Top Ten Asian American Comedians of All Time
Re-posting this piece written by David Fung from MakeitintheMotherland.com. I’m not necessarily familiar with the work of every one of these comedians, but wanted to cross-post nonetheless.
For the past few decades, steady progress has been made in one of the last frontiers of Asian American occupation: the entertainment industry. More recently, things seem to be approaching a tipping point – with Asian comedians boldly leading the way. Comedy has the unique ability to bring audiences across racial barriers to come together and is the first genre to experience breakthroughs. Asian comedians are beginning to get more leading and supporting roles in Hollywood, with increasing diversity in characters. The internet has been crucial in the discovery and dissemination of new Asian comics, allowing some to cater entirely to Asian audiences and sustain a career. The Asian comedians on this list range from the goofy, to the nerdy, to the intelligent and everything in between. Some play to the mainstream, others to ethnic niches or both. But they all have one thing in common: in an Asian American entertainment scene where the odds are stacked against you, the following ten comics have left their mark.
10. Jo Koy
Asian connection: Jo Koy is half-Filipino and originally from Tacoma, Washington but started his career in Las Vegas. He often touches on race, stereotypes, growing up with a Filipino mother and does various accents.
Jo Koy reminds you of your funny friend who always got told they should be a comedian, except that Jo actually followed the advice and became a star. Armed with a frenetic physical style that reminds you of Dane Cook but with Carlos Mencia’s material, his ethnic jokes are definitely surface level (i.e. Asians can’t drive, Mexicans don’t have insurance) but are often based on solid observation (his bit on the questionable service at Chinese restaurants is on point). The most notable thing about Koy’s act is its universal appeal – he makes fun of every single group and manages to do it without being offensive.
Final word: Jo Koy is the type of comedian who grows on you as you watch more of his material. His act is nothing groundbreaking but he is a very solid comedian who could perform his act in front of both mainstream and Asian audiences without having to change a single joke.
Check out: Jo Koy – Performs at the Laugh Factory
9. Kal Penn
Asian connection: Kal Penn is an Indian-American who is best known for his role as Kumar in the “Harold and Kumar” comedy movie series. His ethnicity often plays a part in the joke but is rarely the punchline. Ironically, his Indian accent impersonation is quite bad.
Kal Penn was the first Indian-American to play a major character on Hollywood screens. Not a stand-up comedian but a comedic actor, Kal plays the sly frat-house-but-smart persona to perfection. Kal’s strength is his ability to craft a hilarious but believable character that can transcend race without completely ignoring it. Everyone knows somebody who acts like Kumar, which makes the character more hilarious – even if it’s the only one he ever plays. Plus he gets points for putting a hold on his lucrative acting career to serve as part of the Obama Administration and also having taught a class at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania.
Final word: Kal Penn reminds me of Ben Stiller. He’s making audiences of every background laugh by playing a character that’s easy to relate to.
Check out: Kal Penn – Harold and Kumar: Weed
8. Rex Navarette
Asian connection: Rex was originally born in the Philippines but raised in the Bay Area. All of his jokes are geared towards a Filipino audience, often going in-depth into the culture, history, and of course – the Filipino accent.
Significance: Rex Navarette started his career in 1989 and was the first Asian comedian to ever sustain a career doing shows for a predominantly non-white audience. In his many years on scene, Rex has become a legend in the Filipino community (while remaining relatively unknown outside of it) for his hilarious parodies of working-class citizens which are intended to educate as much as they were supposed to make you laugh. Even those who are not Filipino can relate to the spot-on accents and 1st-generation immigrant characterizations.
Final word: Rex Naverette is the first Asian comedian who did comedy directly targeted for Asians and may be the only Asian comedian more popular in his motherland than in America.
Check out: Rex Naverette – SBC Packers
Read the rest of David’s Top 10 (including Aziz Ansari, Henry Cho, and Dat Phan) here.