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It's Not All Jokes With Bowen Yang

Bowen Yang

Bowen Yang was running late. He’s usually very punctual, he claims. But the Saturday Night Live star admits he was busy spending the day trekking around Atlanta — where he was visiting his sister — shopping and running errands at three different Asian supermarkets. 

The all-important question: Which Asian supermarket is his favorite? “Obviously, H Mart is king,” Yang says of the beloved Korean-American national grocery chain. However, he’s hesitant to pick just one. Yang cites a Chinese market called Jusgo and “a bunch of Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian stores around that area [in Atlanta] that are all heavenly, and that did bring me back to childhood.”

Many Asian-Americans and children of immigrants can relate: Being able to connect to culture, even in the smallest of ways, like via a supermarket, can help one stay grounded. After all, food is a reminder of family, history, and home. “I hadn’t been to a store like that in a year or so, and God, the sensual memory of it all,” Yang says. “It is so powerful that it’s emotional. You feel like you’re connected to it.”

As for Bowen’s origins, he was born in Australia to two very science-inclined parents from China; his mother was an ob-gyn and his father is an engineer with a Ph.D. in mining explosives. The family lived briefly in Montreal before settling down in his hometown of Aurora, Colo. It was there in his youth that he discovered comedy — specifically in the works of queer Korean-American icon Margaret Cho. 

“I was hanging out with a bunch of drama club kids in high school my freshman year and one of my friends put on a Margaret Cho album, and it was just really mind-blowing to be like, ‘Wait, this woman is Korean, she is bisexual?’” Yang recalls of the first time hearing Cho’s 2002 live comedy special, Notorious C.H.O. (Live at Carnegie Hall).

“She talks about her parents in a way that I relate to, but I also don’t. That is also foreign enough to me that I laugh at it in a way that is not laughing at it but laughing with it,” he says. “It was a really wild shift in my parameters of what could be funny and who could be funny and who could be funny in a way that was appealing to a lot of people.” 

Bowen Yang
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It was the first time Yang, now 31, says he ever saw or heard someone like himself, a queer Asian-American, represented in media. Though he didn’t quite know it at the time, hearing someone like Cho performing at one of the world’s most famous live entertainment venues would have a profound effect on the way he would navigate life and his comedy career. “I’m still excavating the meaning, and that’s so huge,” he says. “I can’t even put an estimation on what her impact is.”

Yang, with this inspirational spark from Cho, has come far. After high school, he made the move to the big city to attend New York University. And it was during that time in his life that he met his best friend, Matt Rogers, and started the popular Las Culturistas podcast. He also began performing improv routines at Upright Citizens Brigade. With this rising visibility, Yang then secured small roles in projects like Broad City, The Outs, and High Maintenance. All that hard work led to his first big break in 2018, when he was hired by Saturday Night Live as a staff writer for season 44

When he made the move from staff writer to featured, on-air cast member on the 45th season of SNL in 2019, Yang became the first Chinese-American, the third out gay male, and only the fourth actor of Asian descent ever to be cast in the history of NBC’s long-running weekly sketch comedy series. Landing a spot on this show, which has launched the careers of too many iconic comedians to name, is a big deal for any budding talent. And while there’s a lot more to the Emmy nominee than the identities he brings to TV, it’s not lost on Yang that he can now be a possibility model for someone else. 

Bowen Yang
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Certainly, Yang has been one of the most exciting voices to join SNL in recent seasons. During his time as a staff writer, he co-wrote (alongside out Los Espookys star Julio Torres) the delightfully queer pre-taped skit “The Actress,” in which Oscar winner Emma Stone played an extra on the set of a gay porn film, taking her role as an adult actor’s stepmother far too seriously. More standout moments include various monologues on the satirical news segment “Weekend Update,” where he has eviscerated the rise of Asian-American hate crimes, played a gay Oompa Loompa working for Timothée Chalamet’s Willy Wonka, and perhaps most memorably, won queer hearts as the sassy, bedazzled iceberg that sank the Titanic — a skit that Yang admits almost didn’t happen. 

“I can’t believe I got to do that,” he says of the viral April 2021 performance. “Anna Drezen and I wrote that earlier in the week. We were like, ‘Let’s just write whatever we want,’ and there was really no guarantee or really any thinking behind it, about it making it onto the show. So, by the time it was on the show, we were like, ‘Wait, how did that happen?’ [The iceberg skit] is a favorite.”

Bowen Yang
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Yang’s contributions to SNL have queered a show that for decades had no out cast members; Terry Sweeney became the first out gay man on the series in 1985, and Kate McKinnon wouldn’t join the cast until 2012. And John Milhiser, who is gay, appeared for only the 2013-14 season. Yang is now showing younger generations of viewers how good and inclusive comedy can be done — though he acknowledges his limitations in transforming Hollywood and the greater culture.

“I do start to get very emotional and grateful at the idea of influencing another young queer Asian-American artist, but then at the same time, I’m not in control of that,” he says. “I can’t force myself down someone’s throat and be like, ‘Be influenced by me!’ you know? That’s not how showbiz works. I wish I could tell people to watch. But that’s the beauty of it too. You have to figure out your place.” 

