Fans of The Walking Dead might like to think that Steven Yeun — who played Glenn Rhee on the series for seven seasons — basically began his career on the long-running AMC series. A look at his IMDb page, in fact, might suggest as much. Before being cast on The Walking Dead, his biggest screen credit was as a guest star on one episode of Big Bang Theory.
After six years on The Walking Dead, a variety of roles in indie flicks (like Okja and Mayhem), Yeun is getting a lot of attention for his role in Minari, which won both the grand jury and audience prizes at Sundance this year. Yeun is also poised to be nominated for an Oscar for the role, although the movie itself is being unfairly sidelined as a foreign-language film by the Golden Globes.
What many people may not realize, however, is that before landing his gig on The Walking Dead, Yeun’s career path was in comedy. He studied improv in college in Michigan and then moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy through Second City, breaking into the troupe after nailing his audition with a sketch written by Steve Carell. Yes, that Steve Carell, from The Office.
The Carell sketch audition got him into Second City, after which he toured the country with the troupe alongside the likes of former SNL star Vanessa Bayer. “What I realize now about Steven is something they used to tell us in Chicago all the time, that the best sketch comics are often just amazing actors. Some of the stuff we were doing was extremely stupid, and he had such great comedic timing,” Bayer told Variety.
Yeun hit a wall at Second City, however, because he didn’t see a way into SNL for Asian men. “I didn’t see a pathway through Second City to get to ‘SNL,’ probably because there was nobody in front of me to lead the way. I was also thinking, who could I even play in popular culture that wasn’t an accented foreigner?” Yeun told Variety.
Yeun, however, has come to appreciate Bowen Yang — SNL’s first Asian American cast member — as much as the rest of us over the past year. “What’s been nice about recontextualizing that moment is to see what Bowen Yang is doing now on ‘SNL.’ He’s not playing a stereotype, he’s owning the multitudes of what Asian Americans can be or how Asian people are seen. I think that’s the thing that I wasn’t aware of or maybe brave enough to contend with at the time.”
The only logical thing for SNL to do at this point, of course, is to ask Yeun to host. He’s got a comedy background; Minari will be released wide in February; and Yeun will almost certainly be a huge topic of conversation around the Oscars. Do it, Lorne. It’d be one hell of a way to kick off the New Year.