This year’s television and film awards season has seen several funny women getting the credit that they deserve. From Jennifer Coolidge and Ayo Edebiri delivering endearing acceptance speeches to Quinta Brunson’s best actress win for her sitcom, Abbott Elementary and, of course, Ali Wong’s win for playing Amy Lau in A24/Netflix’s Beef. It is without a doubt, the year of the funny woman. Upon watching the ceremonies, I picked up on one interesting commonality shared by Edebiri, Brunson and Wong—yes, while they are all women of color, they also all got their start in stand-up comedy. 

Stand-up comedy is a humble but common place to start for many performers who pursue careers in the entertainment industry, regardless of sex or racial background. For these women, their years of capturing audiences with nothing but a microphone and a few punchlines have rightfully earned them their place in the spotlight. So, why is it that the ‘women aren’t funny’ stereotype continues to loom over the successes of these comics?

This myth becomes the root of discourse surrounding female-led comedy projects, particularly works which center unapologetically feminine subject matter and aesthetics. Even the ones which see huge critical and commercial success like widely-loved comedies like Mean Girls or Bridesmaids suffer the same fate. While now having cemented their place in film history as cult classics, these movies struggled to be seriously considered ‘good films’ rather than just ‘good chick-flicks’. A more recent example would be the ultrapink, mega-hit Barbie, which despite its success at awards shows and the box-office, has also been undermined by its critics as frivolous and unfunny. This struggle for women and femininity to be taken seriously in comedy has proven difficult to defeat, even for white women in comedy who have privilege within the industry. However, this struggle is amplified for female comedians of color.

Ali Wong’s career, from her start as a stand-up comedian to her now critically acclaimed acting performances, has led me to reflect on the space that she and other Asian-American female comedians have carved out for themselves. Furthermore, it is worthwhile to explore how their successes have shaped the entire landscape of Asian-American representation in the entertainment industry. Wong’s Golden Globe and Emmy-winning performance as Amy Lau in Beef generally seems to be regarded as a clever deconstruction of the “perfectly put-together, girl-boss wife and mother” archetype. While I consider the series to be one of the best that 2023 had to offer and I found myself thoroughly floored by the lead actress’s range, I also found that Amy Lau was not so far removed from the persona that Wong performs as in her comedy specials. Wong has been known for performing on stage while visibly pregnant, immediately communicating an important aspect of her identity: she is a working mother.

Her acts also often include unfiltered stories about the horrors of the pregnant female body and graphic depictions of sex. Much like Amy Lau, Wong’s comedy repertoire similarly includes material which voices her discontent with the pressure to fit the mold of modern femininity. In her second Netflix stand-up special entitled Hard Knock Wife, Wong says, “A lot of people like to ask me, ‘Ali, how on earth do you balance family and career?’ Men never get asked that question. Because they don’t.” Unsurprisingly, this subject matter and Wong’s unabashed and shameless delivery do not always go over well with everybody.

Her portrayal of Amy Lau, a hard-pressed, self-made business owner simply wanting to spend a bit more time with her young daughter, is as believable as it was due to Wong’s real experience as a person living with a similar reality. This is not to undermine Wong’s talents as an actor, but instead to parallel the common thread which ties the stories she chooses to tell both on stage and on screen. It becomes interesting to note how much Wong’s success through a more mainstream approach in Beef contrasts with the criticisms that the content of her comedy specials has faced. 

Yes, Wong’s comedy relies on crass humor and vulgar language, but are the male comedians who do the same criticized to the same extent? Can the reality of feminine struggles only be acceptable when filtered through the male gaze? Are Asian-American female comedians, and all female comedians of color for that matter, doomed to be considered unfunny by those who are simply unable to relate to them?

A discussion about Asian-American female comedians is incomplete without mention of Margaret Cho. One of the first Asian-American female comics to find success, this Korean-American San Francisco comedy legend rose to fame in the early 90s after testing out performances at the bar next door to her family’s business. Cho paved a path for many Asian-American female comedians, her acts including stories about her parents and her experience as a child of immigrants. Throughout her career, Cho has also been particularly outspoken about American politics, her support for the LGBTQ+ community and her own struggles with mental illness and addiction. In 1994, the rising success of her stand-up career earned her some attention from ABC, who approached her to create and star in her own network sitcom, All-American Girl, which became the first sitcom to feature an Asian-American family at its center. Although Cho did not write the series, it was inspired by many of her experiences which she spoke about in her comedy routine.

