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Jenny Yang on the UCB stage (image via REBECCA ARANDA)

The Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) has become one of the premiere incubators for comedic talent having helped launch the careers of everyone from Amy Poehler to Matt Walsh. But for the first time in its history, an all Asian American cast show will take to the UCB’s mainstage. KPCC looks into how this came about and the state of Asian American comedy:

UCB’s roster of regular performers is overwhelmingly white, which is the norm in improv and sketch. Take comedy behemoth Saturday Night Live: after more than 40 years on T.V., there are no Asian-Americans on it. That’s how the show’s sole Latina cast member Melissa Villaseñor ended up playing Filipina-American journalist Elaine Quijano in a recent sketch about the vice-presidential debates. Villaseñor addressed the casting choice at the top of the sketch, breaking the fourth wall.

“I’m the new Hispanic cast member,” Villaseñor said in a deadpan. “And tonight I’ll be playing Asian moderator Elaine Quijano because…baby steps.”

(UCB) producer (Will) Choi said the lack of Asian-Americans on such a long-running show is a “bummer,” because it’s important to see people who look like you. Choi said he was first inspired to try improv when he saw Korean-American actor Steve Yeun — Glenn on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” — perform with a comedy troupe several years ago.

“Seeing that he’s doing it made me think I can do it too,” Choi said. “That’s the power of representation.”

The “whitewashing” of Asian characters in films spurred Choi to produce and co-host with the Gilmore Girls’ Keiko Agena a couple of free all-Asian American comedy showcases this year on a smaller stage at UCB. They were called “Scarlett Johansson Presents,” a not-so-gentle jab at the actress for taking on the lead role in the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese anime series Ghost in the Shell. Buoyed by the enthusiastic turnout, Choi joined other UCB performers Mike Lane and Connie Shin in pitching an all-Asian-American show for the mainstage.

It wasn’t a hard sell, said Mano Agapion, who coordinates UCB’s diversity program.

“We know that we are lacking and we do want more Asian American performers on our mainstage,” Agapion said.

To read the rest of the article, go to KPCC: Jokes aside, Asian-American comedians serious about visibility

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