In another, earlier world, when we could hug our grandparents and pack into crowded bars with our friends and even kiss relative strangers on the mouth without fear of endangering ourselves and others, Jenny Yang casually dropped this gem: "self-annihilation is also a foundation of our civilization." We had been talking on the phone about the minutiae of our lives, but suddenly she was on a whole other level. The wisest people are prescient without trying and Jenny’s words could not have landed harder today, with the ongoing pandemic and Black Lives Matters uprisings bringing to the surface all different levels of annihilation that human beings have wreaked on this planet and each other. The collective reckonings cannot wait, but neither can the private ones we must have with ourselves.
“I’m not blaming us that we’ve limited ourselves sometimes,” Jenny tells me over Zoom back in August of this world, from the desert, where she was taking a one-month social media sabbatical. “For people who are not positioned to have power, this world has been so insidious. This culture is so insidious that we have become self-policing human beings. I’m just saying that there’s another way to live.”
Envisioning more for ourselves and the world has always been at the core of Jenny’s comedy. As someone who came up through political organizing for more than a decade before turning to comedy, Jenny is one of the few comics who knows that not only is the personal political, but the political is a rhizome that extends beneath the surface of every joke, in every interaction we have, private or public. When, back in April, Andrew Yang wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging Asian Americans to “show our American-ness” as a way to combat xenophobia, Jenny went into a fugue state for 24 hours and came out of it with a video response that highlighted how absurd and dangerous it is to ask Asians to prove they love America in order to not be targeted and abused.
Parodying Andrew Yang’s recommendation that Asians wear the colors of the American flag, Jenny, in full PPE, stands by the side of a busy road, clad in a red jacket, white t-shirt, blue scarf and jeans holding up a sign in that says, “HONK IF YOU WON’T HATE CRIME ME!” Later in the video, she cheerfully quips, “I really feel like wearing red, white and blue, helps, you know what I mean?” while the captions below tell another story, “if only during WWI Japanese Americans wore the right colors or did more than just have 33,000 Japanese Americans serving in the U.S. military and 800 of them killed in action. Estimates vary but 120,000 of them maybe wouldn’t have been imprisoned in camps or had their farms, businesses, homes and jobs taken from them.” The video ends with Jenny urging her followers, “Asian Americans, let’s remember this moment when it’s time to show other people solidarity and support during their suffering. Everyone has been able to fight for and achieve civil liberties because of the struggle and work of Black social movements.” That same week in Texas, an Asian family, including children aged two and six, were stabbed in a Sam’s Club, and in Brooklyn, an Asian woman was doused with acid while taking out the trash. Two months later, footage was released of George Floyd calling out for his mother as a police officer snuffed the life out of him. Breonna Taylor was sleeping next to her boyfriend in her own bed when cops broke down her door and shot her eight times.
Jenny believes in not just saying the thing but doing the thing. When the pandemic hit, everything came to a halt. Live shows, the life force of stand-up comedy, instantly became a relic of the past. Touch, one of the primary sources of human connection, was essentially prohibited. In order to stay alive, we were all asked to isolate ourselves. As the pandemic stretched out, the question of how to summon up the will to live if we have to forgo all the things that make life worth living was becoming more and more dire. Like many people, Jenny turned to gaming and virtual community to feel more connected to the world. She bought a Nintendo Switch and started playing Animal Crossing. Ever the organizer, Jenny decided that if this game was bringing her so much pleasure and a sense of community then surely, it could do the same for others. Jenny built a comedy club in the basement of her virtual house, figured out how to stream the feed to a live audience over Zoom, and researched Black-led community organizations to donate proceeds to, and with that, Comedy Crossing was born. To date, Comedy Crossing has raised over $20,000 for Black Live Matters-related organizations and mutual aid funds and continues to center joy over despair.
Jenny Yang is my sister, not by blood, but by choice, and so when she tells me near the end of our conversation that “we need to be done with limiting ourselves,” I take it in and I vow and I try, because sometimes you need to hear it from someone who knows what human beings are truly capable of. So here we talk about what it means to stop limiting ourselves as Asian women, as immigrants and children of immigrants, and as artists.
Jenny Zhang: What are your thoughts on “self-care” and how does it connect to your work?
Jenny Yang: The “self-care industrial complex” is the term that I use to describe this obsession I have with the wellness industry. I was trying to put together this monthly live show—Everything’s Fine with Jenny Yang—right when the pandemic hit. I called it a competitive self-care comedy show. It was going to be me hosting with guests and we were going to play little asinine games like “Who can meditate better?”
