pacific Arts: So you've been on MADtv for six years now. How would you compare your experiences now to six years ago, in terms of coming up with sketches? Now that there're more Asians in the mainstream, is there more to spoof?
Bobby Lee: There's still not enough, you know? Like, when William Hung started getting really big, that's all I did that year. You know.. [does his happy William Hung dance], with the teeth. And then Sandra Oh with Grey's Anatomy. And all of a sudden, that year you're wearing the curly hair. Daniel Dae Kim's too good-looking on Lost. You can't get the prosthetic jaw. I won't do Margaret Cho because she's a friend. There's not that much. I just did that guy from Heroes, the "Ya-taaaaaaa!!!!" but it's still very [slim.] I love Asians though. I like watching them on TV and movies. You go, "Ah, that guy.. my eyes."
My point being though is it's getting better though, because fifteen years ago, you wouldn't see Asian on the television or movies. So it is getting better, but I think there could be more. I see comedians that are younger that are Korean, or Asian, and younger, and I think, God, one day... There's this fat kid named Daniel Cho. God, he's fat and funny. He's got a big head, and one day, if they have TV that is big enough for his head... you know?
APA: Right, because in the beginning, you were doing a lot of Connie Chung. And now, there's more variety. For example, one of your big ones is the Korean drama parody.
BL: Well it was weird because I was at a mall a year ago, and I heard a group of white girls, and I heard them talking about this Korean soap opera. So then I went, you guys watch Korean soap operas? And it's like this new thing. And slowly, you'd see, not just Koreans, but white people talking about Korean soap operas, so then I started watching them, and so the executive producer of MAD, I talked to him, and he said, "Let's do it." So we did four of them. So they're fun to do, because I don't know how to speak Korean. Sung Kang can speak, but they've been fun to do. I like parodying, doing parody, on things that are very specific like that, because you're taking something obscure and trying to get it into the mainstream, and it's just great that I have the opportunity to do that.
APA: Can you talk about the process of putting it together; did you write it?
BL: This guy Mike Hitchcock -- he's in all of the Christopher Guest movies -- he and this lady who's a writer and producer, Lauren Dombrowski would write them. Because they were able to stand back and be kind of goofy with it.
APA: What about the Korean parts?
BL: The Korean, we hired someone to do the Korean. But at the end of the day, if I was supposed to say this long thing, .... (I'm hungry) or... (I have to take a shit), they wouldn't know the difference, you know what I mean? .... (My penis is small). It really is. It really is. But it's thick, so who wins there? [pause] Nobody does.
APA: Another example of what you've done is the "Average Asian" sketch...
BL: I hate those. Well.. it's not that I hate them, it's just that "Average Asian" sketches was during the early parts when I was on the show, and that was all I could really come up with, or the creative team could come up with. So when I look at that, I go -- that was me when I was addicted to Vicodin. I took a lot of Vicodin then. [Looks at his publicist and laughs] Whenever I say something weird, he turns his head and closes his eyes, like "Dont' say that..."
And Connie Chung was a little like that, where all I did was Connie Chung and Average Asians. I think in the third/fourth year was when I came up with Blind Kung-fu master, Bae Sung, Tank, the 24 parodies I do. Those are things that come up later, and those are things I had more creative input in. I just felt I had more power there. When I first got that show, I had no power, they treated me like crap. Everyone else was getting sketches, and I literally sat on the sidelines for two years. I thought I was going to get fired. I hung in there, you know? It was really hard though.
APA: How did the parodies of 24 come about?
BL: The show came out, and I was a fan of the show, so I pitched it, and they were like, "No, that's not funny." Then the next year, I pitched it again. It was one of those sketches where they wouldn't do it, so the very first sketch, I filmed on my own. I hired my own crew and I wrote it and I did it, and I had to show the executives the sketch. See.. [in accent] See, you guys dumb. I'm smart. Is good. "Can you speak in English?" This is good. So we started doing it. And the first one did good. I think [it helped], incorporating John Cho, John Cena, and Mary Lynn [Rajskub] from 24 on one, and one that hasn't aired, Jamie Kennedy just did one.
