It’s difficult not to place a lot of hope in Bowen Yang, considering that Saturday Night Live’s newest hire –- he joined Season 45 as the show’s first Chinese-American cast member — has already created a handful of iconic characters just three episodes into the sketch comedy series’ latest run. In fact, I was going to title this piece “Why Bowen Yang Is The Future Of ‘SNL’” so that one day, years from now when Yang has become a central, defining member of the show (like Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, or Mike Myers), I could point to this drivel and cackle like some satisfied sea witch who’s just lured a group of snot-nosed children to their watery grave.
“See,” I’d croon, pointing a bony, wrinkled talon at my Twitter feed, “The prophecy has been realized. Now come, come and retweet my glorious triumph so that I may ascend to blue-check status, you cretins.”
And why shouldn’t I bet all my chips on Yang? After all, he’s managed to accomplish some nearly impossible feats in his short time in front of the camera. He’s given us polished impersonations of world leaders and presidential candidates, he’s perfectly encapsulated the kind of woke bro who aspires to be a SoulCycle instructor, and he’s introduced us to China’s “Trade Daddy.”
Yang’s hiring news may have been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Shane Gillis’ unvetted addition to the show and his swift removal, but perhaps that worked in the young comedian’s favor. If Gillis was the show’s conservative diversity hire, a symbolic olive branch to the right-wingers, Yang’s appointment was a different kind of peace offering, one that offered recognition of SNL’s painfully glaring problem when it comes to casting people of color, and the beginnings of a solution.
And had we been allowed to fully bask in Yang’s moment — to laud the show with praise for casting an Asian American comedian, a member of the LGBTQ community, and a millennial with a fresh perspective and an eclectic resume — maybe the prescribed burden of representation and expected greatness would’ve dimmed the shine a bit.
Instead, while Twitter was focusing its outrage on Gillis racist jokes and, frankly unfunny, bigoted bits, Yang was prepping for his debut, quietly putting in the work, first as a writer for the show, then as a full-fledged cast member.
In 2018, he gave us sketches like “Cheques” with Sandra Oh, and “The Actress” with Emma Stone.
Both skits showed range and ingenuity, mining drama from the banal – who knew the convenience of Venmo and Paypal had robbed us of the drama of furiously scribbling numbers on a thin, rectangular piece of paper, or that a woman’s backstory in a gay porno could be so emotionally charged?
With both bits, Yang and co-writer Julio Torres manage to elevate the mundane, delivering offbeat clips in the vein of Andy Samberg’s strange brilliance meant to go viral, or at least add a bit of flavor to the show’s formulaic lineup.
It’s something the comedian is uncommonly adept at, creating a sense of heightened drama and ridiculous humor from everyday life. He’s done stand-up on Jessica Williams’ and Phoebe Robinson’s HBO special, 2 Dope Queens, relating the risk of buying churros on the subway or using a dating app with your phone’s brightness at zero. He’s paired with Oh to deliver Pepcid to Asian attendees at the 2019 Golden Globes, he’s hosted a popular podcast with Matt Rogers called Las Culturistas, and he’s gained a following on social media thanks to his exquisitely-timed theatrical lip-syncing impersonations of Tyra Banks, Erin Brockovich, and Miranda Priestly.
Yang has a comedy bag full of tricks that he’s bringing to SNL, an arsenal of tools and a range of talent the show desperately needs. For years the core cast has been keeping this ship afloat. Kate McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong — they’ve all been putting in the work to elevate the series to something more than just tired political commentary. It’s been tough, especially considering the news becomes increasingly farcical every week. How do you satirize something as inherently ridiculous and outrageous as Trump and his many follies?
The answer, until now, has been to stick a wig on Alec Baldwin and devote the show’s cold open to simply relaying the president’s latest antics. Sometimes it’s funny, most of the time it’s just a drag, a sad reminder of our current state of affairs. But with Yang’s hiring, and his impersonations thus far, the show has been given a different avenue to tackle politics, one that takes an international slant and manages to deliver sharp takes on the news without simply regurgitating it. Some of that is because Yang is Chinese-American and so, he can play a character like Chen Biao, but most of it is because Yang brings a different sense of humor to the proceedings.
He references Lizzo. He drags white girls named Mackenzie who put on a performance with their metal straws. He skewers Trump’s Ukrainian scandal by making a late-night texting joke about Joe Biden. He creates a character like Biao’s Trade Daddy, an over-the-top, colorful persona that distracts from the newsier stuff, but not for long. We can laugh at Trade Daddy’s oddity, his aggressive confidence, his hilarious barbs about China actually building their wall, and still digest the subversive commentary on America’s global economic status and our deteriorating diplomatic relations.
And even when Yang’s not harnessing his humor to cover world news, he still brings a fresh perspective to the table – like when he plays a SoulCycle instructor named Flint teaching a spin class in White Harlem. The dialogue is funny – Flint hypes up his class by claiming Abraham Lincoln didn’t need to die and explaining how he flushed his computer down the toilet to rid himself of negativity after googling “gay racism” – but what takes this skit to the next level, or at least Yang’s part in it, is his delivery. Anyone who’s taken a spin class, or hell, any kind of group exercise class, can instantly recognize the caricature of this particular type of inspirational speaker. Yang commits to this guy, keeping his voice nearly monotone, drawing out his phrases, going all-in to convince us he’s this woke bro who actually believes he could’ve saved President Lincoln, had he been given the chance.
It’s still early in the season, so I get the need to temper our collective excitement about Yang. He’s a newcomer battling for time against the likes of McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong – comedic powerhouses who’ve earned every bit of screen time and continue to carry the show – but he’s also the best chance the men of SNL have to gain some needed recognition. Besides Kenan Thompson, none of the show’s male cast members feel like standouts, comedians capable of creating iconic, recognizable, recurring characters. Yang can do that, and he already has.
The question isn’t whether Bowen Yang is the future of SNL, it’s whether SNL will give him permission to step into that role. He’s got the talent, the comedic eye, and the likability to become a mainstay on this show and, if SNL can resist the urge to pigeonhole him or conform his comedy to their traditional format, he might just succeed.
No pressure, Bowen.