“Seduce with the eyes,” says actor Sung Kang, making love to a store mannequin in the premiere episode of the online TV series “Acting for Action.” A veteran of the “Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, Kang is teaching his craft to YouTube star Ryan Higa, whose online fan base numbers more than 5 million subscribers. Higa is eager to learn from a real film star, but Kang — playing a self-worshiping caricature of himself — is clearly just in it for the cash.
The bit is played for laughs, but the setup raises an intriguing question: When it comes to Asian American actors and their younger YouTubing peers, who should be schooling whom? At a time when Asian American actors like Kang struggle to score the limited roles open to them in film and TV, YouTubers like Higa are amassing huge audiences without going to a single cattle call, pulling in six-figure salaries from the online ads that accompany their broadcasts.
Both groups collide on You Offend Me, You Offend My Family, a new online network that’s part of YouTube’s expanding stable of channels dedicated to original programming. Launching alongside networks headed by name brands such as Madonna, Shaquille O’Neal and Amy Poehler, the Asian American channel is the brainchild of Justin Lin, director of “Better Luck Tomorrow” and four of the “Fast and the Furious” films.
“Acting for Action” is one of the first shows to premiere on the network, which features YouTube personalities such as Higa and Kevin Wu, a.k.a. KevJumba, performing alongside actors such as “Glee’s” Harry Shum Jr. and “Community’s” Danny Pudi. The network hopes to build on the popularity of young Asian Americans on YouTube — of the top 20 channels, four are produced by Asian Americans in their 20s — while bringing in talent from film and TV.
For the actors, the network offers a chance to star in series rather than remaining faces in large ensemble casts. For the YouTubers, it’s an opportunity to get out and collaborate with veteran actors and directors outside of their bedroom “studios.”
YOMYOMF began life as a blog, created by Lin and friends to entertain one another between gigs. Despite the website’s title — a line from Bruce Lee’s film “Enter the Dragon” — most of the bloggers being Asian American is almost beside the point. The site became a place where director Quentin Lee could post about hiking in Malibu, say, or Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang could write about his love for theater legend Joseph Papp.
“When we get together, we don’t just sit around and talk about being Asian American,” says Lin. “That website became a really great incubator, a way of finding people and creating this family.”
When YouTube began soliciting pitches for original networks last year, the YOMYOMF crew was approached by Higa, Wu and singer Chester See, who suggested a partnership. YOMYOMF’s first slate of programs includes “Internet Icon,” an"American Idol"-esque talent show in which contestants compete to become, well, the next Higa, or Wu, or See. The competition drew scores of Internet wannabes from across the country. Higa, 22, who honed his own YouTubing skills as a high school kid living in Hilo, Hawaii, didn’t relish sending young hopefuls home.
“It was really stressful,” he says. “One of them said, ‘Thanks for shattering my dreams.’”
In the YOMYOMF series “KevJumba Takes All,” Wu battles friends in often lopsided contests of skill and knowledge. In one, the former film major challenges fellow YouTuber and math whiz Felicia Day (“The Guild,” Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) to retake the SATs; in another, he engages Shum in a pole dancing contest.
“The title sounds kind of cocky, but I end up losing a lot of the challenges,” says Wu.
In “Acting for Action,” Kang offers specious acting tips to young YouTubers hoping to break into action films. The irony is that young guys like Higa and Wu have already built careers and audiences without going the Hollywood route, so what can they learn from old-school actors like Kang?
“I have so much admiration and respect for what these guys do,” Kang says. “I’m envious! Because I’m going, ‘Man, what if YouTube had been around when I was in high school?’ I would have made full movies. With these kids, like Ryan, he’s probably made more money than I did in my whole career.”
To publicize the network, YOMYOMF created a promo reel that’s a mashup of YouTubers, actors, singers and family members, all set in the sprawling, albeit fictional YOMYOMF studios (the network’s real base of operations is a small, nondescript, second-floor office in South Pasadena). In the short, Jessica Alba washes a car and wrestles, former Laker Rick Fox weeps, Kang and Shum get their backs shaved, and See and Higa battle on a rooftop, with the exploding ruins of downtown L.A. as backdrop.
Along with the explosions and wandering puppets, the reel riffs on Asian American topics one isn’t likely to see on network TV, ever, let alone on a five-minute promo: Asians who “act white” and discrimination against mixed-race Asians. In one scene, See accuses Higa of stealing his banana just to mess with him.
“You think I’m a banana, don’t you?!” See screams. “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” “You’re Asian?” Higa says to See, who is half-Filipino. “I thought you were Dutch.” On a TV series, the scene would likely be played as a teachable moment performed by the cast’s two people of color. Here, it’s just one more funny moment among many.
In the coming months, YOMYOMF will release several more new programs in addition to the inaugural three: “DRONE,” a science-fiction series starring “Fringe’s” Lance Reddick; “BFFs,” an Asian American take on “Mean Girls”; and “Guys’ Book Club,” a comedy starring Pudi and “Outsourced’s” Parvesh Cheena. A project with NBA star Jeremy Lin (no relation to Justin) is also in the works.
Many of the stars are colleagues who Lin directed in previous films or on episodes of"Community."For them, it just takes a quick phone call from Lin — no managers or agents required — to make the pro bono “deal.” Thus far, none of the main talent is getting paid; the vast bulk of the limited YouTube budget is earmarked for production costs.
Nobody comes to work with egos or attitudes, says Philip Chung, overseeing the network’s creative content. “The budgets on these are so low that I don’t think they have a choice,” he says. “No one’s getting their own trailer, no one’s getting preferential treatment. But the upside of that is that it really does feel like we’re all in this together.”
Nonexistent perks aside, the big draw for many of YOMYOMF’s expanding crew is the opportunity to play roles that aren’t specifically Asian or Asian American. “It’s not a bunch of kung fu shows or Asian cooking shows,” says Higa. “It’s every show you would normally see on any other network. It just so happens that there are Asians in it, and it’s not weird. We’re playing roles that we want to play, not roles that we’re supposed to play.”