Twelve minutes into his first Netflix stand-up special, You Complete Me, Ho, Ken Jeong dropped his first of many “Asian men have small dicks” jokes to raucous laughter in the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena, CA. “‘We are so proud,’” Jeong said, impersonating his dad’s reaction to his breakout role as Leslie Chow in Judd Apatow’s The Hangover (2009). “‘We are so proud of your tiny ding-dong. So proud. The smaller the penis, the bigger the box office.’”
Comedy has a long and storied history of using racial epithets and otherwise harmful, prejudiced “jokes” to provoke laughter. Most recently, Louis CK caused uproar with a joke about how Asian men are all women and “procreate using math” during his set at the Governor’s Comedy Club on Long Island last December. (His tirade also included jabs at black men.) In the past, some of us laughed at these jokes, and found them genuinely funny; some of us even tweeted attempts at “edgy bits” that we had to publicly apologize for later. And some comedians—Kevin Hart, for example—never apologized to communities they hurt.
But there is still a tired, unspoken rule that comedians are allowed to make jokes that rely on hurtful racial stereotypes as long as it’s about their own culture. These comedians, by having identified within that culture, give the audience permission to laugh. In particular, this practice allows white audiences to enjoy problematic jokes without having to feel guilty. And it's clear that comedy generally caters to white audiences when you consider how long it's taken for networks to sign on to diverse shows. Margaret Cho was the only Asian American comedian for a while, and her sitcom, All-American Girl, only aired for one season in 1994 before it was cancelled.
But culture has changed. It’s 2019, and comedians who are part of marginalized communities are challenging the idea of using self-deprecating humor as a tool, thereby pushing us to consider the price of making comedy at the expense of our own communities. Hannah Gadsby’s 2017 Netflix special, Nanette, tackles her experiences as a queer woman and how she has spent her whole life using humor and self-effacement as a coping method. In it, she explains her desire to leave comedy, because she no longer feels she can responsibly minimize her own experiences.
“I was a hot mess. I had so much just suddenly crystallize in my head, and I just needed to get it out,” Gadsby told the New York Times about writing Nanette. “But overall, it began to hold—some other people were holding my pain, and I’ve never had that. I’ve never had that. And that has done a lot of healing, I think.”
What was once considered a reclamation of stereotypes from white audiences no longer feels fresh or funny—perhaps because these types of jokes have never been funny to those of us in marginalized communities. Though the audience at the Ice House was predominantly Asian the night You Complete Me, Ho was filmed, Jeong’s comedy set doesn’t feel like it was made for Asian Americans, thanks to his stale jokes.
Which isn’t to say that all humor catering to white audiences is bad—comedians of color have long used provocative humor about the communities they come from to make people pay attention. But the most talented comedians do it to push white audiences to think about stereotypes critically. The best of these comedians also recognize when that type of comedy misses the mark, it actually perpetuates the stereotypes they’re trying to dismantle.
Dave Chappelle grappled with this before he chose to step away from his weekly sketch comedy show, Chappelle’s Show, in 2006. In an interview with TIME Magazine in 2005, he described how he realized that his work had gone from parodying stereotypes to possibly propping them up during an episode taping in 2004. In the episode, Chappelle played a black pixie who wears blackface and tries to convince black people to behave in stereotypical ways. At the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loudly—and his laughter struck Chappelle as the “wrong kind of laughter.”
"That concerned me," he said in an interview about the incident on The Oprah Winfrey Show. "I don't want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that [message] out there. … It's a complete moral dilemma."
In a time where Asian Americans are finally achieving media visibility, these considerations are more important than ever. Today, Jeong is one of the most recognizable Asian American actors in Hollywood. After he became a bona fide star in The Hangover, he went on to play Ben Chang in NBC’s Community. Along the way, Jeong became a vocal advocate for increased Asian American representation in the industry, even using his short-lived ABC sitcom, Dr. Ken, as a way to cast more Asian American actors. Last summer, he made an appearance as Papa Goh in Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood movie to have an all-Asian cast in 25 years. (In fact, You Complete Me, Ho was directed by Chu.) His work has been pivotal, both as an actor and as a activist, for other Asian Americans in the media.
That’s what makes the tired Asian tropes about odd last names—he riffs repeatedly about his wife’s last name being “Ho”—and dick jokes that Jeong sprinkles throughout You Complete Me, Ho so disappointing. If one of our most accomplished and beloved Asian American comedians is still making jokes at the expense of Asian American experiences, it indicates that stereotypes about Asians are still profitable in Hollywood. While we no longer build entire movie characters on the idea that Asian men have small penises à la The Hangover, it’s still okay to laugh at a joke about it in a comedy club when it’s delivered by an Asian American comic. It’s also confusing given Jeong’s recent interview with TIME, in which he said that today's stand-up comedy demands more personal material and fewer dick jokes.
Moreover, these jokes limit You Complete Me, Ho from passing on a larger message. It’s too muddled to provoke viewers to actually think about why they’re laughing at jokes that use stereotypes as the punchline. In one segment of the special, Jeong talks about how his father wanted an S-Class Mercedes after The Hangover came out, but failed to dig deeper into why immigrant parents may have that expectation of their kid.
For the most part, You Complete Me, Ho reads as a victory lap and personal monologue, even wrapping up with a touching segment about how Jeong’s wife, Tran, beat breast cancer while he was filming the first Hangover movie. While it’s not the best Netflix comedy special out there right now, it’s also easy to think of it as a largely harmless one—especially when you consider that Jeong came up with a different group of stand-up comedians of color for whom expectations were very different.
But comedy should evolve, and it already has. Some of our most beloved Asian American comedians today, like Hasan Minhaj and Ali Wong, have demonstrated that there’s a demand for comedy rooted in universal but also Asian American-centered experiences—like the extremes of motherhood or being part of an immigrant family. Minhaj and Wong have pushed comedy further by examining their racial identities in a thoughtful way that invites the audience to laugh with them, and their continued success has shown that there’s an audience that would rather challenge their own perspectives rather than reinforce regressive attitudes through comedy.
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