Talking to Dan Harmon and Jessica Gao About Their New Podcast on Race
It is called 'Whiting Wongs,' and it goes to some uncomfortable places.
Images courtesy of Dan Harmon (L) and Jessica Gao (R)
I’ve found that all white people have one thing in common. They all think that they are the first to point out that my last name puns well with “wrong.” I’ve encountered Wong puns constantly throughout my decade-plus career as a comedian commenting on race and gender, including one white TV exec who wanted to name a pilot I was working on One Wong Makes It Right.
So when I heard that white guy and Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon was launching a podcast called Whiting Wongs, I was immediately suspicious. Especially since the show bills itself as an “honest conversation about race and writing” and opens up with a theme song sung by Harmon in a “speekee engrish” accent. But according to Harmon, the title of the podcast was the idea of his co-host, Jessica Gao. She’s the Asian American writer who was harassed by sexist Rick and Morty fans after joining the cartoon’s writer’s room and introducing the psychologist character Dr. Wong. Her involvement in the podcast gave me a little hope that this new show wasn’t just an ignorant white dude joking and pontificating about race from a place of privilege—but could actually make good on its promise of offering a constructive dialogue.
The jury is still out on the show, but the first handful of hour-long episodes are promising. Gao offers a lot of insight into what it’s like for people of color in the TV and film industry, and Harmon does a lot of listening. They both recognize their show won’t solve racism in Hollywood, because the problems are too entrenched for it to be that easy. But their self-awareness and self-deprecating humor is a pretty good salve that can be occasionally insightful. I spoke with Harmon and Gao by phone earlier this week to discuss why the hell they wanted to make Whiting Wongs and what they hope it can add to our nationwide dialogue on race.
VICE: I definitely wouldn’t agree to do a podcast called Whiting Wongs with any old white guy. Jessica, what makes Dan “not just any white guy”?
Jessica: For sure. If any random white guy wanted to do this podcast with me, I’d be like, Get the fuck out of here. But this actually happened organically. It was because of the character of Dr. Wong that we started talking about representation and why it matters. Dan wanted to hear why I was so militant about changing the name “Dr. Wong” once we cast her as Susan Sarandon. So we had this very organic, and nice, honest, and easy conversation where he was just listening and just taking it all in. And then after that, we kept referring back to that conversation and said “This could be a podcast. Who would listen to it? But let’s do it anyway.” I think one of the big things, when we have these conversations, is I know Dan and know that he is genuinely listening. He has an opinion, but he’s open to someone telling him their side of the story.
Did you have any anxiety about having to represent all people of color as the only of color person on the podcast?
JG: Sorta. If I have to think about the weight of all people of color, it would be too overwhelming to ever say anything. So how I compartmentalize that is I come to it from the angle that I’m speaking from myself and my experiences. I am one person, and I can try to explain things from a general person of color point of view, but it’s coming from me.
Dan, in the first episode, you address your listeners as “fans of race.” You’re pretty hard on millennials saying, “Here’s the thing kids, you’re racist. You know how to talk around it, but you’re still racist.” So, Dan, are you racist?
Dan: I usually have the same response to that as, “Are you an alcoholic? ” Which is yes, because denial is the first sign that there’s more meat to be carved out. I don’t know how much actual fruitful conversation has ever come from someone denying that they’re sexist, alcoholic, racist... I’ve gotten old, exhausted, self-loathing, and narcissistic enough to say, “Yes, I am whatever you think I am. Can we please talk about what to do about it?”
A different answer to that is I think that by the very valid modern definition, I am racist because I can’t stop thinking about race. If I am in a conversation with someone who is noticeably non-white, it’s on a little heads up display when I am talking to them. I’m sure it’s either boring or agonizing to my friends of color that sooner or later it will come up because I am obsessed about it and can’t stop seeing it. Thankfully, that has become the new definition, rather than the, “I hate you and don’t want you to go to school with my kids” or whatever. That’s something that we just started talking about on the podcast. Can we talk about racism as a spectrum of how polluted is your brain?
JG: Racism is a spectrum. And I think that it really is stupid to say it’s black or white. I hate when people say they don’t see race because that’s stupid. That’s impossible. Of course you see race. You are looking at someone, you see race. And also, noticing that someone is of a different race is not a bad thing.
Are you on the spectrum of racism too as a person of color?
JG: Yeah. Absolutely. I think every single person is on the spectrum of racism.
DH: If you had power and privilege, you’d certainly notice who was white and who was Asian. We talked about that in one of the episodes where, I don’t know how much of a joke it was but, Jessica cops to the fact that if Chinese women ruled Earth, they would abuse their power.
JG: Yeah. Who wouldn’t?
