"I'd play the s**t out of George Washington": Jimmy O. Yang talks representation & his Amazon debut

The "Silicon Valley" actor returned to "Salon Talks" to discuss stereotypes, soap, and filming "Space Force"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 8, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Jimmy O. Yang: Good Deal (Amazon)
Jimmy O. Yang: Good Deal (Amazon)

It's been two years since actor, comedian, and writer Jimmy O. Yang, known for his portrayal of Jian-Yang on HBO's Emmy-nominated series "Silicon Valley," appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his book, the hilariously titled "How to American: An Immigrant's Guide to Disappointing Your Parents" and to offer five secret tips to look more American.

Now he's back in the "Salon Talks" studio (from home via Zoom) to talk about his stand-up debut "Jimmy O. Yang: Good Deal" on Amazon Prime Video. Most people only know Yang as an actor, but before the Hollywood checks started rolling in, he earned his money standing tall by himself on the stage with a microphone, doing stand-up.

Yang told me all about his humble beginnings, and we also discussed show business, fair representation, and stereotypes. Stereotypes can be poisonous, mean, divisive, and act as the root of many of the problems that exist is society today. I cringe every time I catch people clutching their purses or choking up around me because I'm black. I'm also always on edge when I confront police because they have a history gunning down people who look like me. Fame doesn't even help; the Asian version of these stereotypes follow Yang around Hollywood all day. And you know what really doesn't help these situations? Those moments when stereotypes end up being true –– like the black guy who is really good at basketball, the Asian kid acing the math quiz, and the white guy showing up to the cookout with a bowl of potato salad full of raisins, walnuts, and other things that should never make it into potato salad. Those moments make me upset because it easily adds fuel to the fire of generalizations that allow stereotypes to exist.

Yang's stand-up does a great job of putting those fires out by taking the evil that comes with stereotypes and transforming them into jokes that allow us all to truly see other people, understand that our struggles are similar, and most importantly, laugh at ourselves. Watch my "Salon Talks" with Yang here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below, to hear more about his life after "Crazy Rich Asians" blew up, his new Amazon special "Jimmy O. Yang: Good Deal," and how he has been surviving the pandemic.

Congratulations on the new stand-up show. It was hilarious. We're definitely going to get into it, but I will say that my favorite part is when you were talking about tipping, because as a black person, I have to tip 87%.

You've got to overcompensate, right?

Yes, because of that stereotype that black people don't tip. But how you been, man?

I'm good. The first month of quarantine I was actually really enjoying it. I was like, "Man, I'm excited to catch up on all the writing I've been meaning to do and everything." And now I think everyone's setting into this new normal and it's just kind of a drag.

What have you been writing about?

I've got a couple of scripts that I'm doing. I'm turning my book into a script.

Is that going to be a film or a series? Because I think it could be a series.

Yeah, I think my book is more going to be a series. There's a couple of films we're working on. We are working on this film for Jo Koy. I don't want to give too much away, but it's like a Filipino "Friday" kind of vibe, really fun. We're just having a lot of fun on that. A lot of Zoom calls like this, whether it's interviews, talking about scripts, different things, a lot of things to be excited about. But at the same time, the larger picture outside in the world, it's concerning.

Yeah, I hope that people see how important leadership is because we don't have to worry about washing our hands 70 times a day and making sure we stay 20 feet away from people if we had leaders who thought about that stuff instead of thinking about their stupid hotels and their funny, weird-looking kids. We would be able to function and do more. I hope people take that away. Since the last time I saw you, a whole lot of things went down. "Crazy Rich Asians" blew up. How's life been after that? Are people hitting you up for money all the time?

You know what, people ask me that. One person straight-up jumped another step. They're like, "So tell me, what do you say when people ask you for money? Do you have a way to say no?" I'm like, "Luckily nobody asks me for money. It's fine." My parents, I give them money, but that's like an unspoken rule. Every Asian kid's kind of born with student loan debt to their parents. When you make money it's always give back. But friends-wise, no. Maybe a friend every now and then will ask me for a hundred bucks and then pay me right back. I got good friends.

That's where the Asian and African-American culture overlaps because it's like every black person you see that's successful in the NBA or in Hollywood, they're all taking care of 30 other people. You can never come on stage and get the award by yourself. You've got to bring 40 people on stage.

Yeah, I wish I could, but I'm too cheap. That is the problem.

I know some people I can take from my entourage and send them to you.

