Bowen Yang’s Rise to Fame Cut Short by Ignorance

The Asian American comedian moves from backstage to center stage.
September 26, 2019
7 mins read

Asian American comedian Bowen Yang is the talk of the town. Two weeks before the premiere of its 45th season, “Saturday Night Live” announced three new cast members joining the team — one of whom was Yang, who is the troupe’s first-ever Asian American cast member. Yang is the first full-Asian actor to join SNL since the show was created four decades ago (previous seasons included Fred Armisen, who was a quarter Korean).

Almost instantly, news outlets began to congratulate Yang and praise “SNL” for making history that was long overdue. However, Yang’s spotlight was quickly overtaken by a fellow new hire, Shane Gillis. Footage of Gillis surfaced in mid-September showing the comedian making derogatory comments toward Asian immigrants and calling presidential candidate Andrew Yang racial slurs in one of his podcast episodes.

It wasn’t until two days later after the footage surfaced that “SNL” finally responded to the scandal and retracted their offer, firing Gillis from the cast of the upcoming season.

Before getting into Gillis’ remarks, let’s first talk about Yang and his career accomplishments.

His family immigrated from China in the 1980s, and he attained a bachelor’s degree in chemistry while in college. Yang was promoted from staff writer to full-time cast member at “Saturday Night Live” (he was already part of the “SNL” family during the show’s 44th season). His promotion sparked positive public attention. Aside from “SNL,” Yang is also a co-host of a podcast called “Las Culturistas” with Matt Rogers, where they talk about pop culture trends. In the podcast, Yang unapologetically expresses his personality, story and himself by sharing his experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community. Most notably though, Yang is known for his slew of lip-sync videos on Twitter.

In Forbes Magazine’s 2019 30 under 30 lists, Yang was listed among the honorees under Hollywood and Entertainment. He told the magazine back in 2018 that starting “Las Culturistas” is one of his greatest achievements. Now, in a recent NBC interview, joining “SNL” became the defining milestone in his career. Ironically, Yang also revealed that his senior superlative in high school was “Most Likely to be a Cast Member on Saturday Night Live,” the perfect example of how life comes in full circle.

Aside from being the first Asian to be a full-time “SNL” cast member, Yang’s accomplishments represent another defining moment in the Asian American community. Within the Asian culture — and many others, as well — the arts are often perceived as a “dead end” job. For those who do embark on this impossibility, luck also plays a part, in addition to hard work and dedication. That is why Asian representation within the entertainment industry took so long.

Therefore, Yang’s promotion at “SNL” was not only considered a groundbreaking moment for the show but also a significant indicator in the changing perception of Asian American comedians. Yang is breaking boundaries and stereotypes.

This won’t be Yang’s first time in front of the screen for “SNL,” however. Yang made his on-screen debut portraying the notorious North Korean leader Kim Jung Un in the episode hosted by Sandra Oh earlier this year. In “SNL” history, there was a limited amount of Asian representations on the show. The most recent Asian performer on “SNL” before Yang was Awkwafina when she hosted an episode back in October of 2018. During her monologue, she specifically noted that the only other Asian who was on the show before was Lucy Liu, who hosted an episode 18 years ago.

Whether it’s creating new comedy sketches on SNL or a podcast, Yang is paving a new path that inspires other Asian Americans pursuing their passions. He joins the impressive list of many other accomplished Asian American comedians in Hollywood such as Ken Jeong and Jimmy O. Yang.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until Yang’s big moment was overshadowed by an unfortunate turn of events. I really didn’t want to mention the scandal surrounding Gillis and his comment in this article as I want to keep the focus on Yang and his achievements for the Asian American community. But, I came to realize it is an inevitable topic that is unfortunately related.

The series of events is a continuous reminder that every time we take a step toward more acceptance, the path is longer than we thought. There is still more work to be done and more improvements to be made. Yang’s hiring signified another solid step of Asian American representation, until it wasn’t. Tim Chan, a writer for Rolling Stone, described this situation as “a moment of pride and accomplishment [that] has once again been marginalized by the actions of white America.”

When Gillis’ racial remarks first trended on social media, it instantly sparked outrage within the Asian American community. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted “Shane – I prefer comedy that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots,” and offered the opportunity to sit down and talk. Gillis responded and has taken up the offer.

Though difficult, let’s not associate what happened to Gillis with what Yang has accomplished for “SNL” history. Racism and discrimination will continue to exist in society. What we can do as a response is to continue to educate others on acceptance and progress as a society.

“SNL” returns for its 45th season with new episodes starting Sept. 28.

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