For comedian Bowen Yang, the past three or four years have been huge moments of culture.
In 2018, he joined the long-running late night comedy and variety show Saturday Night Live. A season later, he was promoted to featured cast member. Months later in 2020, the Comedy Central series Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, where he plays Edmund, premiered.
A lot more has happened since – he’s played an iceberg on SNL, become a prominent voice against Asian hate in the US, and was nominated for best supporting actor in a comedy series at the Emmys.
But even during media promos for the second season of Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, Bowen says he’s already looking forward to passing on the torch. “I don’t see it as pressure, I just see it as…just an opening for someone to identify with,” said Bowen, as we spoke about what it means for audiences to see him – an openly queer Asian man – onscreen.
“I think of a queer Asian kid and I’m excited to see that person in how ever many years do the thing that I want them to do and I wanna see them, I wanna be an enraptured audience member going, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m obsessed with this person!’ I’m just waiting to go back to the audience and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in awe of someone,’” he added.
During a quick chat all the way from New York, Bowen spoke about playing Edmund in the second season of Nora from Queens and the role he thinks comedy plays during a pandemic.
(Answers have been edited for clarity.)
How do you even begin to prepare to portray Edmund?
I’m used to reading what’s on the page and finding out what the strongest comedic straight line is just to, you know, get a laugh out of the audience. I’m used to that, working at all the comic jobs where I’ve come in as a day player or doing SNL. It was an interesting process for Nora of Queens when I started there.
I worked backwards. Edmund is a very sympathetic character but all the situations and premises that are written are so elastic and outrageous and funny and broad and out there and you know, in a way that you don’t really see a lot in a lot of TV comedies. I was just grateful to be having that much fun to begin with and then you develop the character around those things, and it’s just so fun.
How are you able to stick to the scene? How do you not just laugh the whole time?
The answer is…you do laugh. And you laugh no matter what. And all you’re seeing on the finished product is the one or two takes where we got it together enough to not laugh so the answer is we don’t keep it together.
There’s a pivotal scene in the series that talks about purpose. What helps you get up in the morning, what keeps you from getting lost in the chaos of the world today?
What gets me up right now is just adding some levity to the world. I’m so grateful that I have opportunities to do that and, you know, have a broader reach especially with shows like Nora from Queens. But it’s a hard thing.
That’s the whole point of the season – is that it’s a hard thing to know what you identify with, to know what your drive is, and what your instincts are in terms of what is motivating you.
I think that’s true for every character, it’s true for Edmund, it’s true for Nora, and for Wally and Grandma. That’s what I love about the season, it goes so much deeper into who these people are despite all of these outlandish situations. And the fact that it’s able to balance those two things is pretty special.
What does it mean for you to be unapologetically queer and Asian, and with the platform you have?
It’s only meaningful to me in so far as I’m able to be those things on these [platforms]. It’s not that I need permission from these places to be those things, but it’s that I’m meeting these places at the right time in terms of being able to bring myself to these projects.
I don’t take that for granted [because] that wasn’t always the case and it probably wasn’t the case if I had come in just five years earlier onto this landscape. I feel that it would have been much more difficult and so, it just means that I have to make this better for the next person and just make this an easier place, to make sure that it’s inevitable that there will be more queer Asian people who are working in entertainment. I feel like we’re headed there and I’m excited about what the future holds.
It’s amazing that younger people can see someone like Bowen Yang, someone they can see themselves in, onscreen.
If they don’t [see themselves in me], then that’s fine but if they do, then that’s great. I’m just happy I get to even do it no matter who takes it in. It’s just really special.
Is that extra pressure on you?
I don’t see it as pressure, I just see it as…just an opening for someone to identify with. I think of a queer Asian kid and I’m excited to see that person in how ever many years do the thing that I want them to do and I wanna see them, I wanna be an enraptured audience member going, “Oh my goodness, I’m obsessed with this person!” And so I feel like I’m just waiting for…. I’m just waiting to go back to the audience and be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m in awe of someone.”
What role do you think comedy plays during a huge global crisis?
I think humor is hard to define, but I think that the heart of humor is a mutual understanding of an idea. You laugh at something because…if someone tells you a joke, you laugh at it because you get it, right? And because you understand where they’re coming from.
I think that’s the role comedy is playing right now for a lot of people. It’s a reminder that there’s an outside world that’s connected to them, that they have the same understanding of certain things that they do – and they go, “Oh I didn’t realize someone else thought that thing too.” Or that the situation could be magnified or scaled down in a way that makes it funnier.
If there’s any role that it plays, I think that’s maybe at the heart of it – you’re reminded that other people are finding something as funny as you are.
In the Philippines, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens is on Paramount Network’s Comedy Central Happy Hours block. New episodes premiere Wednesdays at 10 pm.