There's a business idea, the rental entourage. So after the movie . . . it's great man. I think it really helped all of our careers. Not just me and of course. Henry Golding, Constance [Wu], and Awkwafina completely blew up. For me, I felt like I've really found this amazing family. I wrote a little bit about it in the book even before the movie came out, so that's great. We're still best friends. We just had 15 people on Zoom the other day watching the movie together. People from Singapore, London, LA, New York all called in. It was really awesome, man.

And I think what "Crazy Rich Asians" did is even in a bigger-picture sense, I think Hollywood now is more open to casting Asian people and to hearing more authentic, diverse stories because that movie at the end of the day made money, and Hollywood is just a business, right? So I think that's why we're all working really hard or we all should be working really hard to write our own stuff, create our own story because now the door has been opened. It's not like they're like, "Hey come in, come in." We still got to push, but the door has been cracked open and now there is a good opportunity. I always encourage the younger generation to write more, to create your own content, not just to be an actor or comedian for hire.

Since the movie has had so much success, I think people really, really want to know: What kind of hand soap do you have in your house right now?

Since your boy got a little money now, I got to have the foam soap, but this is running so low and I still . . . I buy the fancy foam soap but I refill it, like the old Chinese style. But I don't buy the foam soap to refill it. I just buy the real soft soap and then mix it with water and refill this. So it's like bootleg foam soap.

Your dog Toffee has been living up in quarantine too, right?

She's the cutest. Yeah, we try to teach her how to swim. She's a little scared. Speaking of my dog, actually, we had a show lined up at Fuse. It's [like] "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," but it's Me Walking Dogs with Celebrities. So the sizzle reel we did it at Blake Griffin's house and we were walking his dog. He had this awesome German Shepherd that was like from the SWAT team to protect his house and stuff and then I have this tiny dog . . .

Blake has a German Shepherd from a SWAT team?

Yeah, he had one. I think they had to return the dog unfortunately. I don't know what happened. But yeah, it was a very cool story. We had all these celebrities lined up and Fuse picked up the show. So me and Toffee my little pug, were just going to walk dogs with celebrities to see how they live. And it was going to be a really cute show but unfortunately because of the pandemic we had to push it. But yeah, Toffee is living it up, jumping in the pool every week.

One thing I really, really, really love about your new stand-up is how you approach representation. I feel like there's a lot of jokes, but as they always say, there's a lot of truth in a joke. How has your work been received?

I talk about it on the stand-up. Early on when "Silicon Valley" just started, when my career just started, I started as a stand-up like 10 years ago. People might've seen some YouTube clips or whatever, but people knew me as Jian-Yang on "Silicon Valley." And they'll come up to me in the street. They're like, "Oh shit, you're that guy, Jian-Yang. I didn't know you speak English in real life." I'm like, "Wait for real though?" Okay, first of all, maybe that's a compliment. As an actor, I play this believable character for you. But would you have said that about a white dude playing a Southern accent or a British accent? You know you would've assumed he was an actor.

Why is there a disconnect with me, right? I wasn't offended about it. And then the Asian community in the very beginning with the Jian-Yang character, they were like, "Oh, it's another accented, stereotype thing whenever." But the character has become more three-dimensional as the seasons went on. And I think those chatters went away. And of course I've done "Crazy Rich Asians," I'm doing "Space Force" now and I've done many things in between since. So it's a growing process.

I think my view on representation is growing as my own career is going. Because it's something I never thought about when I was in high school because it wasn't discussed and I wasn't in the entertainment business. But I talk about it in my special, I joke about it. I think the joke always comes first in the stand-up. I never want it to be too preachy, but then it comes from truth. Like Matt Damon playing the lead character in "The Great Wall." People aren't happy about it. You know what I mean? I watched this movie later on strictly for research purposes and I'm like, "Look, I'm not mad at Matt Damon, man. He's working. That's his job, bro." If you were to offer me a lead role in a movie called "Mount Rushmore," I'd play the s**t out of George Washington.

But you acknowledged it and you talked about it the right way. You're not mad, but at the same time you're working, you're writing, and you're doing things to prohibit those things from happening. If we don't do these things, we'd been watching the trailer for Julia Roberts playing Harriet Tubman. So, that's the game and there's two ways to approach it. Either you work your ass off and figure out ways to insert yourself to change the narrative, or you sit back and complain. Working between all of these different films and television shows, is it easy to snap back into stand-up mode or is stand-up something that you constantly do?

