Race, Representation, and Laughs with Comedian Will Choi
Think of all the Asian American comedians you know. Odds are you could count them on one hand, but comedian Will Choi is trying to change the rhetoric. Will has collaborated with other Asian American comedians to develop variety shows featuring their stories and voices. After working on Jenny Yang's Comedy Comedy Festival, Will started two other tongue-in-cheek variety shows: "Scarlet Johansson Presents: Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month" and "Asian AF," the latter of which he hosts with fellow comedian Keiko Agena. The two shows have garnered heightened praise for poking fun at Asian identity in pop culture without relying on stereotypes. Rather than wait for somebody to make him laugh, Will brings Asian American comedians together to create relatable content in a "for us by us" way.
By George Ko and Natalie Mark
Photos by George Ko
GR: You grew up in Cerritos. How did you get into comedy?
Will Choi: I wasn’t really involved in theater or anything in high school. Even in college, I would do little things here and there but it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I became interested in comedy. I was studying graphic design at the time and my sister took me to comedy shows in L.A. I saw my first improv show back in 2011. I watched more improv shows and took my first class maybe a year after.
GR: I heard you studied psychology. When did you study graphic design?
WC: I graduated from college with a psychology degree but I got into graphic design my last year of college and I studied it on the side. After college, I tried to continue but realized I didn’t like it, so I moved on to acting.
GR: What didn’t you like about graphic design?
WC: I love it. I love seeing great design and typography. But I was too much of a perfectionist, it stressed me out. Everything had to be perfect and I realized that wasn’t the life I wanted. Even though what I do now is still stressful, it’s stressful in a different sense. I just wasn’t having fun doing it. I appreciate it but I don’t have fun creating stuff.
GR: Did you have any inklings for doing comedy as a child? Was it natural for you?
WC: No, I don’t think I’m naturally funny. I grew up watching a lot of comedy and appreciating it. As a kid, my sisters and I would watch Margaret Cho’s Comedy Central special and we thought it was incredible. Also, I grew up watching everything on TV like cartoons, Home Improvement, Family Matters, Saved by the Bell, Friends. We watched all the sitcoms. I wouldn’t say that I am a funny person. It’s weird when people say I’m a comedian because I don’t see myself that way. It’s interesting, I like funny things and I appreciate comedy, but it’s hard for me to actually say out loud, “I’m a comedian.”
GR: Is there a specific bit that has stayed with you?
WC: My sisters and I always talk about this one special Margaret Cho did. She was doing a sketch in which she was from old-time Korea. People were making fun of her weight, so she drank river water and got really sick. Then three weeks later, she’s transformed and is hot and skinny, with the wind blowing in her hair. That to me, for some reason, is hilarious. My sisters and I always talk about that sketch. We definitely do little bits, even from our lives and our parents where we're like, “Remember this?”
GR: How many sisters do you have? Are they also in comedy?
WC: I have two sisters. My family is generally creative except my second sister. She’s a little bit more logical and she studied accounting at UCLA. My first sister studied fashion design. My mom and my dad are more creative too. We all gravitated towards the arts.
GR: Can you talk about that period of time when you had a variety of jobs?
WC: After I graduated from college, I started taking extension classes at ArtCenter College of Design. Then I got an internship with a very small graphic design company. It was just three of us. We would teach high school and junior high kids how to make and design skateboards. That was really fun but it was just a random thing we did. We would go to schools in Compton and Inglewood, and I was always shocked by how different that world was from where I grew up. I did that for a while, and then I needed money so I worked as a receptionist at my dad's office for year.
GR: What does your dad do?
WC: He used to have an import export company. While I was working for him, I was just stuck in my office all day not really doing anything. That was when I was introduced to comedy and I started writing when I wasn’t doing any work. I started reading comedy books, too. After that, I decided I wanted to try improv and acting. I moved up to L.A. and started doing random jobs. I worked at Cafe Dulce. I worked for a food truck called The Bun Truck with Brian Yeun. I was tutoring kids, too. I had those three jobs at the same time for a good year or two. I was just really stressed out because all three of those jobs don’t pay a lot. I was working while taking improv classes, too. That time of my life was so crazy. I would go to the food truck, get there by nine, do lunch, finish, go straight to Cafe Dulce, then close until 11 or 12. I worked 12 hour days, and some days I would be taking classes and tutoring kids. It was really stressful, but it was what I had to do to survive because living in L.A. is expensive. I wanted to do other stuff that wasn’t going to tie me down.
GR: You’re the third person I know who has gone through Cafe Dulce! If somebody is in limbo, all they have to do to succeed is go to Cafe Dulce.
WC: There are a lot of people who are super successful that are coming out of there, too. I loved working there, it was so much fun! I was there in the beginning when Cafe Dulce wasn’t where they are right now. There would be days where it would be dead so James and I would close but the whole time we’d be joking and doing improv bits. It was really fun and so chill back then. I do really appreciate all that time because I feel like I created a space for myself there. I can go to Cafe Dulce and get work done or grab coffee.
