Asian American Women in Comedy: “We stand on each other’s shoulders”

“How do we break through into the mainstream vernacular so we have points of reference that everyone gets?” - Jenny Yang

On Wednesday evening, inside the studio lot of NBCUniversal, a panel was held to showcase the talents of Asian American women in comedy. True to its name, Wake, Play, Slay: Asian American Women in Comedy, presented by the Center for Asian American Media and NBCUniversal, offered attendees a refreshing and hilarious range of talents who shared heartwarming anecdotes of their path to comedy as well as the complex nuances of the entertainment industry. The event was moderated by Traci G. Lee, NBC Asian America’s Digital Editorial Manager. The panelists—standup comedian Jenny Yang , writer and producer Colleen McGuinness, writer and director Geeta V. Patel, and actress Tess Paras—shared unique stories on their path to success, all converging with eventual careers in writing, acting and producing for comedy.

“No one enters at the top of their game in L.A.,” Jenny Yang expressed as the opening of the panel when asked how she got her start. It was a humble yet truthful assertion shared by each panelist. With former careers ranging from policy, editorial, journalism, and even community organizing, it became evident that the path to comedy was winding at best. In keeping with the nature of the panel, each of the women offered their slice of perseverance in the face of both adversity and apathy. Writer-director Geeta V. Patel reminisced on an upbringing in a traditional Indian household where comedy was as rare as a smile. Actress Tessa Paras reflected on changing her major at NYU to Media and Culture after getting inspired by the vibrant local arts scene. The move away from the traditional and expected all but defined the careers—and eventual commercial success—of each panelist’s foray into comedy.

The issue of representation became the focal point of a spirited discussion. Colleen McGuinness described an early writing gig where she found herself assuming the role of the “minority staff writer,” which felt more tokenizing than inclusive. “How do we break through into the mainstream vernacular so we have points of reference that everyone gets?” Jenny opined to the crowded theater, bemoaning that fact that when it came to the Asian American perspective, the mainstream media simply didn’t care. Her opinion was more impassioned than pessimistic, a call-to-action to encourage aspiring creatives to get in front and behind the camera to lead the change.

“We stand on each other’s shoulders…we are shouting each other’s names from the rooftops,” Tess Paras said at the conclusion of the panel, a rallying point for women of color to be reminded of the important work done by the trailblazers of yesterday as well as the current work being done by fellow undiscovered creatives. It was a satisfying note to conclude this special night in L.A., one dotted with both comedy and compassion, energy and empowerment.

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Christian Ting is a writer living in Los Angeles, CA. He currently serves as Hyphen magazine’s Film & TV editor and has worked for the Center for Asian American Media, Twitter, and Facebook. His interests include pop culture, music, and many, many puns.