I think coming up as a stand-up, you always love that vibe. That instant feedback, going on the road, making new friends, hanging out with your opener, stuff like that. But it is exhausting. When I was filming the stand-up special, I did maybe 10 to 15 weekends on the road, five shows. So you're talking about 50, 70 shows leading up to honing in to this special. And I was shooting "Space Force" at the same [time]. I was shooting "Space Force" Monday through Thursday. Friday I'll hopefully get an early day and then fly out, so it got really exhausting. I think if I was to go back to doing another special next time, I would just dedicate maybe six months of like, "Okay I'm doing nothing but stand-up. And then after that I'm going to go back to shooting," and just compartmentalize everything. You want to strike the iron when it's hot. I'm super happy with the special, and "Space Force" is going to be also amazing. I'm happy with all the work I've done, but it took a toll. So that's why I didn't mind this quarantine. I was like, "Oh, finally I get a break."

In your stand-up special, you were really great about talking about stereotypes too. I thought that was funny because they are a real thing. I'm going to tell you a stereotype story that happened to me and I wonder if something like this has ever happened to you. So I went to go speak to these kids in DC. And for people who don't know, DC and Baltimore are an hour apart, right? It's like an hour drive. So I drove to DC and I'm going to speak to a whole bunch of kids. They just read my second book and they had questions and things they wanted to ask me and it was a cool event. And when I got there I parked in the parking lot, I jumped out of the car. The woman who organized the event, she was like, "Hey, Mr. Watkins, thank you so much for coming in. The kids are so excited." And I'm like, "Oh no problem. This is what I do." I had my shades on, this is for the kids. And she said, "Before we go in, can I ask you a question?" And I said, "Sure." She said, "There's a guy named Dante, he's about 33 years old. He's from Baltimore city, but he works at the school and teaches math. Do you know him?" So I stopped, right? I stopped. Took the shades off. And I said, "Do you think that every black person in Baltimore knows each other? That's ridiculous. That's crazy." "Oh, I'm so sorry, Mr. Watkins. I'm so sorry." So I go in there, and I speak to the kids. This guy Dante walks in, and it's my cousin.

Oh my God.

I said, "Wait. Yo, that's my cousin Dante." So the white lady's in the corner, she's like this. [makes shrugging gesture]

You should have just pretended you didn't know Dante.

And then what makes matters worse is after the event, me and Dante went out for fried chicken. Has anything ever happen to you like that before?

Well I think that's an interesting story because stereotypes are s**tty, but at the same time it's sometimes based in some truth, right? You've got to approach it with some humor like that. Obviously not all black people know each other, but some do. I think what's funny now, it's like the Hollywood community of Asians, it's getting smaller, we're getting closer and closer, which is awesome. And sometimes people do ask me like, "Hey man, do you know Ken Jeong?" And it's like, I don't want to admit it, but it's like, "Yeah, I talk to him all the time. We're cool," or whatever other Asian comedian. Let me tell you this other story. It might not be like a one-for-one thing. But it's another example of a bit of a stereotype that maybe all Asian people look alike.

So I was doing this show, it was "Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." I think they're on their series finale now. That was one of my first jobs. I played Chinese Teenager No. 2 in Chinatown. I had two lines, right? So it was my first job. I was super happy, I had two lines, got my own little trailer and stuff. But we shot the scene in Chinatown as if it was in China, right? So there's a ton of extras, Chinese extras, 100 or 200 people. And then I went out and I went to the cast crafting table to get some snacks, get a soda. And I was grabbing this Coke and this lady, the crafting lady turned around and was like, "Hey, Hey, that's for featured actors only. Backgrounds over there." And I was like, "Yo, I'm Chinese Teenager No. 2, I'm a featured actor."

And then she was like, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." So it's like, because I was Asian and every other extra was Asian, she assumed I was an extra. But at the same time, I could be mad about that. But at the same time I should just be mad with that person because she was just an a**hole. Why would you yell at extras like that anyways? Even if I was an extra, you shouldn't be yelling at people like that. That's just people kicking down and being an a**hole. And somewhat, I can say that's a stereotypical thing or whatever, a racist thing. But they're just people being a**holes.

Do you feel like it's getting better for Asian comics?

Yes, I think so. I think one of the concerns, the complaints with me playing Jian-Yang with the accent and character, was not because you cannot play an accent of character, but because there weren't a lot of Asians on screen. So it's like, when there's only one Indian representation on a screen, one Asian or a few Asians on screen, that amplifies. That becomes what people think an Asian person is. But now we have more and more different types of Asians and that's what I love, and people love "Crazy Rich Asians" so much. Because you got the funny, outlandish Asians, my character like an a**holey, billionaire Asian. And then you got super good-looking heartthrob Asians, you got the cute, hot Asians. You've got all spectrums of the short, tall whatever. So really, it wasn't just plugging one Asian character into one show or movie. You get the whole spectrum. Yeah, I hope that Asians are getting more action on the dating apps now ever since "Crazy Rich Asians" came out. Because who doesn't want to date an Asian actor?