After getting promoted again on SNL’s most recent season (this time from featured player to full-time cast member), Yang has carved out his own space in the hallowed halls of Studio 8H, where he is joined by a team of several queer writers and a handful of other out players. Among them is the lesbian comic Punkie Johnson, with whom he has a recurring gag behind the scenes of work; they flirt with each other and act like they are both deeply attracted to each other. And of course, there’s McKinnon, whom Yang credits as a role model that showed him “how to navigate [SNL] and do it well and have the audience just key into what you’re doing.” 

Bowen Yang
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There’s a comfort Bowen says he feels working with a diverse cast and crew, especially his fellow LGBTQ+ community members. This setting makes him feel like he’s a part of something bigger than himself, where diversity can be given a space to shine and spark hilarious moments for the world to enjoy.

“I’m working at the show at a very opportune time,” Yang says. “It’s just very interesting thinking of the collective sense of, How do we make sure that everyone gets lifted up, gets something essential about themselves put on the show?” 

Though SNL’s queer comedy has reached various high peaks and low, low valleys, some bits, like the recent “Pride Month Song” skit that Yang starred in alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, Lil Nas X, Johnson, and McKinnon, have become fan favorites. They’re indicative of a new era of SNL that includes but doesn’t punch down on queer folks. Others, like “Mickey the Dyke” and “It’s Pat,” have aged horribly. 

“The culture changes and therefore sensibilities change,” Yang says of SNL’s sometimes murky past. “In terms of the queer content that was on the show before, I think it’s modeled after any episode of the show, where there’s some good stuff, some bad stuff, and it averages out.” In other words: Comedy doesn’t always land or age well — particularly when it tackles marginalized identities.

Bowen Yang
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As for his own SNL experience, Bowen feels his voice and ideas are heard on set, and creatives in general are given a lot of freedom. “As long as it works for the audience on Saturday at dress rehearsal, then it goes,” he says of a given pitch. “They hand over the keys to you. It’s not a top-down thing where you have a bunch of people saying, ‘You’ve got to do this and the show has to be like this and this and that.’ It’s very bottom up, where the creatives, the boots on the ground, get to build the structure. I’ve really come to appreciate that. The longer I work there, as long as it’s funny to a decent number of people who are in the studio audience, then hopefully, it has a place to live on the TV show that gets seen by however many millions of people.”

Beyond SNL, Yang’s future as a film actor is taking shape in the form of two notable upcoming projects. First is Fire Island, Spa Night director Andrew Ahn’s gay romantic comedy, which was written by and costars Joel Kim Booster, a fellow comedian and Yang’s close friend of eight years. The project, which premieres June 3 on Hulu, is pitched as a “modern-day version” of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And though it’s comedic, Yang says there’s a complexity to it that queer rom-coms need. And that depth challenged him as an actor.

“I got to play this character in Fire Island where it was not trauma-based, but it was still something so grounded and still something that I had to really dig into myself to take out, and it was such an educational, wonderful, challenging thing,” he says. “I got to work with Andrew on this comedy where he was able to sort of marry those two things together because you still kind of do need the trauma background in order to contextualize queer joy. But that’s what makes queer joy so much more impactful, powerful, meaningful. It needs the underbelly of the suffering.”

Second is the upcoming Universal Pictures rom-com Bros, co-written by and costarring Billy Eichner, which features an all-LGBTQ+ cast. Yes, even the straight characters are being played by queer actors. That part was a little less involved for Yang. “It was just me coming, going in, playing this kooky character and then peace-ing out and leaving the next day,” he recounts.

Bowen Yang
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Both productions are LGBTQ+ milestones for Hollywood, which in the recent past would not have green-lit a film production with queer leads and central storylines. Though very different, Fire Island and Bros are part of a much larger movement for change within the entertainment industry. 

“I got to have both ends of the spectrum, and I just feel like this could not have happened in any other time,” Yang says. “That is something that has been very hard-won by so many people. And I think we’re also now in this communal place where everyone is supporting each other with that. There isn’t that much pettiness about it, I don’t think. There’s a mutual investment on everyone doing well.”

In addition to the acting opportunities, Yang praises how he experienced “a front-row seat” to moviemaking from Ahn, Booster, Eichner, and his cast mates. “I know what it looks now if I ever am lucky enough to do that in the future,” he says of potentially helming his own productions. Like Cho, who is also a star of Fire Island, his friends and colleagues have now become his possibility models.

These experiences have helped Yang remain optimistic about the future of queer and Asian representation in mainstream media. With more and more young diverse creatives like himself breaking into the industry, he feels even bigger change is just around the corner. “The thought of that excites me,” Yang says. “I’m a big believer in repetition, and so the more we see [diversity], the more people get used to it.”

Talent BOWEN YANG @fayedunaway
Creative Director BEN WARD @_benjaminward_
Photographer DAVID URBANKE @davidurbanke davidurbanke.com
Stylist SAM SPECTOR @samspector samspector.com
Stylist Assist FRED KIM @_fredkim
Groomer EVY DREW @evydrew eamgmt.com
Videographer JESÚS BAEZ @baez_photo baeznyc.com

Bowen Yang
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Bowen Yang is the cover star of Out's March/April 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands April 5. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. 

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