GR: How did you get into comedy while working for your dad?
WC: When I started working for my dad, my sister would take me to comedy shows she heard about. We would drive up to L.A. every weekend to go see them. The first improv show I saw was with Steven Yeun. I didn’t know what longform improv was. I didn’t know Korean Americans were doing improv. It was a very eye-opening moment for me. It seemed fun and I was terrified of it, but I thought if he was doing it then I don’t see why I couldn’t, too. I do appreciate the fact that I was able to see him and that he is also Asian American.
GR: When did you make the leap to do acting and comedy full time?
WC: I wouldn’t say I’m doing it full time now. Before 2014, I was in a funk. I didn’t know what I was doing. I asked myself if I should even act, if it was even viable. But in 2014, I decided I had gone through enough classes and I felt confident I could book something. January of 2014 was when I booked my first agents and got the ball rolling. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends who helped me out.
GR: The Asian American comedy community is pretty small, it’s very intimate. Did you find a support group there?
WC: I owe a lot to Keiko Agena. She brought me into the greater Asian American community. We met in 2012 at iO West and started taking classes together there. We still do improv together. That’s where I met Jenny Yang, Atsuko Okatsuka, and a bunch of people who have created this community of Asian American comedy through Disoriented Comedy. I found a small community that existed in this area. I’m sure other groups existed too. For example, I just talked to Randall Park and he said he’s been doing sketch for a while. But the group I got introduced to was with Jenny Yang. I started meeting a bunch of comedians and other improvisers. Then we started the first Comedy Comedy Festival 2015.
GR: Can you talk about the Comedy Comedy Festival? Many Asians on the East Coast don’t know this exists!
WC: In 2015, I ran into Jenny Yang at Cafe Dulce. She told me she had this idea for an all Asian American comedy festival. I was so down. It’s really her brain child and she created the first festival with our help. I produced the improv section. We tried to get all the funny people we knew together for this four day long festival. We had 12 or 11 improv teams and a bunch of stand-up comedians. We did newbie stand-up for first-timers. The two main guests were Suzy Nakamura and Margaret Cho. It was so successful.
That first Friday, people stayed for hours in that hot theater because they were excited to see Asian people to stand-up and improv. That was such a cool and important moment for us. There’s a real want and need for this to happen and we were seeing it live. The next year we upgraded to the Aratani theater at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. We had Vincent Rodriguez from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, John Cho, Suzy Nakamura was back, Danny Pudi, and Randall Park. It was a huge step up from where we started. We were so successful the first year so the community was behind it the next. We sold out multiple shows, and it was a really cool experience to see a bunch of Asian people supporting other Asian people.
GR: How did you go from the Comedy Comedy Festival to doing the Scarlett Johansson show?
WC: In 2016, I did the next Scarlett Johansson show after the second Comedy Comedy Festival. When the first image of Scarlett Johansson came out with the profile and the black hair, everyone was like, “WHAT IS THIS?” There was so much outrage and commotion online. I didn’t know how to feel about it. At the same time, I was looking on the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) website and I wondered if they were doing anything for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Usually they have themed shows for Black History Month, for example, but I didn’t see anything for AAPI Heritage Month. It was weird that nobody had pitched a show, but if nobody else was going to do it I thought I would. I contacted Mike Still, UCB’s Artistic Director at the time, to ask him if I could put on the show. I had gone through the program so I was sort of part of the community even though I didn’t perform for the stage. I told him my idea and asked if it could happen. Mike Still referred me to the Artistic Diversity Coordinator and they offered me one date the show could work with their schedule.
We booked the space and I needed a title for the event. I wanted to make sure we put AAPI Heritage Month in the title, but it’s a comedy show so I couldn’t just call it that. I thought about the image of Scarlett Johansson and thought “Scarlett Johansson Presents: AAPI Heritage Month” would be a funnier title. I pitched it and got three improv teams to perform. Everyone responded within an hour. I created a Facebook event for it and within a day or two it exploded. People were interested in the event because they were into the idea of Asian people doing comedy. I remember Angry Asian Man (Phil Yu) posted it on his website and on Facebook, and thousands of people were interested. It was an Asian American improv show many people hadn’t seen, and people were still feeling some type of way about Ghost in the Shell. I think it ended up becoming the most attended show at UCB in that space. They had never seen the theater with that many people before.
GR: How did "Asian AF" come about?
WC: Jenny Yang and I had talked about doing sampler variety shows. I wanted to do it at UCB and continue the Scarlett Johansson shows. The difference is that "Scarlett Johansson" shows only happen when there is a reason for it. I wanted "Asian AF" to be a monthly show. It was a natural step to keep the momentum going. I pitched it to UCB as an Asian American variety show and it happened. "Scarlett Johansson Presents" was successful, so it was easy to translate that over to "Asian AF." We pitched "Asian AF" and had our first one in November 2016. It sold out in two or three days. Every show after that has sold out in a day.