I’ve benefited from people's increasing interest in hearing the voices of women of color on the internet and in Hollywood. And I acknowledge that. But I also think it's important, at this point in time, to say these voices don’t necessarily just have to talk about their identity directly. Our identity is infused in everything we do, including how we take care of ourselves, who we love, how we to like to make our homes, what it means for us to get therapy or to love self-help books.
I wanted to do a show about it and honestly highlight the fact that most of the self-care industrial complex is also snake oil. A lot of it is high cultural theft of indigenous and non-white cultures and communities. Those traditions and the rituals have been “discovered” or “Columbused” by usually rail-thin white women who are able to repackage it and market it at higher price points. These are the things I wanted to make fun of and to highlight, because self-help has helped me. And self-help is also really problematic.
JZ: How did that lead to you playing Animal Crossing and starting the Comedy Crossing Zoom show?
JY: You know, I was devastated, like everyone, about all of the major changes to my own life as well as the lives of the people I cared about, and just how sad it was for the world. During that time, it was a little touch and go. Just being like, Okay, I feel so unmoored, unhinged. How do we recreate this life? What do I fill my time with when work is over? And the thing that emerged was this delightful cartoon video game made by Nintendo that you play on a Switch. I was like, You know what? Fuck it. I'm going to spend the money for this, even though I usually don't play video games. It just looks so cute.
What attracted me to it was you can actually have island parties. If you don't know the game—you build up this raw island into a community, and you're able to fly to your friend's island. You can have full-on virtual parties when you're on the island and hang out there. So I was like, If I can't hang out with my friends in real life, let me try to do that virtually. It’s the cutest video game ever. You can customize everything. And I realized, I can just build all the spaces I miss in real life on my island, and that included a comedy space.
JY: Yeah. I started a "Jenny's Animal Crossing Besties" group chat on WhatsApp with a bunch of friends. For the first few months of the pandemic, while everything was scary, we could take refuge in this group chat, where every morning and night, there was always someone there to chat with. So much of the game is also being a good friend, and being a good neighbor, and gifting furniture items and clothing items. You can send mail to each other. There's a very social, interactive part to Animal Crossing.
JZ: It's very utopian.
JY: It is. I felt like we could live that way, at least on the video game, because we couldn't hang out in person. Then I was thought, What if I try to do a standup comedy show? What would that take? I was doing real-life comedy shows with other comedians through Instagram Live, YouTube Live—there were so many different platforms that everyone tried. After a month or two of really terrible shows, I figured out the best way to do this is if I get my Animal Crossing screen to go into a Zoom meeting that I can share, and just have the biggest, funnest Zoom meeting possible, where a bunch of people in the Zoom meeting in the audience are unmuted, so it sounds like a real live comedy club in the same space, where we can hear the audience. There's the recklessness and the uncertainty of someone heckling you, but you can also feel the energy of everyone being in the same space, at least through a Zoom room. And that's how I started Comedy Crossing: the world's cutest standup comedy show inside of the world's funnest Zoom meeting.
JZ: It is supercute and you combined all of your interests. The community organizing, comedy, hosting. And self-care in the form of having an amazing space that people can seek refuge in.
JY: And to feel less helplessness and more connected. The murder of George Floyd was just the more extreme and prominent incident that reminded people of the continued need for racial justice. I wanted to feel less helpless as an accomplice to support the revolution and the movements that have been happening. So I was like, I'm going to try to get people to donate money through this cute free show. I took Animal Crossing, this thing that soothed me and made me feel like I had something to look forward to in the darkest period of the pandemic and shared it with others. Honestly, it was the least I could do.
JZ: I think people also forget that you don't best combat misery with more appeals to misery, but with appeals to pleasure, and—
JZ: Joy, yes.
JY: I combined two key technologies that we turned to in the 2020 pandemic into one event that hopefully delights people. From all the feedback I've gotten and the hundreds of thousands of views and RSVPs on my show, and over $20,000 donated from our audience to Black Lives Matter-related causes, I'm very proud of it.
JZ: This is what people want to do. People want to play video games, people want to have fun, people want to laugh. Why not do that and donate money and raise money for movements they believe in, which is what you're doing. Have you always been into cuteness?
JY: I'm a fucking Asian girl, you know what I mean? It's encoded into my DNA to appreciate Hello Kitty.
JZ: I think the Asian girl cuteness is only amplified by the Asian girl grossness, which is why I thought it was perfect that a major national retail toilet paper brand wanted to work with you.
