Bowen Yang Went Through Hell to Get to ‘SNL’

Bowen-Yang-LAST-WORD - Credit: Illustration by Mark Summers

In only a few years, Bowen Yang has emerged as the breakout star of Saturday Night Live. I defy you to watch his Gay Jafar rant against Ron DeSantis and not completely lose it. But that’s not all. He also stars in the Comedy Central sitcom Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, appeared in the groundbreaking gay romcoms Fire Island and Bros, and will chew up the scenery as Pfannee in the upcoming Wicked movie-musical alongside Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande. Oh, he also co-hosts a revered pop-culture podcast, Las Culturistas, which was named Podcast of the Year at the iHeartRadio Podcast Awards.

For Yang, the son of Chinese immigrants, his journey to Hollywood included moving from Australia to Canada to Colorado to New York University — where he befriended his Las Culturistas co-host Matt Rogers and Oscar-nominated actress Stephanie Hsu — along with overcoming a strict upbringing that included gay conversion therapy (Yang is openly gay).

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Yang spoke to Rolling Stone about everything from representation and his coming-out story to his time on SNL.

What does Pride Month mean to you in 2023?
Usually, it’s the time of year when I have a lot of friends in town and we have a pretty loose docket of things we do, but this year I’m going to be away working. So this year, on a personal level, it’s about internalizing any community that I usually feel around Pride. Pride is that step beyond acceptance where there’s some power in understanding who you are and why, and being in opposition to certain things. Culture and society afford you this clarity and this strength, and this year, especially, I feel it’s very important.

What inspired you to be a comedian?
I think it came out of necessity from moving around a lot growing up. The big one was moving from Québec to Colorado, which was kind of a cultural lurch for me, because it was going from speaking French in school every day to this completely different social environment in the U.S. The thing that I leaned on was to ingratiate myself in finding the quickest way to a laugh. With that instinct baked in, it led to me watching comedies, watching SNL every week, and after a certain amount of time, you convince yourself that there’s no other option for you.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Carey Mulligan" Episode 1802 -- Pictured: (l-r) Bowen Yang as 'The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic' and anchor Colin Jost during Weekend Update on Saturday, April 10, 2021 -- (Photo By: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Bowen Yang as ‘The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic’ and anchor Colin Jost during ‘SNL’ Weekend Update on April 10, 2021.

I’m half-Korean, so I understand what it’s like not seeing anyone who looked like me on TV and in movies growing up. As someone who aspired to be an entertainer, was that at all discouraging?
I went through this weird cycle with it where once I had some foresight into things, I said, “I would like to be a comedic actor,” other people tamping that enthusiasm down, and me trying to slough it off and move forward. At some point, and I can’t pinpoint when, I started to hang that dream up myself because I felt like there was no proof of concept for it. When you’re a kid, no idea seems too farfetched, and then reality sets in over time and you think, “Maybe this might not work because I can’t picture it.” You also take your lumps with it because you are relegated to people’s expectations of you as far as the parts you go out for. You go through these cycles of discouragement.

Do you feel you’re carrying a certain cultural weight as a successful member of an underrepresented group in showbiz?
I haven’t been on display for that long, but there’s been a pretty steep drop-off in feeling that pressure. In the beginning, I secretly harbored this feeling that I did have some sort of weight on me, and now, looking around at people who have stand-up shows, it’s pretty wonderfully dispersed. And there are people who paved so many avenues toward this: Margaret Cho, and Alec Mapa, and BD Wong — all these queer Asian comedians who intersected with my identities. People have been putting in the hard yards for a long time. Margaret and BD have imparted this perspective that I never could have arrived at on my own. I completely understand now when they say, “The reason why it seems pretty sparse for Asians in entertainment is because there is no inevitable developmental pathway to that.” There is no culture for Asian families to send their kids to theater camp, for example — or there wasn’t before, and now there might be.

What was it like navigating adolescence in a strict Asian household, and what was it like to finally come out?
It felt very isolating at the time I grew up. I thought, “Am I the only person feeling this way?” The thing that everyone has acclimated to is this idea that there is community around this. There’s probably somebody who’s felt alienated in the way you’ve felt alienated, and it’s OK. That was the thing I was lacking growing up. There wasn’t a vocabulary around conversations that I think a lot of adolescents are having right now. You just had to rely on your own instincts. In my teens, it was about laying low while still finding a way to express yourself, but not in the way that would cast you out from the connections you desperately crave; trying to avoid the embarrassment that seems fatal to you at that age. A lot of that gets tied to queerness in ways that back then felt dangerous, felt undesirable, and truly felt like a life-or-death thing. All I would hear back then were stories about how gay kids would get kicked out of the house, and I thought, “That would happen to me if I were to come out, so let’s not do that.” Now there seems to be less of a narrative that you’ll be completely out on your own.