In a retrospective interview about the sitcom, Cho stated, “I didn’t have these attributes that they think of when they think of… like… a female star of a show. I wasn’t thin, I wasn’t white. I think that because I wasn’t white, they had to somehow make me conform in other ways that would make me more palatable to an audience.” Cho was forced by the show’s executives to undergo an extreme diet which negatively impacted her physical health, causing her kidneys to fail. All-American Girl was eventually canceled after its first season, its legacy unfortunately marred not only by the executives’ abusive behavior towards Cho and mishandling of the show’s plot, but also by audience criticism of the series. Much of the backlash for the show came from Korean-Americans themselves, slamming the harmful stereotypes that the series perpetuated.

What Cho was subject to in the 1990s is what I refer to as the ‘trailblazer problem’. Non-white entertainers or performers who are one of the first of their ethnic group to rise to fame are burdened with this herculean task of representing their entire community. Through this lens, telling the story of one’s own experience almost becomes an act of selfishness, a purposeful misrepresentation or stereotyping of one’s own community. Intersectionality must be considered when analyzing the trailblazer problem, as male comedians of color often face this issue as well, while white female comedians never do.

Another victim of the trailblazer problem is Indian-American comedian, writer, actress and producer, Mindy Kaling. Like Cho, Kaling’s depictions of Indian-American femininity have been heavily criticized. Her own portrayal of The Office’s Kelly Kapoor was the antithesis to the typical depiction of the South Asian female at the time. A more recent example includes the character Bela Malhotra, an aspiring comedian and boy-crazy college student from the HBO Max series, Sex Lives of College Girls. Kaling, a trailblazer in her own right, has championed stories about Indian-Americans throughout her career, providing work for South Asian writers, actors, filmmakers and the like. While many of these criticisms are not entirely unfounded, it is disappointing to find that Kaling’s contributions to the rise of South Asian representation in entertainment is also being overshadowed by this pressure for her to ‘correctly’ represent her community. Ambika Gautam Pai, in an op-ed about Kaling for browngirl magazine poses a thought-provoking question: “The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, Euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?”

All of the media I have mentioned in this article thus far are all works I have enjoyed and whose success I find to be encouraging and a net-positive for our communities. However, even I hold my own criticisms for these works. None of them, however, are in an effort to police the way these female comics choose to tell their stories of their personal experiences. If Margaret Cho and Mindy Kaling were victims of the trailblazer problem—if they were the first to take on the burden of representation for their communities—then why do up and coming Asian-American comics continue to contend with this complex issue? How are audiences so quick to turn on these female comedians for ‘mis-represention’, and quick to forgive male comedians whose acts are saturated with lazy misogyny and constant punching down

In no way am I insinuating that any comedian or entertainer be exempt from receiving criticism or backlash. The very job of a comic is to push the bounds of normative storytelling, to confront and destroy stigmas and to speak about the subject matter that everyone else is too scared to. In fact, this very feature is my favorite aspect of comedy as an art. Mistakes and missteps are inevitable. Male comedians and even white female comedians are allowed to make mistakes—they are granted the opportunity to fail. Is it too much to ask that female comedians of color are allowed the same right?

Margaret Cho, in an interview with The Cut, states, “…When you’re doing standup comedy, you’re on your own, so there’s a kind of freedom and agency there. Like, I don’t need a studio. I don’t need a network. I don’t need a production that has an Asian American cast in it, which was fortunate, because I had stand-up comedy and that was it.” It is no huge leap to assume that this freedom and agency in stand-up comedy are the features which make it so alluring for these female comics. Trailblazers like Cho, Kaling and Wong, despite the pressure they have all faced to be perfect representations of modern Asian-American femininity, have undoubtedly shaped the landscape of APIDA representation in Hollywood by being unabashedly themselves. These outspoken, crass, endlessly relatable and hilarious comedians have cemented a path for a new generation to shape their own stories and ideas of femininity–with perhaps just a little bit more room to fail. 

Visual Credit: Brett Sayles

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