Erin_Quill 2-min

Why Asian American Creatives Need to Say Yes to “Yes and…”

Erin Quill is your Comedy Auntie, and she wants you to stop worrying about losing face, embrace your inner Elsa, and let it go

Words by Erin Quill

I don’t normally run around telling people ‘how' to be funny, but in regards to Asian Americans publicly performing comedy or otherwise expressing themselves, be it through visual arts, writing, public speakingmany seem apprehensive about eliciting laughter. This fear of being laughed ‘at ‘ seems to function as a powerful deterrent, but what are folks really afraid of?

How many times have I seen posts on social media where some Asian American is terrified of showcasing their humor work, and the lead sentence has something in it like, “…this is the first time that I have ever shared…”

This. Is. Tragic.

It is also fixable, so buckle up, Comedy Auntie is going to help you out.

Contrary to what mainstream culture tells you, you do not have to play the  stoic zen master or a graceful flower or a dragon person for your jokes to landin comedy you can(and should!) be boldly and fearlessly yourself. Trust me, I’m something of an authority on this. 

Why me you may ask? I’m funny. I have done perhaps not AS MUCH with it as I could, but just like life, comedy finds a way. In fact, when I was performing as Lady Thiang in The King and I, one of the reviews mentioned that this Lady T was the funniest version they had seen. 

Just like that, I became the “funny one.”

The author in "John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch"

Courtesy of the author

It has served me well. I was cast in the Original Broadway Company of Avenue Q covering the role of Christmas Eve,  Madame Rita Liang in Flower Drum Song, originated the role of Grace Chow in the Broadway bound production of DAVE, the Musical. I was a member of The Famous Corporation sketch group and yes, I have done standup comedy at the Toyota Comedy Festival. You may have seen me on the first season of Bravo’s The D List, as well as HBO’s season finale of The Other Two, and on Netflix’s John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch as the worst Tiger Mom ever. Generally, my resume is all comedyexcept for playing paramedics, you wrap one bandage correctly on Giancarlo Esposito and it is bandage central for a while….I have also fallen on my tush more times than I care to count. Yesit hurts.

Comedy is painful at timeslife is painful. But, my nieces and  nephews, pain is the birthplace of comedy.  

Transformation takes heatthat’s how iron becomes steeland you must take your daily pain and turn it into a blade you wield with precision. To hone your skills, you must fearlessly invite the spirit of “Yes, and” into your life. What is “Yes, and” you may ask?

It’s improv comedy, and it is a very good place to start. 

I am a believer in improv. Ideally, you should study it as a school that has a “system,” or set of rules and philosophy, of their own. I credit classes at The Groundlings and ACME for helping me conceptualize my brand of funny. Improv has rules, and yes, you break them once you know thembut you have to know them.

The first and likely the most famous rule of improv is “Yes, and…” which is an elementary way to tell a story and create a character. “Yes, and” is very freeingbecause whatever the consequence is to saying “yes,” the possibilities are open. 

The second rule is “Don’t denyso while not everyone will open the scene with “Hey, that pink elephant at the front almost didn’t let me in the door,” acknowledging it and potentially adding your own absurd spin, allows the scene to go forward: “Oh yeahthat guy replaced the blue croc they had checking ID’s a few weeks ago, he’s a real pain in the ass.” You have to accept what you have to work with in order to gain access to a rich selection of possibilities. If you limit yourself to “safe” stories, you lose out on so much.

In my experience, Asian American creators can have doubts about going into comedy because throughout our diaspora, there is a concept of saving face that stops us. We quiver before the wall of parental disappointment, while acknowledging the unfair burdens this puts on us. And Asian American diaspora can sometimes feel like a big family we all belong to, and many of us can’t help but fear the wrath of collective embarrassment.

If you feel like your comedic aspirations are crushed by all of this pressure, here are my special Asian American Auntie comedy rules to help you out:

  1. Allow yourself the freedom to be a disappointment
  2. Forget what your cousin’s salary is
  3. Remember your aunties don’t pay your bills

Quite a few of the more successful Asian American comedians identify as part of our LGBTQ communitybecause they are fearless. They have already dealt with familial expectations and crushed themit is why they soar now.

With the concept of embarrassing your parents gone, what’s to stop them? What is to stop you?

Being fearless is a gift that can be learned in childhood, and yes it comes with bumps and bruises on your soul. It can be self-taught as an adult, in ways that are even more painful. Both work.

Transformation takes heatthat’s how iron becomes steeland you must take your daily pain and turn it into a blade you wield with precision.

Alec Mapa, Margaret Cho, Joel Kim Booster, Vidur Kapur, Bowen Yangall examples of the fierceness of our LGBTQ family. However “outsider-ness” is not limited to sexuality. Jo Koy, for example, uses his platform to talk about how being biracial means you are always excluded to a certain extent.

Marrying a person outside your own ethic background can be isolating, though can also help form comedic chops, look at Sindhu Vee being a genius at making cross cultural misunderstanding work for a large crowd. Pointing out the misunderstanding between culturally diverse Asians and being a female is what got Ali Wong her comedy specials. Even being Canadian allows great freedom because you don’t give a hoot what Americans think and we can see this in the careers of Russell Peters, Aasif Mandvi, Rizwan Manji…

In comedy, otherness is a gift. Pain is a giftyou mine them equally. Embrace the danger of saying what you really think. You have to put yourself out therego to every open mic, join every writers group that seems helpful, put your own authentic story out there, choose to “Yes, and” your life.

See all that you can. See more than you can.

You do NOT have to show your work to your family. Your comedic voice is worth more than approval from your family.

Comedy is dangerous. Comedy is what gets you through when you feel all hope is lost. Jump in. Freefall. Be Elsa, and let it go.

What is the worst that could happen?

Published on May 18, 2022

Words by Erin Quill

Erin Quill is an American actress, writer and singer. Follow her on Twitter @equill

Art by Frankie Huang

Frankie Huang is a culture writer, editor and illustrator. She proudly descends from a long line of stubborn, bossy women. Follow her on Twitter @ourobororoboruo