APA: Can you talk about the Gwen Stefani parody?
BL: See, that's a sketch that I has no idea that I was even doing. I showed up, and they were like, remember this one? Because I didn't write it, and it's more Nicole Parker's sketch, who plays Gwen Stefani. So I just showed up to work, and I'm like, Oh yea, I remember kind of, the sketch, So I just got into drag, and I didn't really know what it was. And people just really started liking it. But honestly, I showed up like.. Ugh, what is this?
Some sketches where you're not really involved creatively, and you kind of show up and do, and they turn out good. I'd love to say, that sketch came to me at my door and I fell in love with it, you know? But you shoot eight sketches a week, for six years, every week. So you just get to the point where they just shovel them out. But I liked it.
APA: How often does it happen that you show up to work and they either make you dress in drag or take your clothes off?
BL: Well, the taking the clothes off is me. It's not them writing it in. In fact, they say, "Don't take your clothes off." But I get bored, you know? [pause] I mean, when you got sexuality on your side, you gotta show it off, right? I mean, it's like, I really believe that Matthew McConaughey... he runs down the beach with his dogs and shows off his abs, and American girls go "Wooo!" You know? They do things to themselves while they're watching him, and I think that's because he's promoting that that's sexy. I'm doing it for like the bloggers and stuff. Like nerds and stuff, dudes that wear Lord of the Rings shirts and wear Birkenstocks and stuff. You know, those guys gotta get laid too.
APA: So you're the Matthew McConaughey for the..
BL: For nerds, yea. Of course.
APA: How do you feel about the fact that if you think Asian males and nudity [in the mainstream media], you're probably the first one that comes to mind?
BL: It's good and bad. I remember doing some Asian magazine that came out, and I was completely naked in it. And, I'm not going to tell you who it was, but this Asian actor who's pretty big, called me and goes, "You should be ashamed of yourself. You're not a role model. You're a disgrace." He calls me, and I felt bad about it, but I kept doing it anyway, because his point of view was that it's rare that an Asian actor can get on a magazine. And the one time you can do it, you get naked? And I'm like-- Yea? I mean, it's like I'm promiting my true self.
Listen, I'm the kind of guy who sees some really hot white chick. And some of my Asian friends are like, oh I can't get her. And I'm like, Why? Just promote what you got. Even if it's bad, make it look good. Now, my girlfriend, she's very pretty, she's Caucasian, she's from the South, and she grew up, never in her mind thinking: "One day... [laughs] One day, I'm going to have a 4 foot 9, fat, yellow-fleshed, Gollum-looking guy on top of me." But I made that a reality. Do you understand what I'm saying? It's called magic, my friend.
APA: So you talk about sketches that you're just kind of involved in; which sketches that you've done recently would you say are the ones where you have creative input, that represent your kind of comedy?
BL: Well, I think the 24 parodies are mine. I'm 99% in the pitches of those. I write the beats down. That, a lot of the Kim Jong-il stuff, I kind of add things and make it my own. But we have so many writers. Pretty much all of the stuff, I get to do what I want to do. I remember we just did a sketch where we had talk show called the Lilian Verner game show, and they wanted three celebrities to come out, and it was originally written -- Renee Zellweger, Nicole Parker played Renee, Jordan played Morgan Freeman, and they had me, at first, doing Ang Lee. And I was like, I don't even know what Ang Lee sounds like, I don't want to do Ang Lee. So they changed it to Jackie Chan, and I don't really like doing Jackie Chan. And they were like, What do you want to do? And I said, to be honest, I don't really want to be in the sketch. But well, you have to be in the sketch. So then I go, what about that kid from The Grudge? [laughs] And they're like, what? Yea, cause he doesn't have to say anything. He just stands there, pale, and makes cat sounds. And they're like, alright. so we did that. So I get to do stuff like that.
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Date Posted: 4/13/2007