The Entourage team tried to show us How to Make It in America, but now Silicon Valley star Jimmy O. Yang wants to teach you How to American.
The stand-up comedian and actor, best known for playing the prank-call-loving Jian-Yang on the HBO tech comedy, brings his storytelling abilities from the screen to the page with his debut book. Subtitled An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents, the book documents Yang’s journey from Chinese immigrant to television star.
And yeah, he knows what you’re thinking. “I’m 30 years old, what the hell am I doing writing a memoir?” Yang tells EW. “I look like an a—hole.” So to appear a little more modest, he blends memoir with self-help book, handing out important lessons from his life including “How to Asian,” “How to Immigrant,” and, of course, “How to Strip Club DJ.”
Ahead of the book’s Tuesday release, Yang talked to EW about his creative process, his dad still not being proud of him, and why filming Crazy Rich Asians — a.k.a. “the Justice League of Asians” — was a “transcendent experience.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to write a book? And once you decided to do it, why was this the perfect structure for you?
JIMMY O. YANG: I started in stand-up, and you have to be funny every few seconds or so, and it’s a bit restricting. There were so many stories that I wanted to tell that are meaningful and humorous, but not a laugh every four seconds. If you think about writing a book, or when I did, it seems daunting, but when I began writing, it just started flowing. I took some time off from stand-up because I wanted to write something a little bit more meaningful and emotional. I’m very self-conscious about certain things. At first, I was like, “I’m 30 years old, what the hell am I doing writing a memoir? I look like an a—hole.” So we toyed with the idea of writing a self-help book as a joke, but the first book agent I was dealing with was pushing for it to be a real self-help book, and then I felt like even more of an a—hole. So we put that aside and I got another agent who was more open to just hearing my story. In a way, it’s more of a long-form setup and punch line than I’m used to in stand-up. It came naturally, and they trusted me enough to let me write it all in my own voice. I’m not Hemingway, I don’t have the best grammar, but I think there’s something familiar and kind of easy to read about a very casual and slang way of talking, which in a way is How to American.
The title is simple and works great; where did that come from? And was that always the direction you were headed, like wanting to help someone who comes from another country learn how to become an American?
The title was always there. I came up with it on day one because I wanted to write a self-help book of ways to actually be more American, and each chapter ends with some pointers. But instead of hitting them over the head with pointers and how to do it, I just did it through my own story. It’s not a self-help book, but hopefully people can find it helpful reading my story. The subtitle we struggled with for a long time. The first iteration of the subtitle was “A Narcissistic Memoir Disguised as an Immigrant’s Story.” It’s once again my low self-esteem saying, “Who am I to write a book?” I need to make fun of myself. Because if you call yourself narcissistic, then you can write the most narcissistic s— ever and it’s fine. But eventually I got some good feedback on the book and became more confident as a writer, so we found the more fitting subtitle “An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.” Because throughout the journey, my dad is pretty disappointed, probably to this day. He literally just told me. I don’t know why people feel the need to do this to me, but my friend asked my dad, “Aren’t your proud of Jimmy now that he’s a successful actor?” And my dad was like, “No, not really. I wish he was a scientist.” I guess scientist is more noble in the Asian culture.
Maybe successful author will get you closer to him being proud. It’s a little more distinguished than successful actor.
He always tells me about new celebrities that he finds in the Chinese newspaper. Like my friend Natasha Liu, who is this amazing actress, and my dad is like, “Have you heard of this girl Natasha? I just saw her in the Chinese newspaper.” The Chinese newspaper is the status quo, so I need to get in there.
At least you have a goal now.
But EW is great. I’ll send him a copy and see what he thinks.
You share so many stories in the book, but was there one that really stuck out as you were revisiting it through the writing process?
The strip club DJ chapter is my favorite. [Listen to an exclusive audio excerpt from the chapter below.] That’s the first chapter I wrote, and looking back at after writing it, I was like, “I can’t believe I went through this s—. How stupid was I?” I was a DJ at this extremely seedy strip club and the owner was a biker gang guy and it was run by ex-cons and the doorman used to be in the Aryan brotherhood. Reading that stuff back, I can’t believe how far I came, because I could have totally gotten sucked into that life. I was a very good strip club DJ and the owner actually offered to open a strip club for me to run. So it’s one of those forks in the road; it could have really gone the other way.
You’re starring in the upcoming film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel Crazy Rich Asians. This is a summer movie with an all-Asian cast being released by a major studio. How does it feel to be a part of such a historic project?
It was an amazing experience. Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to think about it. It’s like, “Okay, it’s an Asian movie, I’m glad I got a part to do it,” but it’s also like, “Oh, I have to do it because I’m an Asian person.” I didn’t think anything of it, really, and then when I got to Singapore it was just the most transcendent experience. Usually when you’re Asian and you’re on set, you’re the only Asian there. Either you’re the token Asian or you’re the Asian sidekick. But in this movie, when we met up in the lobby of the hotel and, seriously, you see the most talented, beautiful, funniest Asian actors from all over the world in the same room. It’s amazing to see, like, the Justice League of Asians coming together for this movie. And it’s an absolutely incredible experience. I think every show and movie I’ve done, I’ve made maybe one or two close friends that I still talk to. With this movie, it was us finding our own creed, our own group who we’ve been longing for. It feels right and it feels good to be amongst your peers who have gone through the same struggle and share the same experience. It’s the new Asian coalition mafia. I was never one to only hang out with Asians, but I get it — it’s not just about hanging out with people of the same skin color, it’s about the comfort of hanging out with people who have a shared experience. I mostly dated white girls before this movie, but now I need to find myself an Asian girl. [Laughs]
And if this does well, then presumably it opens the door for more movies like it.
I’ve learned to not have expectations. I think the first movie I did, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to win an Oscar!” [Laughs] You can’t do that, you’re going to let yourself down. I have no expectations. I think it’s going to do really well because it’s a really, really great film. And whatever the result is, I’ve already come out winning with all these amazing lifelong friends that I’ve met. I hope it does well at the box office, but with a big studio like Warner Bros. having gotten behind a movie with an all-Asian cast, I think that’s an accomplishment in itself for us. Hopefully not just Asian people will show up, because it’s a relevant story and every element of it is relatable. It’s not just for Asians, it’s for everyone.
How to American hits shelves March 13, while Crazy Rich Asians opens in theaters Aug. 17.