And we would take all the hotel toiletries.
DH: I hope that people who are on the fence and find themselves embroiled in weird conversations at the age of 20 in a comment section who aren’t given over to any side of any issue can get sucked into the rim of this black hole. Let’s talk about it, and maybe we can save some souls from turning into me at 40.
Who are you at 40?
DH: I’m someone who spent 20 years obsessing about race and putting his foot in his mouth and only learning that he was offending people by getting yelled at on the internet. We tend to learn about this stuff by getting yelled at on the internet.
JG: I think what’s helpful is Dan is willing to be the guy who puts his foot in his mouth and says opinions that some part of him knows will probably get him in trouble. But people at home who probably would have said just the same thing but are too afraid to, precisely for that same reason, because they don’t want to get in trouble, can now listen to someone else do it and have someone like me explain the other side of that. And they can do it without any risk to themselves.
DH: Is it true that if you drop a radio into a bathtub, you’ll get electrocuted? Mythbusters has to go in and show you that no, you won’t. There are circuit breakers and stuff. At our highest form, maybe we could become a racial Mythbusters.
My last name is a huge butt of jokes for white people. I’m hoping that by you doing a podcast named Whiting Wongs, it sends the message to the world, “OK, we did it. Now stop with this pun. It’s been done.”
JG: Yeah. We did the best version, so give up.
DH: I think we have to be honest. It’s not just the rhyme. It has the double power of sounding like a racist stereotype of an Asian person saying the word “wrong.”
JG: And also the entire podcast was inspired by a character named Dr. Wong.
DH: I do agree with you and Donald Glover’s philosophy, which is the thing that is going to make some of that stuff stop is that it becomes hack. Because nothing really powers cultural progression more than stuff becoming trite, powerless, hack, limp. Everybody wants to be funny and edgy and all that stuff, so it brings up an interesting point. Could we just have a big parade where we all dance around and say, “Look how much Wong sounds like wrong!” “Two Wongs Make a Right!”
Yeah. I would love that.
JG: I say, I never underestimate the reliance on hacky jokes by mediocre white guys.
DH: I do notice after I passed 40, there is this crazy phenomenon of dad jokes. And I don’t have kids. But I swear, on my 40th birthday, I just started connecting dots verbally. My humor became more pun driven. Oh that word sounds like that word… That might be a variable we are not measuring. It’s men over 40 turning into dads, whether they want to or not.
The theme song of Dan singing in broken English made me cringe. Who is this podcast for… white folks?
JG: Well, that was a question we bring up a lot in the first episode. Who is this podcast for? We determined that it’s for two kinds of people. We jokingly say it’s for 44-year-old white men and 34-year-old Asian women. But I think that kind of is the demo in the sense that it’s for white guys who might want to say or ask about these things, but literally don’t have any people of color in their life that they feel comfortable talking to. And so they can kind of listen in and eavesdrop on this conversation between two people who are having an awkward talk about race. And then conversely, on the people of color side, there is a lot of stuff I talk about that you don’t get to hear about especially in regards to how the entertainment industry works. First of all, there are already so few people of color in the entertainment industry. And second, when there are conversations about the industry, you rarely ever hear people of color talking about how it actually is or why it’s difficult.
Dan, in episode 3, you describe how being white is like being Optimus Prime.
DH: I used the metaphor, but I don’t expect it to be profound for other people. As a white man I feel like I am being told I am Optimus Prime at the same time as I am being told that my opinion doesn’t matter. But nobody said you were Optimus Prime in the first place. This isn’t the battle with any Decepticon. This isn’t your job. You misheard that. No one is telling you, “Fix this for me.” No one is telling you, “You have something you need to give up.” This is a conversation that is happening in your presence, because people don’t have secret meetings about it.
JG: As the episodes progressed, I stopped being less and less polite in the way that I talk about white people. I think that Dan helps me understand in a more nuanced way where a lot of white obliviousness comes from. Because I think there is a tendency to just get annoyed or get mad at what I call a lot of dumb white guy opinions. Dan humanizes them and explains why he thinks that way and also what made him change his mind.
What will your final episode look like?
DH: That will be like episode 1,000, which is like wishing the world never stops being racist.
JG: It’s a murder suicide. [Laughs.]
DH: The two of us are the only ones left in the world and—
JG: I become incredibly racist, and Dan becomes incredibly woke—
DH: —and then we run towards each other with—
JG: —with racially insensitive weapons.
DH: Mine is a katana.
JG: And what’s mine? A bayonet?
DH: A Scottish Highlander sword.
JG: There you go.
DH: And then it just fades to black.
Follow Kristina Wong on Twitter.