I read that you were made to attend conversion therapy. What was that like for you?
I still have to pull that part of myself, turn it at a different angle, and understand it a different way. I think ultimately that made me value and, in a literal sense, appreciate what I’m able to withstand and survive. You get this sense that you can overcome. I know that sounds kind of dramatic, but I think nowadays that’s pretty important. If I can anecdotally even be like, “Well, I went through this thing, so I’m sure I can get through a hard day on set” — not that those two things are comparable at all — it puts a frame around why you do what you do. For that to be so closely tied to how I’m publicly, openly queer now, is pretty meaningful. Hopefully, it’s an example of how it doesn’t have to end the way you think it ends when you’re desperate. The conversion therapy was coming out of this true moment of desperation for people in my family where they didn’t understand what this was. They thought they were putting care into the situation when really it wasn’t a caring situation, so nowadays I’m able to approach a situation, no matter how fraught it is, and say, “Well, there’s a way to get through this without completely obliterating yourself.”

What was your NYU experience like? Did that make you feel more comfortable in your own skin?
You know, going to undergrad anywhere is a pivotal stop on anyone’s journey toward self-understanding, but for me, that was where I was weighing my options in life where I was like, “Do I want to go to med school, or do I want to pursue this comedy thing?” And I met so many people in school who would end up being my closest friends and closest collaborators to this day. I remember the moment I met Stephanie Hsu, and it was this remarkable thing where I was like, “Oh … she’s Asian, she’s in the acting program, she’s in the sketch group, she’s so funny.” She remained a friend throughout all of college, she remained a friend after college, and she and I have been able to see each other over the course of the last year and be like, “Oh my goodness! Aren’t we so lucky that we’re able to share in this experience together where I get to watch you succeed?”

Did you and Stephanie Hsu perform together at NYU?
She was in the sketch group and I was in the improv group, but we would go to Skidmore College every year in February to perform with other college groups, and it sounds so cute now, but back then we took it so seriously. I remember we did a workshop, and me and Stephanie would do scenes there. It would be improvised scenes where it would be she and I on a date, but we would try to play with gender conventions, so she would be the sleazy guy who tried to hit on me, who was more reticent and a little bit shy. We were trying to get a handle on what it would mean to play against type, and I have indelible memories of that. It’s remarkable to be like, “We came up together!”

TODAY -- Pictured: Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers on Wednesday June 8, 2022 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
‘Las Culturistas’ co-hosts Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers on ‘Today’ on June 8, 2022.

What do you do to unwind?
I feel a little overstimulated — or temporally congested, we’ll say, because my time is pretty jammed up right now — and the only way I can push the accordion out on that is to truly shut my brain off. I know this is not unique to me at all, but I really could stay at home tonight and watch paint dry. I really could just stare at a wall and that would be an amazing night for me. I know that sounds a little concerning, but I would like to be in a sensory-deprivation tank without paying for that experience.

I think that’s why I enjoy watching trash TV because my brain is on autopilot.
Oh, yes. I talked about this with Chloe Fineman at work the other day. I’m trying to get caught up on Vanderpump Rules, and we’re both deep appreciators and scholars of The Real Housewives. There are the superficial aspects that people enjoy, but there’s this really wonderful alchemy of it being a show that has these campy, outlandish storylines and characters that are larger than life, but it’s also presented as this package where you can scale how much you’re engaged with it. You can be glued to the screen every moment, or you can let it play in the background while you’re folding laundry, and it still perforates your conscience in some way that is meaningful. It’s not fully ambient TV but not something that demands every second of your attention, either. I think there should be more TV like that. [Laughs]

The Housewives shows are like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a way.
Without even having to buy into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, know every character, and see every movie.

I remember the headlines when you were hired for SNL — “the first Asian cast member” — and the Shane Gillis controversy happened almost simultaneously, which must have been chaotic for you. What was that experience like?
That was right around the time I was wrapping on the first season of Nora From Queens, and that was a wonderful experience where I was learning from multiple generations of Asian actors after my first season writing [at SNL]. That whole thing happened, and I just remember mentally trying to figure out, “What is the best path forward here?” Very few people work with people who align with themselves in every single aspect, and that’s just what comedians do, right? There are strange bedfellows wherever you go. I was trying to move forward with this attitude of, “Let’s try and make this work.” That probably gave me some healthy perspective on how the historic aspect of me being on the show is always going to be offset by some other quality of showbiz, or how the real world works. I was like, “Let’s just keep it moving.” That’s really helped me. I’ve not let things really stick to me. And I’ve examined this in therapy. It’s not that I lack in coping mechanisms, it’s just that the process and the outcome are defined by the identity, and the identity here is that I’m someone who can make things work. That’s something SNL teaches you: how to MacGyver — or MacGruber — your way into a solution. I was trying to make the best of a bad situation, and it did take me that first season to try and transcend that. Between me and Shane, both of us have tried to rise above that really strange circumstance, and I think we have. He seems to be doing well, and I’ve been very lucky.

