Jenny Yang and Soledad O'Brien | The 2021 MAKERS Conference

Jenny Yang, Comedian, Writer, Actor and Host, in conversation with Soledad O’Brien, CEO of Soledad O'Brien Productions, about the recent increase in hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, how to turn comedy into activism, and how we can show up for each other in the face of adversity.

Video Transcript

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Hi, MAKERS audience. I'm Soledad O'Brien. And it is my pleasure to interview the hilarious comedian, Jerry Yang. Nice to see you, Jenny. How are you?

JENNY YANG: I'm so good. Good to see you. I like that we're pink today.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: I know. And solidarity with MAKERS, I guess. Listen, I have so much to talk to you about. And some of it's fun and some of it's stressful, because it has been a crazy time. It's been a crazy time. Before we get to the stressful stuff, I want to start with comedy. How did you become a comedian? Because you started off as a labor organizer. And it doesn't seem like that would lead to comedy at all ever.

JENNY YANG: I don't know. I feel like our MAKERS audience understands what it means to have many chapters in their lives, right? And I think for me, I've always been a performer. I'm an immigrant, so I've had to perform on the stage of learning English. And then I got really into trying to save the world, as one does.

But to me, I realized, OK, I can try to save the world, but do I have to do it by being super stressed out in an environment that might not support my creativity? So I decided to become a comedian. Honestly, I was burnt out. I was going to sock my coworkers if I didn't do something creative.

So rather than be charged with assault and battery, I think it's best if I try improv and stand up comedy. That's what happened. Let's-- listen, we're honest here.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Yes. Honesty is--

[INTERPOSING VOICES].

So if you were doing standup and you're doing improv and then, of course, COVID-19 comes about, what were your first thoughts about sort of everything live with an audience, which I would think is essential to a comedian, suddenly it's like, no more.

JENNY YANG: Yeah. I mean, stand up comedy is defined by standing up in front of people, you know? And it just kind of took the wind out of everyone's sails. I think, you know, I was sad about the world. I was sad about everyone being sick, but also, you know, we had-- as comedians, we had our hopes and dreams of what we wanted to do for 2020.

And there we were in our home with no audience and maybe a TikTok dance that we could do. You know what I'm saying? Like, that's what we were left with. Which, listen, I'm not-- I'm not saying don't do TikTok dances. I did it at the beginning of the pandemic.

But it was a lot of, like, what do we do now? How do we maintain this craft that really requires daily practice? And so that's when I started an online stand up comedy show inside a video game called Comedy Crossing. That's how I adapted. I did it online.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: You started a comedy club inside "Animal Crossing." So for people who are not knowledgeable about "Animal Crossing," explain exactly what you did and how you did it. And then talk to me about how it's gone, because it's been a huge hit.

JENNY YANG: Yeah. I mean, I think no one wants to not be around real people. But you know, in light of what was happening in the world, it felt very empowering to at least be with other people on a Zoom meeting-- like, the gentlest, funnest, free Zoom meeting where you get to see your favorite stand up comedians perform in a little picture window in the corner while the share screen is of my Animal Crossing video game, of cute little Japanese animals and people.

Like, how do you not-- this is how we survive. Honestly, it was my way of surviving so I didn't just cry myself to sleep every night because the world was so oppressive. And so it just-- it made me feel better. It brought people together. And it was also around the time that George Floyd Jr. was murdered. And I felt like it was something I could do by doing the show and then getting donations to support Black Lives Matter related causes.

And so I think all around, it felt empowering, despite their circumstances. And it was just a matter of figuring out the technology. And these days, I feel like MAKERS folks know, like, there is no limit because of technology now. We have access to everything. So yeah, it was really a life-saver, honestly.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Yeah, we've been forced to innovate, which has been, I think, a good thing, actually, that's come out of a lot of really challenging things over the past year. Why did you pick Black Lives Matter? And how much money have you been able to raise?

JENNY YANG: We've raised about $40,000 since June of 2020 with some breaks. And it's just because of our generous audience and just people who managed to find us. I mean, I chose Black Lives Matter because I feel like we are in a historical moment and it is a matter of participating or not. I think what's happening now is very important.

And to me, you know, my liberation as an Asian-American woman is connected to that of Black Americans. And so it was a no-brainer to say, you know, let me just do my part to support what needed to be done.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Do you think that people are beginning to understand this idea that we're sort of all in the same boat together and that fixing these problems for one community-- it's been interesting to me to watch the solidarity, I think, between African-Americans as we've seen more violence against Asian-Americans and Asian people generally.

There was a horrible story just the other day, a man and his baby. I mean, just-- and there'll be another one tomorrow, because it's been absolutely awful. And I guess the one thing that's been encouraging is to see people in all kinds of communities step forward and say, this is not OK. Often, as you know what happens, is each community kind of has to tackle it by themselves.

Are you surprised by that, number one? And what do you think we have to keep doing to make sure that each community sees itself in another community's struggles?

JENNY YANG: Yeah, I'm not surprised at all at what's been happening. You know, I feel like the violence has always been there. The solidarity between groups has always been there. It's just a matter of having this beautiful technology we have in our hands called our cell phones that has allowed us to document everyday instances, as well as amplify them.

And so I think to me, Asian-Americans have a long history of solidarity work with others, and Black folks and vice versa, and other groups. I think it's a very special moment now, though, that we all are now kind of forming this collective consciousness that, oh, yeah, like, this is all happening. It's all happening to each other in our own special way, but it's all connected.

