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The Comedy Comedy Festival puts a spotlight on Asian American comics

by James Kim and Cameron Kell | The Frame

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Renegade Justice Patrol, the improv group of Comedy Comedy Festival co-founder Keiko Agena (far left). Quincy Surasmith

Comedian Jenny Yang has been performing comedy for years, but she noticed there wasn't a proper outlet to support Asian-American comedians, specifically women. 

Yang created a touring standup show in 2012 with fellow comedian Atsuko Okatsuka that featured mostly Asian-American women called "Disoriented Comedy." After a string of sold-out shows, Yang aimed to go bigger with "The Comedy Comedy Festival: A Comedy Festival." 

Yang brought together some friends, including actress Keiko Agena, to feature primarily Asian-American comics over the course of a few days in Little Tokyo. 

When Yang and Agena joined us on The Frame, we asked them about the inspirations behind the festival, creating spaces for a wide variety of perspectives, and why Hollywood is still casting white actors to portray characters of color.

Interview Highlights:

What inspired you to create this showcase of Asian comics?

Yang: It's really an outgrowth of the Disoriented Comedy Tour, which I started with a few of my friends three years ago. Forty shows later, touring across the country, colleges and universities, we featured mostly female Asian-American standup comics, but then there are only so many of us.

There are actually more of us who are doing improv comedy, scripted comedy, sketch comedy, or who are comedy writers who are Asian-American, so we just thought, we've had tremendous success with Disoriented Comedy, why not expand that platform to also showcase these other genres and crafts?

For people who haven't seen a group of Asian-American comedians perform together, how much of the humor is tied to ethnicity and how much of it is universal?

Yang: Speaking about standup specifically, what we really love to present are folks who can show you a diversity of perspectives. So, hopefully when you come to a Disoriented Comedy show or the Comedy Comedy Festival, you're not going to see the typical hack or well-trodden territory around race, ethnicity or Asian families.

Sometimes that happens. I talk about how I grew up a "good Asian girl" and to this day I still don't know the Mandarin Chinese word for sex. That's going to happen, we're going to talk about that, but also there are people who aren't going to talk at all about the fact that they might be Japanese-American or Filipino-American.

Agena: I actually like the question as far as improv is concerned, because I find that it doesn't come up very often in improv and I think that's actually part of the reason why people of different ethnic backgrounds might like improv. It's the one place where you can play any age, you can play any ethnicity, and you don't have to fulfill those stereotypes or casting choices that someone else is making. You're the writer, director and actor, every time you perform.

Yang: Yeah, in improv you don't have Cameron Crowe casting Emma Stone as a native Hawaiian Asian.

How much do things like that bother you? It seems more like the anomaly than the rule now. But is that still an issue in Hollywood, that people of color are cast only in ethnic roles, or Caucasians are cast in parts that are partially ethnic?

Yang: I wouldn't say it's a little thing. As someone who aspires to perform and write in entertainment, it matters, because ultimately, a role like Emma Stone's is the brass ring. She's a movie star for big vehicles, and I think a lot of times [producers] say, Oh, there's not enough bankable Asian stars.

We don't get there unless you develop us. So, going back to the comedy festival, this is a part of that. That's why we're not just booking all of these veteran comics. There are an incredible number of veteran standup comedians — Kevin Shea, Alec Mapa, Ken Jeong — but there are so many of us who are just growing and still talented, and we just need that kind of support and development.

What's the evolution been like in L.A. for Asian-American comics? Does it feel like you're now mainstream, or that you're still part of a comedic ghetto? How does the entertainment-comedy see Asian-American comics right now?

Yang: In the standup comedy world, there's not enough Asian-American audiences to make us only do shows for Asian-Americans. So, inevitably, if you're going to do standup comedy, you're going to have to play to a "general audience," and that's typically a white audience.

Sure, there are certain audiences that might be more people of color, like I've done Latino audiences or black rooms. But it's really tough to sustain a level of development and be self-employed like I am to be able to only do these non-white rooms. So yeah, we've got to be able to make everyone laugh.

The Comedy Comedy Festival: A Comedy Festival run through Aug. 30 in Little Tokyo. 

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