JY: Yes! It made me laugh so hard that they approached me to sponsor three tweets to talk about custom designs that they have for Animal Crossing, because of the show. Usually I say no to all of this stuff, but for some reason this inquiry made me laugh so hard, because I was like, Yeah, I want to be a buttwipe influencer. Why not? Because of this silly, silly show…why not? This is fun. It doesn't surprise me that the Japanese company Nintendo made Animal Crossing and made it so that you can create your own bathroom, and have your character sit on a toilet, and it would flush when you get up. That to me is the perfect epitome of Asian toilet humor cuteness.
JZ: Truly. How did you come to comedy? I know you were a political organizer for a long time and—not many people know this—used to write poetry.
JY: Growing up, the way that I could express my voice and my creativity was through school extra credit projects, where I would rewrite Snoop Dogg rap songs for trigonometry class. I ran for student body president and knew the way to get the entire school to vote for me is if I made them laugh during my speech. I've always been kind of silly and extroverted, but I just channeled that into socially acceptable areas for a little immigrant Asian girl, which was school.
When I got to college, I had my great political awakening. I realized, There's more to the world…. The problems that I've had privately and personally in my family were not just our problems, but also connected to policies and politics and shared by others. So let me go out and change world. Poetry, spoken word, and music were how a lot of the students of color and queer activists held space together and shared stories. That was when I realized, Oh my God, all of those silly, heart wrenching, rhyming and non-rhyming poems I've written since I was in 5th grade—there's a way for me to share that in person? Oh, I'll do that. For most of my 20s, I performed poetry around L.A.
I never identified as a writer or an artist or a poet back then, because I was like, I'm working in politics, I'm going to study urban planning in grad school, I'm going to work for the labor movement. I was so singularly focused. I was such a true believer in wanting to work in politics that anything else felt frivolous or outside of that mission. There were times when Hollywood types were in the audience and gave me feedback, like, "Would you like to write a sitcom? Would you like to be cast in something?" I was like, I don't understand, does not compute.
It wasn't until I moved up in the labor movement and became a director with so much responsibility that I realized I was so unhappy and didn’t see a future in this space. I said to myself, I need to figure out how to make myself happy and to figure out an exit strategy. I'm going to finally open myself up to creative opportunities and what the world is telling me. I'm not going to deny that of myself anymore. I am an artist, I'm a writer, I'm a performer.
Because you only live once, and it's never too late. Comedy was my self-care, you know what I mean? Comedy was what saved my mental health and what saved my life. It brought me joy and creative expression that I didn't have in my day job. I think I was just audacious enough and naive enough to think that I had the kind of energy and thick skin to possibly succeed and make a living off of this. Which…so far, so good!
JZ: It's interesting that you say comedy was your self-care, because I was just going to say that. I was only a labor organizer for a short amount of time, but one thing always stuck with me: There was this one really big campaign that my union led at this hospital. We had an open-ended strike that lasted a really long time, like 16 weeks or something crazy.
JZ: We ended up getting all the things that we fought for, but I remember one of the Filipino nurses came to me and he was basically suicidal after weeks on the picket line. It was like yeah, he's getting $10 more an hour, but that's only the beginning. That's only the minimum. Everyone should be making a living wage, but even after that, what are we going to do so that people have a reason to live?
JY: Yes! 100%! I think that's such a poignant story to highlight how just having your material life taken care of is—
JZ: —just the beginning.
JY: Yeah, it's just the beginning. It doesn't mean that it's a life worth living.
JY: I feel like a lot of immigrant kids, or kids who maybe grew up without a lot of extra spending money, understand this. I grew up with my parents focusing only on our ability to survive and eat and live. But their definition of living—
JZ: —was one of survival. The definition of living gets trapped at the level of material concerns, like a place to live, money in the bank, and food on the table.
JY: Yeah. And that was their idea of good parenting and a good life. Especially compared to the shambles that they grew up in.
JZ: Some of our parents have lived through war, and famine, long stretches of times where there was no food and no shelter.
JY: For me, caring about more than just getting straight A's and having a roof over my head was my way of confronting my own mental health issues—the mental health issues that were not dealt with by my parents. How do we save ourselves? Not just by getting a living wage, but also by being seen as full human beings, by allowing ourselves to be prim and proper, and bawdy and sexy and raw?
We can express the range of who we can be. As Asian American creators in this diversity conversation, I hope that we're shifting that discussion to say: it's not just about being able to tell you our trauma stories. Remembering that is still important. Educating people is still important. But can we also be all the things? In the labor movement—even though sometimes we weren't successful at it—there was a saying: Don't just give me bread, give me roses. It's not just about bread, it's about roses. It's not just about the ability to eat, but it's also about experiencing and having access to beauty.