GR: How did that feel?
WC: My mind was blown. I didn’t know if anybody would come. "Scarlett Johansson" shows were free so I didn’t know if people would pay for the "Asian AF" show. I realized it didn’t matter who was going to be in the show because people knew it would be good regardless. They knew it would be good based on the track record. I thought it was crazy that the first show sold out in a day. How could that happen when comedy shows don’t sell out at that speed? The audience’s excitement always makes me want to put on a good show.
GR: Can you talk about your guest comedians?
WC: Our first show we had Jenny Yang because I owe a lot to her and what she does for the community. We had Atsuko Okatsuka, Sheng Wang, Kevin Yee. We had Aparna Nancherla for New York, she’s a fantastic comedian. Our incredible guest star was Margaret Cho. I was not expecting her to agree to join our cast. After she agreed, I believed we could have anybody on the show. Having her was such a big deal for me since I grew up watching her. We’ve had fantastic people. Suzy Nakamura and Kulap Vilaysack will be in the show. It’s been cool to see how willing people are to donate their time and energy to do the show or just watch it. When you have a good reputation, it will spread. The fact that Margaret had heard about "Asian AF" before I asked her is awesome because it means people were talking about it. I’m finding that happens more and more with future guests.
GR: Talk about your T-shirt!
WC: It’s crazy how much press the T-shirt got. It started off as a funny joke. The design has been around since the early 2000s. The first time I saw it, it had all the Lakers names on it. I thought if I put those particular four names on it then people would like it. It’s subtly calling out whitewashing in a funny and clever way. We made fifty shirts and I thought it would just be a local thing. Then it went viral when Michele Selene Ang posted a picture of it. At the time, I had no idea she was an actress or that she was going to be on 13 Reasons Why. It was all chance that it happened. She lived in New York, I shipped it to her, she wore it, she happened to be on one of the biggest shows on Netflix. It exploded and I wasn’t ready for it. Comedy can be powerful. People were very supportive because it expressed how they felt when it came to whitewashing and white savior tropes.
GR: I saw four people wearing the shirt on Sawtelle!
WC: I still get tripped out when I see people wearing my shirt. It’s only happened a few times but I still ask if I can take a picture with them. It’s cool to have a product that people resonate with. I feel that way with the shirts, but more importantly I feel that way with the show.
GR: Can you talk more about whitewashing in Hollywood?
WC: The timing really reached a fever pitch when all these movies came out. Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and The Great Wall are in the realm of white saviorism. We are tired of this and it was just one movie after another. Most recently, Zach McGowan was cast to play a Hawaiian leader. Death Note too, even though it’s a different situation because it’s an adaptation so there’s some leeway as to why a white person was cast. But they also tried to cast Asians and said they couldn’t find anybody who spoke perfect English. That’s crazy, too. Anyway, I think the first "Scarlett Johansson" show felt cathartic for some people. We were seeing some representation even if it was on a live theater stage. It addressed a feeling many people shared. That was one thing that came out of our anger.
GR: How can we create more roles for the Asian American community?
WC: It depends on whoever is reading this. If you’re a writer then write stories with Asian characters. On a smaller scale, if you do improv then create an Asian American improv team or create an Asian American theater show or company. Just do whatever it takes to get more representation. You don’t have to do strictly Asian American stuff but feature them. Make sure you get a good diverse cast for whatever you’re doing. We’ve only seen white people in Hollywood. It’s good to see People of Color and everyone in the same world because that’s the world we live in.
GR: Do you mind commenting on the word Asian American?
WC: The cool thing about "Asian AF" is we feature everyone. East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, mixed race people. It’s important to feature everyone because when you hear Asian American most people think East Asian, and I want to change that. With my shows, from the pool we have, I try to cast as many different acts and people. This upcoming show, we have a half-Black, half-Chinese comedian coming. When people see the show on stage and see all these different types of people, they can see Asian America. We get to redefine Asian America. I know it’s on a small scale but it’s important. When people come to the show they can relate to whomever is on stage because they are the same race or ethnicity. Even representation within the Asian community is important. I feel like I’m trying to brainwash everyone to think this is Asian America not just people that look like me.
GR: What’s next for you and "Asian AF"?
WC: I can see "Asian AF" going to New York. I’ve been wanting to do the show in New York since the beginning. We have a bunch of funny Asians out in New York. There’s not much of an Asian American comedy scene like there is in L.A. There are many Asian American stand-ups but I don’t know how much of a community they have. I hope this show will activate something. Considering how quickly it sold out there, maybe they do want something there. It also sold out in two or three days. When I talked to people in New York they told me they normally sell out the day of the show.
For a future goal? I would love for it to be a platform for talent scouts to find Asian American comedians and performers. Then they get placed on SNL or in movies. It could be a place where people get discovered. I would like for it to reach a wider audience, whether on screen or digitally. While live theater is great, you’re only going to reach 100 people a night. If it were to get onto TV or somewhere else, that would be pretty sweet.