The comedy festival running Thursday through Sunday in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood is an Asian American comedy festival, with a bill of more than 100 comics of Asian descent. But you wouldn’t know it from the name of the event: the Comedy Comedy Festival.
Putting some element of racial identity in the title of the event was out of the question for festival organizers, who felt a label — and all the perceptions that come with it — was unnecessary and limiting on the their brand of funny.
“We wanted to give our festival the most universal sounding and generic name as possible because we wanted to simply center our experience without having to call it the Asian American Comedy Festival,” co-organizer Jenny Yang said. “Because we’re tired of being ‘others.’”
Richard Linklater called his 2014 Oscar-nominated film “Boyhood,” not “White Boy From Texas Boyhood.” So why, she asked, can’t Comedy Comedy organizers claim a similarly “universal” name?
The festival was born out of a need to create a comfortable space within comedy for people of color, LGBT folk and others who often find themselves as punchlines, not performers.
Yang, who was born in Taiwan, recalled being singled out at one show where a comedian cracked jokes about fortune cookies and having sex with Asian women. And then there was Chris Rock, who as host of this year’s Oscars ceremony brought three Asian children to the stage as accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable being singled out at a mainstream comedy club, perhaps you come to our show and you’ll feel less anxiety,” Yang said. “We’re not going to guarantee that we’re not going to offend you. Honestly, we don’t know, but …”
D’Lo, one of the co-organizers, interjected: “This is a comedy show that you want to come to. You’re not only going to laugh, but you’re going to think a little bit.”
The Comedy Comedy Festival, now in its second year, is a four-day gathering of Asian American creatives — comics, actors, writers and Youtubers who fill the rosters of about 15 shows. The likes of “Fresh Off the Boat” star Randall Park and “Meet the Patels” director and actor Ravi Patel will be paired with lesser-known talents such as “Daily Beast” reporter Jen Yamato and the India-born, Bangkok-raised comedian Siouxnanda.
The event is spearheaded by Yang, D’Lo and Atsuko Okatsuka, leaders of the group Disoriented Comedy. (The name also doubles as “the first-ever [mostly] female Asian American stand-up comedy tour,” which travels the country.) Their goal with Comedy Comedy, as with their troupe, is to define and redefine: comedy, Asian American identity and, eventually, Hollywood.
“I’d like to think that our brand of comedy is a kind where we have social conscience,” Yang said.
Rather than make fun of people who are different, she said, “we care about social justice issues.” If a comedian is going to make a joke about Asian people, at least let that comedian be Asian, she said.
“If we’re going to make fun of people like us, let us do it,” she said. “You get tired of being other people’s punchline.”
The comedy scene, dominated by straight white men, Okatsuka said, leads to an overarching point of view that is “super male dominated” and filled with people who come from a narrow slice of life. Though that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, she says, she personally felt alone and out of place in it. The goal of people like her and her Disoriented Comedy co-founder Yola Lu: building a community for all people “who’ve always felt outsider-y.”
They’re also intentional about having representation from across Asia and reminding mass culture that “Asian American” is not a monolithic bloc.
For Okatsuka, Yang and D’Lo, a transgender actor and writer of Tamil Sri Lankan descent, the picture of diversity they want the broader Hollywood community to see is not Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko Kusanagi in the forthcoming “Ghost in the Shell” or Matt Damon saving China in next year’s “The Great Wall.” When such casting decisions were announced earlier this year, online communities — perhaps emboldened by how April Reign’s hashtag #OscarsSoWhite resonated with the film academy — reacted loudly.
“More and more we’re seeing how our community is really standing up,” D’Lo said.
Prominent Asian American celebrities who have been vocal about diversity in the industry include Margaret Cho, Park and his “Fresh Off the Boat” co-star Constance Wu, all of whom are supporters of Comedy Comedy. Wu and Park expressed hope that such events can change the tide.
“The television-film industry can often be a working-with-your-friends club, resulting in a general unawareness of the abundance of tremendously talented Asian Americans,” Wu said by email. “Comedy festivals like this are important because they showcase talent in a way that is not contingent on friendships or studio-based financial issues.”
Park agreed, citing Comedy Comedy as a step toward a future with “more Asian American leads in TV shows and films, more Asian American writers and directors doing things on a grand scale, more Internet content creators taking it to that next level,” he said by email.
Yang sees the festival as a potential launching pad for participants to get experience and exposure, a consistent concern expressed by studio executives.
“Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” she said, quoting a refrain from writer Sarah Hagi that has become a mantra for many women of color. “I believe that we just need the chance that a typical mediocre white man has.”
“Because the content is definitely not mediocre,” D’Lo interrupted.
“And even if it is, who cares?” Yang said. “Because everyone gets a chance but us sometimes.”
For now, the Comedy Comedy Festival is their self-created running start.
The Comedy Comedy Festival
Where: Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles
When: Thursday through Sunday
Cost: $10 and up
Info: comedycomedyfest.com, jaccc.org/comedycomedyfestival
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.
MORE ENTERTAINMENT NEWS