Bowen Yang is defining funny for a new generation
It's hard to say where you can catch Bowen Yang these days. Filming the second season of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens? That was Monday. Recording an episode of his podcast Las Culturistas alongside cohost Matt Rogers? He'll do that this week, too. And what of his biggest ongoing project, Saturday Night Live? Deep breath: He's nearing the end of an intensive three-week stretch of shows. But late on this Friday afternoon, he's back in his Brooklyn apartment, calm as can be, sporting a black tee and a frequent relaxed smile. He's just finished a rewrite for an upcoming episode; before the evening is done, he'll go gift shopping for a friend, head to work to block out "one more sketch," and make it back in time for RuPaul's Drag Race. For Yang, this is what busy looks like — comfortable.
It's also rather revolutionary. The first Chinese American to ever star on SNL (and the first openly gay man to survive beyond one season), Yang has only built on his milestones with subtly groundbreaking work. You might not even notice how radical his sensibility has become, as he's eased into his second year as a featured cast member. "I went in thinking, 'I'm going to try to do everything,'" he says. "But I've learned what my wheelhouse is, that it's okay to home in on some specific tone or material or lexicon." He describes his niche thusly: "It can be something kooky and funny and a big swing, or something more grounded, where there's still some weird little queer element [that's] a bit hidden away, but… there for people to pick up on."
Take that aforementioned three-week run; he produced two of its most talked-about segments, ranging from the delicately sincere to the absurdly funny. First, in the wake of national outcry over anti-Asian hate, Yang stole "Weekend Update" with a sobering — if still wryly comic — personal reflection on the moment. He and co-writers Celeste Yim and Sudi Green wrestled with how (and whether) to tackle the subject on air. "If it's not going to be us, then who will it be?" he recalls them thinking. "It was a very emotional experience to write. On average, people work on two to three things a week; that was the only thing I worked on that week. I had spent seven hours on that first draft. It was really hard.… I had never been that microscopic with a piece more than I [was] with this."
That the piece generated such a passionate, lasting response taught Yang some lessons about his public-facing role. "I just remember having this crazy vulnerability hangover in the days after, and I still am in that place," he says. "The whole point of the piece was we have to move past cursory acknowledgment of the problem. And that was the only thing I was in in the whole show. That messed with me. I was like, 'Okay, I got wheeled out to do my little Asian bit, what does that mean?' I just had a million different thoughts swirling around." He took a short break from Twitter, and upon returning to the platform a week later — not to discuss "Weekend Update" or anything related, but to harmlessly "pine after the TurboVax guy" — the notifications piled up. "People [were] tagging me in this rhetorical discussion [about] whether I had succeeded in making that piece funny," he recalls. "I was stoned and I quote-tweeted, 'I'm not interested in anyone's answer to this.'" He continues, "That was my distance that I knew I had to create. Normally I'm all about wanting to know what people thought about a sketch that I was in. There was a shift, and I think it was a healthy one." (Over a month later, Yang's Twitter account remains inactive.)
Two weeks after the monologue, Yang would return to the "Update" desk — only instead of as himself, he was the Iceberg That Sank the Titanic. The totally ridiculous, ingenious bit (co-written by Yang with Anna Drezen) imagines the infamous block of ice as exactly the sort of queer-coded character Yang has come to perfect. (The Iceberg booked this interview to promote his new EDM fantasia album, not to rehash old news.) By the next morning, the sketch would trend on Twitter from coast to coast, a smash hit. Such a one-two punch is rare for a featured SNL player — and, as breakouts, they showcase Yang's capabilities in both writing and performing. (He joined the series in 2018 as a writer before shifting to the cast the next year.)
Born to immigrant parents in Australia, Yang grew up in Aurora, Colo., glued to SNL as a child and teen. Now he shines on the show while absorbing the wisdom of heroes like Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph (both hosted episodes this season). "That's the weird part of this job: having even very cursory interpersonal relationships with these people," he says, citing bonding over the infamously exhausting production schedule as a prime example. "The fact that Kristen Wiig is telling me that she also had bad weeks is crazy! There's this very strong, shared, core understanding of experience of working there, and she knew that I would relate to that. She didn't have to ask me, 'Are you having a good time?'"
He's already holding on to special memories, from his earliest days on the show. He felt welcomed into a "legacy of queer writers" — an important history he's careful to remind others of — and developed a quick, creatively fulfilling shorthand with staffers including James Anderson and Julio Torres. As Yang describes his easing into SNL, "I'm coming in at the right place at the right time." The gayest thing he's done so far on the show, he dutifully answers, is the 2019 sketch "Sara Lee" he co-wrote with Torres for Harry Styles. Yang proudly describes it as "about the intersection of being horny and sad." He remembers saying to Styles and costar Cecily Strong backstage, just before they went live, "I can't believe this is about to be on TV."
That sense of disbelief still pops up, even as Yang's sensibility moves ever closer toward SNL's center — a staggering paradigm shift he has, perhaps, yet to fully detect. In our conversation the day before his Iceberg debut, Yang was actually grieving the sketch — sure it wouldn't make the final show. "You're currently talking to me as I mourn that loss," he'd said. "It's stuff where you're like, 'Wait, couldn't it be possible that other people find this just as funny as I do?'" As fate would have it: Yes, they do.
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