What was that first year writing on SNL like?
All the way up to Lorne [Michaels], it’s a weekly challenge for everybody to make it to Saturday and not get anybody killed. My first season there was a pretty big crucible where it doesn’t matter how seasoned you are going in, you do have to negotiate how much of your own voice you mold into the show to serve the show, and how much you service your own comedy. I got swept up in it. I was auditioning for the show for about a year and letting that hang over me — wanting it really badly, but I couldn’t express that I wanted it super badly, because what if it didn’t happen? Once Lorne gave me the call that I was moving to cast, he was like, “This was the plan all along.” He said that he knew I would be scrutinized in a certain way, and he had to make sure I wasn’t going out there without a paddle. That he was setting me up for success and to make sure I wasn’t flailing out there.

Has it been tough for you to find characters to impersonate on SNL due to the general lack of Asian representation in media?
That idea was looming for a while there in the beginning, and especially when I was auditioning. By the third or fourth time that I came in, they would ask me to do impressions, and I felt like I’d run out of Asian public figures. I was like, “Is Lorne gonna know who this person is?” And then I thought, well, I’m just going to take a big swing and go for a Michiko Kakutani impression, even though that’s so esoteric: this New York Times book critic who’s known for never being photographed and being very, very critical and having this elitist taste about her, but that’s what makes her so intriguing. I got to dip into my own internal sense of, “There’s something marginal about being who I am; let me have fun with it.” It’s like the trickster in exile. That’s one prism through which I like refracting things. Now I’m really having fun coming up with things like, “No one else can do that! No one else can be an object, can they? I’ll do that!”

SNL’s become this dating hub. There’s Emma Stone, Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian, Ben Affleck [and Lindsay Shookus], and Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson. Is it strange to be a part of this work environment that’s spawned all these high-profile relationships?
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s because of the queerness that I feel like it doesn’t apply to me almost, but I’m not working with the same pool, so I don’t think about it in the same way. I’m like, “Good for them! I’m sure it’s lovely.” Look, who wouldn’t want to not be on the apps and meet people? I’m having a hard time with it on my own. Outside of work I’m like, “Oh god … I’ve gotta open up this thing to meet these people?” Lorne has a wonderful little matchmaking service, inadvertently. I think that’s a lovely little fringe benefit of being on the show.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE —Jenna Ortega, The 1975 -- Saturday 11th March 2023 -- (Photo By Rosalind O' Connor / NBC)
The 1975, host Jenna Ortega, and Bowen Yang on ‘SNL’ on March 11, 2023.

Are you on Raya?
Am I “on it”? It’s on my phone, and I am engaging with it minimally. I have not really wrung too much out of it.

How do you feel about the way Bros was received?
I think Bros was coming out during a very interesting time in the way that people were still calibrating their distance from going to the theater, and everyone was starting to define for themselves what kind of movie would make them go back to the theater.

And it was a different gay movie — Top Gun: Maverick.
[Laughs] Yeah. People were still mid-process in terms of figuring out the kind of movie they would want to see in the theater again. At that point, I was eating everything up in the theater and so excited to be back. I feel like people watched it and understood it to be a very funny movie. The kind of movie that Judd Apatow is known for — really getting to honor this voice that they’ve nurtured. Billy [Eichner] was so good and generous about pulling in so many people for that, and I was really lucky to be a part of it. I think a lot of the conversation around it had to do with people trying to figure out if they would go back to the theater in the first place, and I think now people have recalibrated. I think it’s a great movie to watch wherever you are, although when it came out a lot was made of the theatrical aspect of it.

I understand you’re in the upcoming Wicked movie musical as Pfannee. What can you tell me about that? And do you have anything else in the pipeline?
I’m popping in and out of filming Wicked, and every time I go, I’m in awe of the scale of it and the intimacy of it. It’s really about the relationship with these two characters, with Elphaba and Glinda — and Cynthia [Erivo] and Ariana [Grande]. I can’t believe I get to be a witness to it. They’re so open, good, and generous with everybody. They’re inviting everybody to watch them. I think it’s going to be really, really great. I’m excited to pull back and work on my own thing. I’ve had a really good time supporting other work that is not necessarily my own that I can put my own imprimatur on, and that’s the exciting next adventure for me.

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