Bowen Yang Is Adding Fresh Irreverence To Late Night Comedy

To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV writer Cord Jefferson and activist Mariah Moore, return to the full list here.

In 2014, when Kim Jong-un was absent from public life and rumored to be gravely ill, Bobby Moynihan portrayed the North Korean Supreme Leader in a “Saturday Night Live” cold open. The impression was typical Moynihan: loud, excitable, a bit slapstick. He jumped around the stage and whipped himself into a frenzy.

Five years later, Bowen Yang played Kim during his on-camera “SNL” debut. Yang’s approach was wildly different. Instead of treating Kim like a noisy bloviator, Yang made him petty. He scowled, rolled his eyes and came across as a bitchy gossip.

It’s no discredit to Moynihan’s talents to say that Yang’s sketch is the one that stuck. Positioning a dictator as screamy and narcissistic is a no-brainer; finding irony in his personality is transgressive.

Yang had already spent several months writing for the show, but it was his premiere as a performer that showcased his ability to reinterpret old concepts with fresh irreverence. His funniest recurring character is fictional Chinese bureaucrat Chen Biao, a gleeful braggart who calls himself a “crisis queen” and once transformed Megan Thee Stallion lyrics into a Communist manifesto. When parodying Elton John, politician Andrew Yang and former writer Fran Leibowitz, Yang’s mannerisms morph into well-calibrated caricatures, accentuating the uncanny (and sometimes obnoxious) intimacy derived from specific celebrities’ personas.

Part of Yang’s singularity stems from the fact that he is the show’s first Chinese American cast member (and only the fourth cast member of Asian descent in its 46-season history). That’s one of several traits that makes the 30-year-old different from most “SNL” veterans. He’s also gay, extremely online and possesses a testy absurdism common among millennial humorists.

Yang’s popular podcast “Las Culturistas,” for example, ends with a segment titled “I Don’t Think So Honey,” in which he and co-host Matt Rogers adopt 60 seconds of faux outrage about prosaic topics like plant care, toenail odor, 5G technology and Meryl Streep’s movie taste. In an increasingly ridiculous capitalistic world in which survival depends on building a “personal brand,” performative indignation has found a comic groove — and Yang’s version of it is wittier than anyone else’s, as evident in his recent viral turn as the aggrieved “Iceberg That Sunk the Titanic.”

“‘Las Culturistas’ sort of gave me space to extemporaneously talk and try out different points of view and aspects of my personality and literally just try out takes,” Yang said during a recent Zoom conversation. “With ‘I Don’t Think So Honey,’ it’s just us being like, ‘Let me try to fake a strong negative opinion about, you know, trucker hats or whatever.’”

The podcast had a modest start in 2016. Not long after Yang joined “SNL,” he and Rogers signed a contract for the megaconglomerate iHeartMedia to bankroll the series, putting them in the same ballpark as Will Ferrell, Shonda Rhimes and Questlove. It currently averages half a million downloads per month, according to an iHeartMedia representative.

When Yang was still starting out, he and his friends would hear the same label: “too niche.” They’d go to auditions or pitch meetings and come away with what could easily sound like a code for “too queer” or “too young” or “too nonwhite.” But with Yang’s rise, the cheeky, rapid-fire, exceedingly pop-culture-literate intuition of comics in their 20s and early 30s can no longer be seen as an outlier. It is the moment and, perhaps, the future. “Las Culturistas” alone has spawned a handful of copycats, with Rogers and Yang leading a changing comic tide the way that Mike Nichols and Elaine May did in the early 1960s.

Still, Yang doesn’t quite agree that “SNL” is suddenly so much queerer than it used to be. Sure, his most memorable sketch to date (co-written with the great Julio Torres) stars Harry Styles as a gay Sara Lee social media manager caught posting horny comments (“Wreck me daddy”) on celebrities’ Instagram photos. (Fun fact: Yang wrote a pandemic-themed Chef Boyardee follow-up for Timothée Chalamet, but it got cut.) He believes that the internet “snark gallery” doesn’t give the series enough credit for its long-term progress, pointing to queer alumni like Paula Pell, Chris Kelly, Terry Sweeney, Sam Jay and James Anderson, who wrote for “SNL” from 2000 to 2020.