And so I think I feel hopeful that because of the internet, social media, and our ability to share notes, so to speak, that we can continue to weave our stories together rather than stay siloed in a way that maybe we thought we used to be.

And that's what gives me hope. I think if I didn't have that hope, then I would just continue eating my ice cream and drinking my cocktails only. I mean, I'm still going to continue doing that, [? Soledad. ?] But--

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: But with hope.

JENNY YANG: Not only that.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Do you think-- it was interesting to me when George Floyd was killed the number of people who-- I think it opened their eyes. And I feel like I've been doing documentaries on this for a long time. So number one, they hadn't been watching my documentaries. But number two, like, this is-- his killing was not the first, not the 10th, not the 50th. And yet, for them, it was kind of the first, most shocking, most eye opening.

And I think same with violence in the Asian-American community. You know, people are stunned. And you want to say, yeah, well, it's been there before. Do you see society changing as everyone's eyes are open to this?

JENNY YANG: Yeah. I feel like because of social media we have created a movement of voices that traditionally have been kept out by the gatekeepers who are finally saying, this matters, and you need to do something and say something about it. And I feel like that collective pressure-- and I'm very proud to be a part of that social media movement of the last 10 years, amplifying diverse voices, having folks be called to the mat in case they do something that's a little off color, so to speak.

And so I believe that that movement for a greater awareness, for more pressure to say or do something about injustices, is only going to benefit everyone, and especially benefit those who are the most vulnerable and usually marginalized.

And so I hope that, you know-- it's hard, right? Like, being held accountable for something you did wrong, whether you personally did it or historical institutional racism or other isms did it, doesn't feel good. Someone being like, Soledad, I'm sorry, you did something wrong and you need to atone for that. That doesn't feel good.

But I hope that through art, through joy, through conversation, through mutual support we can say, it's OK. We're all in this together. It's going to suck sometimes. I'm going to mess up. You're going to mess up. But we are trying to move toward this beautiful vision of justice together.

And so that's why I think it's so important to have media folks like you, artists, other people who have a platform to be able to say, it's OK to speak up. It's OK to be held accountable. And so it's OK to atone and make up for what we've done wrong.

And so that's my hope and vision moving forward for all of this mess.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: There's a narrative that would say, well, that's cancel culture. I would call it being held accountable. I mean, truly. Like, and you hear people talking about the cancel culture while they're doing interviews on many networks talking about how they've been canceled live on TV, which is surprising.

But truly, there's a sense, like, that's cancel culture, versus a sense of, wow, I really regret what I did. I'm sorry. I screwed that up. And how do I fix it. And maybe shouldn't get the promotion, shouldn't get the massive next big thing, next big job, next book on a big platform. Do you think-- is it a thing, this cancel culture idea? Or is it just being held accountable?

JENNY YANG: I mean, I feel like you said it yourself. Cancel culture is being thrown around like a pejorative or a dirty word by the very people who say they're being canceled while they're still speaking on a platform that reaches millions. And so to me, you know, being truly canceled means that you can't make a living at all.

Now, does it mean you're going to make a living from the thing that you're canceled from, so to speak? Maybe not. But I believe most of the people who have been held accountable-- and I'm including all the folks who were spoken about during the MeToo kind of uprising in recent years-- that they're going to be just fine. You know what I'm saying? Like, they're going to be just fine.

Maybe they don't have the big show that they originally had. But I think cancel culture is not necessarily a real thing. I think a cultural shift, I feel like an advancement of the culture toward more justice, toward saying, maybe what we used to do is not OK anymore, I think that's just growth. That's growth. Natasha Rothwell's GIF, growth. That's what we're talking about. Shout out to [INAUDIBLE].

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Is it hard to find things that are funny in an environment where we've got a pandemic, you've got active violence? I mean, there's a lot of bad things happening in the world. And you're a comedian. Do you feel some days like, oh my gosh. There's nothing fun about what I have to say to an audience?

JENNY YANG: No. Oh my goodness. When things are the harshest and the saddest, that's when you need humor the most. I mean, I feel like comedy is born out of so much of a legacy of marginalized groups in America, from Jewish folks to Black folks. And I feel like we're living-- as a comedian, we stand on the shoulders of those giants who took their pain and the pain of the time and turned it into something beautiful and something that could give us life.

And so I completely object to the idea that we can't find humor in the toughest of places, because that's just a matter of human survival.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Have you learned anything about yourself from the pandemic? Is there something where you're like, wow. Going through this for a year now, several months, I figured out that I can do or I am what?

JENNY YANG: I think during this pandemic I have realized that I already had the survival skills and the resilience within me to be able to make it through this unprecedented time. And I think a lot of my friends who are immigrants, who might have come from more working class backgrounds, honestly, who are people of color, who are differently abled, have sort of mentioned through our casual conversations that, as hard as everything has been, as many losses as people have suffered, for those of us who have been fortunate enough to survive, a lot of that survival comes from, frankly, being comfortable with not having much or having had experienced hardship.

I mean, people are complaining about needing to stay home, not being able to go out and dine out or do things. Well, you know, when you grow up with not a lot of extra spending money, you just kind of figure that out. And so having limited mobility-- all of it. And so I think that's one of the things that I feel very fortunate and blessed to have had that kind of resilience generationally through my life taught to me and within my experience so that we can at least survive and have our souls be intact.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Sometimes a struggle and growing up in a struggle can be an advantage in some way in the big picture of life. Jenny Yang, what a great opportunity to chat with you. Thank you so much. Really, always a pleasure. You're so much fun and you're so funny. And I always love talking to you.

JENNY YANG: Always. You're the best.