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Arts & Culture

Comedic Identity

Late-night Writer, Stand-up Karen Chee’s Performance Marks Asian American Studies Anniversary

By Dan Novak M.Jour. ’20

Comedian and writer Karen Chee peforms Friday at the Stamp Student Union to help mark the 20th anniversary of UMD's Asian American Studies program.

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

Comedian and writer Karen Chee peforms Friday at the Stamp Student Union to help mark the 20th anniversary of UMD's Asian American Studies program.

Among the items on the list of definitely-not-funny things are novel coronavirus and racial prejudice. Ask comedian and “Late Night With Seth Myers” writer Karen Chee to weigh in, however, and dark humor emerges.

“It’s not an easy time for Asian people,” the comedian said during her stand-up set Friday at the Stamp Student Union, describing how even the proper sneezing-into-her-sleeve technique she used on her train ride from New York was met with horrified reactions from fellow passengers. The laughing, nodding UMD audience was far more receptive.

Chee carries her perspective as a Korean American into her act, which riffs on everything from nonsensical microaggressions (“You’re English is so good!”) to self-deprecating bits about relationships and birth control, to her immigrant father’s decision to pick his American first name, Kenny, after a certain smooth jazz musician whose name ends in an initial that rhymes with Chee.

Chee, who at 25 has already contributed pieces to The New Yorker, The New York Times and McSweeney’s, and wrote jokes for 2019 Golden Globes, performed at Maryland as part of the 20th anniversary of the university’s Asian American Studies Program.

She sat down with her thesis advisor at Harvard University, current Asian American studies lecturer Terry Park, for a public talk about her blossoming career and to answer questions from the audience about what it’s like to navigate comedy as an Asian woman. Here are some of the high points:

The importance of ethnic studies
Chee wrote her thesis on the Chinese American novelist, poet, playwright, actor and satirist H.T. Tsiang, whose work was never taken seriously by American publishers. Learning about Tsiang, who died in 1971, and other Asian artists and comics in an academic context “legitimizes the existence of Asian American comedy,” she said.

“Asians … are really rooted in this country in a way that we don’t ever learn about,” she added. “Learning about him was really empowering.”

Learning to deal with failure
Because comedy is a field in which failure is so common, Chee initially focused on writing and performing as much as possible, knowing that what she produced probably wouldn’t be very good. She was confident that would change.

“I know failure is going to happen in large chunks at the beginning, but hopefully less so the more I do it,” she said.

Chee also described seeing a famous comedian trying new material and bombing on stage for 45 minutes as a real learning experience.

“You can be that amazing at comedy and still completely bomb,” she said. “Everybody fails.”

Using cultural diversity to one’s advantage
Chee said she never felt fully accepted into the insular Harvard comedy community of privileged white men. However, she said that her background is much more embraced at "Late Night," where everyone is “very excited about me not looking or sounding like Seth Meyers.”

She said that while it might seem that being Asian, and thus heavily outnumbered, would be a hindrance in the comedy world, she’s learned to use her experiences and perspective as an Asian woman to her advantage.

“Every single book or movie we had to watch was about a white man, so I am so good at knowing that perspective,” Chee said. “It’s been drilled into me. So I know your perspective, but I also have mine, and you don’t have mine.”



Schools & Departments:

Office of Undergraduate Studies

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