How Sierra Katow Went From Teen Stand-Up Comic to National Spotlight on PBS

Sierra Katow Roots of Comedy
Comedian Sierra Katow at the premiere screening of ROOTS OF COMEDY WITH JESUS TREJO at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Monday, May 13, 2024. Photo courtesy of PBS SoCal.
Katow Showcases the Origins of Her Humor and Family Story in New Series 'Roots of Comedy' with Jesus Trejo

By now, Sierra Katow is pretty comfortable in front of a crowd and talking about her identity – through jokes.

In one of her bits, she says that she comes from a lineage of “strong Asian women who do not tolerate…” – then pauses, with the audience expecting her to say something systemic, like “racism” or “misogyny” – and deadpans “lactose.” 

While some may have not heard of Katow yet, she has a great story to tell. Her journey will be on a national platform at PBS as part of Roots of Comedy with Jesus Trejo, a new travelogue series with host and comic Trejo, who is an executive producer, along with Juan Devis and Danny Lee. Trejo, a Long Beach native, takes audiences through different places in the U.S. meeting diverse emerging stand-up comics who have rich stories to tell–not only on the stage, but in their respective communities. Katow is one of six comics featured on a show that tells the “stories behind the laughs.” Other comics featured are Ali Sultan, Vanessa Gonzalez, Eeland Stribling, Tatanka Means, and Adam Pasi.

The Los Angeles county born-and-raised Katow is an actor, comic, and writer who has been honing her skills since she was young: at 16, Katow decided she wanted to try stand-up. Luckily for her, there was a nearby comedy club that was also a restaurant, Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, that had open mics–a “loophole” for an underage aspiring comic.

Sierra Katow
Sierra Katow, Image Credit: Roots of Comedy

 And luckily for her, her parents were supportive and drove her to her early years of open mics, since she didn’t have her license just yet. “They treated [it] in the way they treated basketball games–just supportive parents on the sidelines, and making themselves available to trek me back and forth.” Katow was also an all-around student–an athlete and also class president, which she used as a platform to make speeches and jokes.

Comedy and being funny runs in her family. “My parents were funny. My sister was funny. There was general respect for people who were funny and had a sense of humor.” Going even further back, her maternal grandfather was an illustrator and drew for the likes of The New Yorker.

Katow kept at it, but wasn’t sure if she could turn her comedic and writing skills into a fulltime career. Katow majored in computer science at Harvard University, performing with the Harvard Stand-Up Comic Society and was editor of The Harvard Lampoon, the university’s famous humor magazine. While in college, she performed on Last Comic Standing.

After graduating in 2016, she moved back to LA. She knew that she wanted to continue writing comedy, and writing for TV was also one of her goals. Katow worked freelance coding gigs to pay the bills. One of her jokes is that she felt trapped and stereotyped as an Asian American studying computer science who wanted to become a comedian. “That’s internalized racism,” she acknowledges. “That’s going to cost me millions of dollars.”

Over the ten years working in LA, Katow says that it’s been refreshing to see more Asian American representation on the screen and in the writers’ rooms, and more diverse stories and perspectives in general.

Watch a preview of Sierra Katow on Roots of Comedy

Katow has been a recurring actor on the 2021 HBO series The Sex Lives of College Girls, co-created by Mindy Kaling, and has writing credits on Earth to Ned (Disney+) and Close Enough (HBO), among other shows. Her debut solo comedy show, Funt, premiered in April this year.

CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong says he is excited to bring this series about diverse comics and how it relates to their identities and lived experiences to the public media audience. CAAM is a member organization of the National Multicultural Alliance, which supported Roots of Comedy.

“Humor provides a unique pathway to taking on complex issues, allowing diverse audiences the space to connect by lowering barriers–if just for a moment of laughter,” Gong said.

Comedians Jesus Trejo and Sierra Katow as featured in PBS’s ROOTS OF COMEDY WITH JESUS TREJO; Photo Credit: Ernesto Lomeli

Katow credits growing up in Los Angeles amongst extended family and family friends with similar backgrounds with having a strong sense of identity. “It was our Asian American, multigenerational bubble in Los Angeles.” Katow’s father is Japanese American, and her mother is third generation Chinese American, whose family came to the U.S. in 1899.

In the past few years, Katow has volunteered with Go For Broke National Education Center, a nonprofit based in Little Tokyo that focuses on honoring Japanese American WWII veterans. Her mother’s family story is in the Chinese American Museum of LA. “I’m always wanting to tell people more about that part of U.S. history,” Katow said, referring to Asian American history. 

Katow said being in the PBS series is special, especially because the show also focuses on her family history and her roots in LA. And growing up, she watched PBS SoCal. “I was a big Arthur-head. It’s great to be in the general vicinity of Arthur.” 

Katow’s early roots in standup comedy has laid the foundation for her to be her true self. While it’s harder to break into Hollywood, she said that stand-up has less barrier to entry–allowing a teenaged Katow to take over the mic.

“I was lucky to start in stand-up,” Katow said, noting she met diverse comics who didn’t have to wait for doors to open up. “That’s kind of the stand-up mentality.”

Momo Chang is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area and the former Content Manager at CAAM. She works at Oakland Voices—a community journalism training program and a part of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Stream all six episodes of Roots of Comedy With Jesus Trejo on the PBS website and app beginning May 24

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