Jimmy O. Yang is worried his dad might be funnier than he is. He jokes about it in his new special on Amazon Prime Video, Good Deal, and when we talk about the surprise cameo his dad pulls off in the upcoming Netflix comedy Space Force, with Steve Carell and John Malkovich… but the fear is real. And earned. Jimmy O. Yang’s dad, is in fact, funny, but unlike his son — who’s spent the past decade crafting material for his first streaming stand-up set and acting on cult hits like HBO’s Silicon Valley — the senior Yang is just getting started.
So, for now, we’re going to let Jimmy have his moment. It’s more than deserved, especially after watching how the comedian is able to weave cultural commentary of Asian stereotypes seamlessly amongst Matt Damon digs and dick jokes. (To be clear, he’s joking about his own dick, not Matt Damon’s.) And his Space Force character, an Asian scientist much too smart to be taking orders from Carell’s Air Force general, is one of the show’s standouts – especially as the series moves forward and an unlikely romance begins to blossom. We chatted with Yang about the challenge of cracking jokes at his family’s expense for his new special, why he’ll never do virtual stand-up, and how Malkovich campaigned for his dad’s biggest role yet.
In your first stand-up special and right out of the gate, you’re tackling Asian stereotypes with penis jokes. How do you hype yourself up to share those kinds of embarrassing, personal stories with an audience of complete strangers?
That’s the only way I know how to make friends, self-deprecation. No, I think every standup starts by telling dumb dick jokes and masturbation jokes and then as you grow, you become more vulnerable and you’re able to open up a little more to the audience. It’s something I really want to share, especially with the Asian audience, because there isn’t a lot out there. I remember every time seeing any Asian comedian talk about family or whatever, thinking “Yo, that is so true. Nobody’s talking about that. And that’s hilarious.” It made me feel a little more, I guess relevant. I’m like, “Oh man, I feel like my voice is being heard.”
It’s a very weird form of therapy, my friend. Has the timing of this special been on your mind?
Maybe there’s something nice, during these bleak times, to see something that was done before the pandemic. It’s like, “Oh, look at how joyful the audience was. Wow, what a better time.” I think there’s so much conversation about the important stuff that’s going on right now and the reporting of it. So with this comedy special, I was just happy that it could serve as some kind of escape for an hour. Maybe you forget about the bullshit that’s going on outside.
You tackle Asian representation really well in this special, specifically how Hollywood often miscasts Asian stories. Really, it’s all Matt Damon’s fault.
Well, the joke is, it’s not Matt Damon’s fault. He’s an actor and it’s a shitty thing that happened, but I ain’t mad at it. It was a choice. Early on in my career I don’t think I brought up those kinds of things, but I think it’s just my life right now, what I’m going through, the stuff I’m thinking about, my perspective on it. It’s not all like, “Hey, fuck Matt Damon. He should have never [done that].” It’s finding a funny take on it. I don’t represent all Asian opinions. It’s just my opinion. And I get it because I’m an actor — it’s a job. I would have done it. If they cast me in Mount Rushmore — but that’s the bit.
It’s easier to laugh at it now too after the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Parasite.
My set literally starts with, “Asian’s, we’ve been having a couple of good years,” which is so funny, because I don’t think this year now is our best year. I was worried about that. I was like, “Oh shit. Is that statement even true anymore?” But then somebody tweeted me, “Yo, it’s nice to remember that we did have a couple of good years.” And that’s the world doing the comedy for me. I never really do stuff that’s extremely topical because I don’t think there’s longevity in that. I want this special to be funny ten years from now. So it’s interesting. That’s a setup. That wasn’t even a joke. But now, because of the irony, it’s a joke in itself.
We get to learn a lot about your parents, particularly your dad in this special but he’s in another project you’ve got coming up: Space Force.
Who told you that?
I looked it up, man.
On IMDB? Because I wasn’t sure if this was a secret or not. I never asked Greg Daniels.
They don’t give him credit, which is some bullshit.
How’d you find out? Did I talk about it in some other interview?
Your special made me curious. I was like, “I want to see what his dad looks like.” From there, it was just basic detective skills. I’ve got time on my hands.
What are you, some kind of a spy?
Worse. I’m bored.
He’s good, huh? Without giving too much away, he’s standing toe-to-toe with John Malkovich.
He’s definitely coming for your spot.
Absolutely. I’m going to get fired. No, no. It was a very fun, joyous day on set. A couple of days actually. John Malkovich helped him get the job because that episode, we had to hire a couple of authentic older, Chinese people. It’s always the same two guys because there’s not a lot of choices out there. So I jokingly said to Malkovich that bit that I do in my stand up, “Yeah, my dad started acting after I did,” and Malkovich told Greg (Daniels), “Hey, Jimmy’s dad’s an actor. You should consider him.” I didn’t really even have the balls to pitch it, but Malkovich did it for me. So the next day I cut together a little acting reel for my dad from all the previous commercials and little parts that he’s done. And then I sent it to Greg and he got the job that way. So we all really helped him and he was so excited to be on set. I think he was nervous, but it didn’t show, he was such a professional.
It’s funny, because in the special we get to hear how unimpressed he was with your career choice.
It’s an interesting 180 he made. At first, when I told him I was comedian he wasn’t down with it. When I told him, I want to act he’s like, “Okay, whatever man.” Then, when I found success, he never went through the phase of just accepting and congratulating, like, “Oh my God, I’m proud of you. Good job.” He went completely past that and the other side is like, “Okay, well I can do it. What’s up, hook me up with a job.”
What was it like, working on Space Force with a comedy icon like Steve Carrel and Malkovich?
They’re all geniuses. I love everyone in that cast. It’s probably not as loose as The Office, but we definitely improvised quite a bit, especially Steve. Sometimes I’m sitting in that launch room, just watching Steve and John go at it and I’m just like, “Holy shit. I’m watching this master class going down right now.”
Now that the first special is done, what’s next for you in the stand-up space?
I think it’s growing as a comic. It’s allowing yourself to sit in those stories that are meaningful and not being nervous that the audience isn’t laughing for a minute or two. I always try to find a balance. I’m still a stand-up. I think in this special it’s 80% just jokes, and then 20% I open up, get a little more personal, tell you some stories in that. I like that balance. Whereas the next special, would I skew a little more in another direction? I don’t know yet. I don’t have any material now that 10 years’ worth of material is on this television set.
Is comedy going to have to adapt to this new normal we’re living right now?
You can’t do standup in a vacuum. I’ve seen some friends trying to do virtual standup shows on Zoom. That’s just my worst fucking nightmare. Why would you do that to yourself? There’s no audience, no response. What are you sitting on your chair doing it? Also, people can record it forever, which is the worst thing that could happen. I’ll be interested to see what the temperature is out there because things aren’t going to be the same. What will the audience laugh at? Would they want to hear my perspective on the pandemic or just want escape? We’ll see.
So if I see you doing a Zoom stand-up special, you’ve hit rock bottom and I should call for help.
Just call a wellness check on me, please.
After donating to your Patreon, of course.
Oh yes. Fan Only too.
Netflix’s ‘Space Force’ streams on May 29.