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Bowen Yang Is Bringing the Queer Agenda to Television

Out100: Entertainers of the Year

During his stint as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Bowen Yang stole scenes in rare onscreen appearances, usually as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. While that role may be what he’s best known for among the show’s cishetero audience, the queers know better.

Yang co-wrote (with Los Espookys co-creator Julio Torres) what may be the gayest SNL sketch of all-time: the pre-taped masterpiece, “The Actress.” In the sketch, host Emma Stone plays an actor who gets cheated on in a gay porn—essentially the “right in front of my salad” girl, but one who got far too method. It was transcendent, easily becoming one of the season’s best bits. That’s a particular triumph, considering SNL boss Lorne Michaels wanted to cut it from the episode altogether. But as Yang told Out earlier this year, Stone “championed” the sketch — taste won — and it solidified Yang’s status as one of the show’s freshest voices.

This fall, Yang made history by expanding his role at Saturday Night Live as the show’s first Asian cast member. Queer success is still too often measured in firsts — hopefully it won’t always be — and being a trailblazer can come with a lot of responsibility. But Yang says that his identity has given him “an understanding of vulnerability and uncertainty in a way that’s helpful to a career in the arts.”

Beyond that vulnerability, Yang says being publicly queer “is a giant question mark on your life. Queerness makes you good at constantly assessing your circumstances, and your coping mechanisms get this sexy, cool clockmaker’s precision over time. That probably makes you decent at your job, or at least a little bit.”

It’s clearly working out well for Yang. During his time off from SNL over the summer, the comedian stayed busy between trips to Fire Island shooting Awkwafina’s new  Comedy Central sitcom, Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, which is loosely based on her life. Yang will play her more successful cousin, co-starring alongside some of his personal heroes, including B.D. Wong and Lori Tan Chinn. The experience, he says, “was really special and rewarding, especially since it helped mentally prepare me for a new season at SNL. And so, I’m about to say the most obnoxious sentence in showbiz: I can’t wait for people to see it!”

When he’s not busy with his two TV shows, Yang tours as a stand-up comedian and co-hosts the podcast Las Culturistas with Matt Rogers, making him something of a budding entertainment maverick. “Our listenership has seen us through so much, so we always want to do right by them,” says Yang, who “could cry just thinking about what a gift the show has been and how beautiful and generous our listeners are.”

As for his freshman season as a full-time SNL cast member, Yang’s goal is simple: “I’m hoping to have fun and do the best I can.”

This story is a break out from Out100's Culture and Entertainment package. Read about Charlene IncarnatePapi Juice, and the Drag Queens of the Year in other breakouts as well as a listing of all of Out100's film, television, and music honorees.

This piece was originally published in this year’s Out100 issue, out on newstands 12/10. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, or Nook beginning 11/21. 

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