How I Failed to Save All People of Color from Oppression in My Six Minutes on The Nightly ShowBy Kristina Wong, June 9, 2015
When white people do something abhorrently offensive to Asians, there’s a twisted consolation prize in it for me: A television network otherwise impossible to get the attention of will invite me to talk funny smack about that racist thing that just happened.
Thanks to Cameron Crowe and his universally panned movie “Aloha,” I got my reparations for pop culture racism in the form of my first Comedy Central credit as a guest on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.”
Some quick background if you haven’t read the dozens of scathing blogs: Crowe made the genetically impossible casting choice of Emma Stone (a very white, very blonde actress) to play the mixed race character of Allison Ng — the film’s half white, ¼ Native Hawaiian, ¼ Chinese leading lady. Never mind that Crowe’s entire cast is white, even as the movie is set in the 75 percent people of color state of Hawaii. The casting of Stone over an actress of color to play a mixed race woman is part of the long history of Hollywood erasing bodies of color from the screen and silencing people of color from the dominant narrative. Though, to Crowe’s credit, I’m sure many Asian American and Native Hawaiians were put to work as background actors, creating the tropical ambiance necessary for his white protagonists to fall in love.
The invitation to appear on “The Nightly Show” wasn’t exactly how I imagined my Comedy Central debut would play out. I had been back in Los Angeles for all of half a day after traveling for 40 hours from a vacation in the Philippines (note: If you see a cheap international ticket, make sure it isn’t taking you the long way around the world). I was exhausted and jet-lagged but I also didn’t know when white people would screw up this badly again on the subject of Asian Americans (probably pretty soon, but still, opportunity knocked!).
As the only woman of color on the panel, my goals for these six minutes of television were simple — singlehandedly dismantle oppression and patriarchy with badass humor whereby I’d liberate all women, people of color and queers FOREVER.
I backtracked to LAX and flew red-eye to EWR in Newark, New Jersey. Any semblance of rest interrupted by the layover. Upon landing, a private car took me — no make up, hair in knots, clothes smelling of cat and sweat — straight to “The Nightly Show” offices, where with psoriasis flaking and blemishes ripe, I shook hands with powerful showrunner types. I birdbathed myself in the restroom sink after unleashing an abdominal fury in the toilet. All the while, I fillet my fatigued head for every funny thing I might say on air… because you know, the end of the oppression of people of color depends on how well I perform on a television panel about Emma Stone.
On my panel are two veterans of this format — comedians Dan St. Germain and Jo Koy, both of whom have been on dozens of clip and panel shows. We are all new to “The Nightly Show,” though, and we are warned that the segment will only be six minutes long.
Six minutes. In the world of social justice organizing, that’s how long it takes for everyone to present their name and preferred gender pronoun. In theater, it’s how long they hold the start of show for latecomers. It’s not enough time for nuance, processing or even reactions because, well, it’s television. As the only woman of color on the panel, my goals for these six minutes of television were simple — singlehandedly dismantle oppression and patriarchy with badass humor whereby I’d liberate all women, people of color and queers FOREVER.
The panel kicks off with this head-scratcher comment from Jo Koy (who is of half Filipino, half white descent): “I think Hawaiian is just anything. It’s like Filipino, Japanese… it’s like if you are in Hawaii, you eat spam, then you’re Hawaiian.” I’m blindsided. Was Jo speaking from backstage nerves or just delivered a half-baked joke? Surely, anyone of Asian descent knows there are such things as Native Hawaiians. In any other situation I’d interject with references to the forced removal of Queen Liliuokalani during the U.S. annexation of Hawaii or discuss the Hawaiian sovereign citizen movement. But this is television, and there is no time for things like “information” — jokes, we need jokes!
In any other situation I’d interject with references to the forced removal of Queen Liliuokalani during the U.S. annexation of Hawaii or discuss the Hawaiian sovereign citizen movement. But this is television, and there is no time for things like “information” — jokes, we need jokes!
The conversation surges forward. I can only describe the remaining five minutes like a panicked orgy hosted at Larry Wilmore’s fancy fake news desk, and I’m the newbie to group sex. The seasoned comedians around me knew when to strip down and swoop in on the prize, they could precisely detect their sweet spot to orgasm in the tangle of wildly undulating limbs.
And in this problematic metaphor, I’m still kicking off my shoes, petting for scraps of hair, politely rubbing a big toe hoping that its owner would push forward through the human tangle of grunts and sighs to hold me center. I did not know when to leap in, or cut someone off for my shot at getting off in front of a television audience. Instead, I listened quietly and smiled non-threateningly as the men piled on joke after joke. I was like the well behaved, docile Asian woman that I never am in any other part in my life. I was not myself. And this was being broadcast.
And then it was over. Larry closed the panel. We waved goodbye to the audience. Jo, Dan and I all look at each other, semi bewildered at the comedy commentary sprint we just ran. Larry whispers to me, “It would be great to have you back on the show.” It’s a sincere invitation that I cannot hear because I’m still clutching an invisible armory of jokes that I never got to deploy in the chaos.
The viewer feedback on my appearance went over much better than how it played out in my mind. Aside from the inevitable internet feedback that I have a horse’s mouth, most of the pressure to do better and fix the entire world via one television appearance was all inside my head.
It’s only in the last few years of my career that I’ve embraced the title of “comedian” and started doing TV appearances. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a comedian, it’s just that the long form essays, community based art projects and one person theater shows I make don’t look like “comedy” to most civilians. I’m essayist funny. Performance art funny. NUANCED FUNNY. Embracing “comedian” has meant confronting people with narrow definitions of the word “comedian” when they throw those expectations in my face. Apparently, comedians aren’t allowed to be offended by racism and sexism. We are supposed to deliver punchlines on demand, even offstage. We have to laugh in support of oppression, because we are supposed to laugh at everything.
Is a six-minute television panel the place to drop the mic on ending all oppression? No, but in the YouTubed world, it is a place for people like me to master my mic drop with the hope of building an audience hungry for more nuance.
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