It's all about the profile. It's all about the pics.

I can never get it right. I tried to do one where it's like, okay there's a pic of me with my friends, and then you swipe, there's a pic of me doing stand-up. So like, "Oh you know he's doing something," and then a pic of me holding my dog. So like, "Oh okay." If she likes dogs. But I'm out of that game now. I can't do that anymore.

One of the things that you said the first time I interviewed you a few years back, it always stuck with me. You said that in your culture where you come from, artist means homeless.

Yeah, that's what my dad always told me.

And that people are scared for you to get out there and pursue your dreams, especially as an artist. Do you feel like your parents get it now? Do they understand that, "Oh okay, he jumped right past doctor and all of these other things to do something transformative to make people laugh, and people want to give them a lot of money for it."

It took them a while for sure. My dad especially, because he's very opinionated. My mom might have felt the same way, but she never said anything. So I remember when I first started doing stand-up, he didn't even understand what stand-up was and he would still send me emails. He's like, "Hey look, Morgan Stanley's hiring. There's real jobs out there." And I was always pretty good at school so I could have been a good worker at one of these finance things or whatever.

For a long time he didn't understand. I know when I got on "Silicon Valley" he understood what movie, film, TV was, right? And I started taking them to premieres like "Patriot's Day" with Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Bacon. They know who those people are. Those are big stars even in China. They wanted to take a picture with Marky Mark, they want to get one with Kevin Bacon. And then I took them to the premiere of "Crazy Rich Asians" and I think that was a very special moment. And yeah, they were just really happy, man. They even flew out to Singapore when we were shooting. So now they get it and they get how hard it is. And my dad actually started acting now after I did.

So that wasn't just a joke.

It was not a joke. That's a fact. Because he was like, "It's so easy, you can do it; I can probably do it."

You're really changing the game.

Convincing a 70-year-old Asian man to act now. And I was like, "Fine, do it and you'll see how hard my life is." And he did it, and he became kind of successful pretty easily. And I was like, "S**t, this completely backfired." And now he does think it's somewhat easy, but you know what, I'm very happy if this was his bucket list thing and he gets to meet some of his favorite celebrities that way. I mean, I never thought I would meet some of these people like Steve Carell, John Malkovich. But I grew up here. Imagine an old Chinese man that grew up in China watching John Malkovich movies and now he gets to meet him. So yeah, man, he's on the come up. And I'm like his agent now. I got him a job to play my dad in "Patriot's Day." And then this year "Space Force" is coming out May 29th. I'm super excited about it, and you just might see my dad in there.

What do you say to young Asian actors and people who want to pursue comedy on the come up? Because you're OG now.

I can't believe that.

You look really young, but you're an OG.

Every now and then, people message me, younger comics coming up, or kids coming out of school. They're like, "Hey man, I'm getting into stand-up because of you." And I was like, "Oh, that's awesome." And then at the same time I'm like, "S**t, that's a lot of pressure. Not everybody's going to make it. Now it's on me if he fails." But I'm super excited, I guess, and kind of in disbelief that I'm in that role now. Because I mean for me, growing up I had watched Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee, and that meant a lot to me, man.

Even just seeing that it's possible, of course there's so much other stuff, work, talent, and hard work and perseverance and everything. But just seeing the possibility first, I think that's first and foremost. Like seeing Jeremy Lin in the NBA, I mean that's, "Oh, I see a possibility there." So I would always encourage young people to try it, just like I did. And in my book, I've always said that it's better to disappoint your parents for a couple of years than to disappoint yourself for the rest of your life. So why don't we just give it a try and be realistic with yourself? Don't give up easy, but if it ain't working after a while and you don't really see it working, maybe go back to finance. But give it a try man.

Tell everybody what they can expect with your new stand-up on Amazon and let us know when it drops.

Man, I'm super excited. It drops this Friday on Amazon Prime Video. So if you're already getting packages delivered, you get this stand-up special for free. It's great. I am very happy with how it came out. I edited everything I've wrote, obviously all my own material. And it's 10 years of material building in anticipation for this. But it is my very first stand-up special man.

And I'm so glad to hear that you find it funny and you find it relatable. Because of course I talk about my family and my experience as an Asian American, but at the same time, I feel like those are just human experiences. And if you find it funny, even if you're not Asian, you catch a little glimpse in the community. And at the same time it's just at the end of the day, it should be just hilarious and it should just be an hour of joy during this quarantine. So of course the Asian audience will love it, but I think it's definitely for everyone else.

"Jimmy O. Yang: Good Deal" is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and the comedy series "Space Force" will be released on May 29 on Netflix.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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