“The thing about ‘SNL’ is that it is this container for all sorts of different things to coexist,” Yang said. “I don’t think there’s this new phenomenon that there is a queer sensibility in the show all of a sudden. It’s been at a different volume maybe, and we turned some of those tracks up.”

In general, Yang has opted to distance himself from the Sunday-morning quarterbacking that accompanies “SNL.” Scroll through Twitter after a new episode and you’ll see a lot of puffed-up people declaring the show’s irrelevance — despite clearly monitoring its every move. Partly inspired by Jenny Odell’s book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” Yang quit the platform (more or less) because he anticipated what it might do to his sense of self.

“I’m not saying that that snark gallery is flawed in the way that it has existed all this time, but it’s not necessarily that useful for me as a performer to mire myself in the snark of it all,” he said. “Not to draw this terrible capitalist simile, but ‘SNL’ is Amazon and the sketches and the people in them are products, and everyone’s just leaving reviews — but in the way that Amazon reviews have this tone to them where it’s like, ‘Well, I hate this thing because it came in the mail broken.’ It’s that same frequency of people being like, ‘Let me come in hot with my take because they’re these granular units of things that I can attach my opinion onto because I’ll watch something and consume it within four minutes.’”

As a stand-up who has performed everywhere from dingy Brooklyn basements to HBO’s “2 Dope Queens,” Yang is used to being evaluated in real time. But where a live audience’s reaction is fleeting, a tweet or a piece of criticism can last forever. Sometimes the feedback involves his identity, like the time he saw someone say, “Bowen only plays Asian people. He can’t do anything but play Asians,” which left him thinking, “OK, so you’re saying there’s a deficiency in being Asian.” Eventually, that discourse colors one’s self-regard, no matter how famous you are, and so like other “SNL” stars, Yang had to turn away.

“It made complete sense to me why people who’d been at the show for a long time who are still in the cast, like Kenan for example, are just like, ‘I don’t care,’” Yang said. “It sounds kind of cruel and maybe a little callous, but it’s the necessary, healthy thing to do.”

Yang does, however, find validation from his peers. (He is closest with Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Ego Nwodim and Heidi Gardner.) He is encouraged by seeing mainstays from the proverbial New York comedy scene, like his friend Patti Harrrison, achieve their own eminence. And for whatever it’s worth, he has also received affirmation from unlikely sources. Take Andrew Yang, whom he impersonated during the 2020 presidential race. After Dave Chappelle’s post-election show in November, he and Nwodim were doing shots in their dressing rooms when Yang got a phone call saying the other Yang (no relation) was downstairs and wanted to meet him. He’d been there for the taping. It was a “lovely” conversation. They exchanged numbers.

About a month later, while Yang was about to step into the shower in his Clinton Hill apartment, his phone rang. “I heard on the other line, ‘Hi, Bowen! It’s Andrew Yang!’” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, how are you?’ He was in Georgia at the time helping with the runoffs, and he was telling me, ‘I’m going to announce my candidacy for mayor.’ People had been speculating enough up to that point, so I wasn’t surprised. I was just like, ‘Great! OK, it’s happening.’ I wished him the best of luck, but I was ass-naked when he told me.”

It’s not uncommon for politicians to commune with the comedians who roast them, especially on “SNL,” where President Gerald Ford once delivered the “live from New York …” introduction and Tina Fey landed a seismic career boost after appearing alongside Sarah Palin. But there’s something about Bowen Yang that makes people want to know him beyond the enchanting spell that fame casts. Because “Las Culturistas” is so personality-driven, and because it underscores the cultural vocabulary of its time, and because Yang has made such an instantaneous splash on TV, he seems like someone who is crystallizing the next decade of comedy right before our eyes — the familiar and the new rolled into one exciting package.

“I got to ingratiate myself or put myself out there to an audience,” Yang said of his upward momentum. “I feel like with the people who say ‘I listen to you on “Las Culturistas,”’ I’m like, ‘OK, you kind of have a better sense of who I am over someone who’s like, “I loved you in ‘Nora from Queens.”’ There’s not much else to go off of than ‘Thank you for watching.’ People who say they listen to ‘Las Culturistas,’ I’m like, ‘OK, thank you, what do you think of “Bling Empire?”’”

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