JZ: There’s never been a day in existence where there isn’t a crisis going on in the world somewhere. So how do we also incorporate dreaming of beauty and of a home that we want to go home to, and not a home that we feel imprisoned or trapped in? It's a very hard shift, and obviously the very first step is to have your material needs taken care of. But it's still not enough. Sure, there’s the initial fear of, How are we going to make it as artists? How are we going to literally support ourselves and pay rent? But then comes the day where you're like, Oh, I can pay rent and I can pay the next month's rent. I don’t have to worry about that right now, and yet I still am in bed at 3:00 PM and can't crawl out.
JY: Totally. Just because the immediate crisis is gone, doesn't mean that the trauma of that crisis leaves our bodies. That's what's really powerful about it, and because the systems that we live in, the world that we live in, often doesn't encourage us to live in the healthiest ways or the most cared for ways. I can talk about that insofar as it affected my experience with love.
JZ: Talk about love!
JY: Yeah, I'll talk about it. I'm in this really amazing relationship right now that I've never had before. Once you’re over 30, people love hearing the story of why you're still single if, on the outside, you seem like you're an attractive person who has their shit together. I'd like to think I am an attractive person who has my shit together. But I've had to figure out that story for myself. So much of my childhood was being in crisis mode. I grew up in an emotionally abusive household where love relationships were not healthy. I did not have an education around what it means to actually know my own needs, much less advocate for them. As I grew up, self-care and self-help were so important in learning to diagnose, understand, and have awareness of what was lacking. Learning my own needs and the tools to advocate for them, whether that's in my love life or in my professional life. That’s a lot of therapy, it's a lot of self-help. It's a lot of journaling. It's a lot of taking time in between relationships. It's a lot of trying things out during relationships.
I was a hetero-ass woman who never, ever dreamed or fantasized about what my wedding would look like, or what having a husband might feel like, because that felt so far away and inaccessible to me. Growing up, men were the source of pain, and they were not to be trusted. And to move into a place where I could both long for and desire a man, but also feel safe with him—that was a game changer. Now I'm in a place well past my 30s, or well past my 30th birthday, let's put it that way. And for the first time, I’m imagining what it would be like to actually make a family. It makes me tear up to think about it because that's the result of a lifetime of unlearning and rebuilding my sense of self and my sense of what it means to live a happy, good life.
JZ: As East Asian immigrant women, we're taught that sacrificing oneself is the highest level of good. On the one hand, it is, but I also had this realization where I was like, What am I fighting for? I'm fighting for the whole world to be able to live. And why do we want to live? So that we can connect to people and feel love and not be fucking abused and killed, and actually be safe. Yet I myself have never spent one second of time thinking, What is love? I have no idea how to love someone or receive love. So in some ways, I was like, I can't be fighting for anything because I don't even know what this thing is that I supposedly want everyone to have access to. What I'm saying is: you do have to liberate yourself too.
JY: That observation is so true. We got into mission-driven causes that are bigger than ourselves because it felt easier to control and handle the external world, to solve the very problems that you couldn't solve in your personal way. It's easier to analyze and be abstract about healthcare policy than it is to fix your parents who refuse to take their medicine because they don't trust doctors. Sometimes, it's easier to fight for Medicare for All than it is to, say, get your mom out of an abusive relationship.
JZ: Or even yourself out. The number of women I know, including myself, who have tweeted and posted about, Don't take this fucking abuse from a man, and then go home and take abuse from all kinds of people.
JY: Yes. That happens.
JZ: Fully taking abuse from friends, bosses, lovers in private while publicly denouncing it. It hurts, but that’s reality.
JY: And that's the perfect example. We know what's right, and we want that policy for everyone. And we want that value and good for everyone, but for it to actually be lived in practice in our own personal lives, that's a whole other set of work. I knew if I were to neglect that personal work, that all of the political activism would mean nothing. I would be an unhappy sap who would be suicidal all the time if I didn't also turn inward the helping energy that I was sending outward.
JZ: Right. That's why you got to give roses to yourself.
JY: Got to give ourselves roses, Jenny.
JZ: It's all about roses, Jenny. We just got so deep into love. Marianne Williamson-Yang Zhang.
JY: Oh my God. Yes. Artists are emotional psychic organizers.
JZ: And that's a word. Maybe just to end things, what are some things that you've been enjoying lately that you want to share?
JY: I've been enjoying making fresh pasta. I've been enjoying love and sex. I've been enjoying not feeling alone when I see everyone's activism and passion for justice on social media. Yeah, man, I've been enjoying feeling blessed to be able to stay healthy and to take care of myself during a really tough time. Pasta, love and sex—what more can you ask for?
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