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Comedian Jimmy O. Yang On His New Comedy Special 'Good Deal'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Comedian Jimmy O. Yang is busy these days despite being on lockdown. He has a new Netflix show coming out later this month called "Space Force" starring Steve Carell and John Malkovich, among others, and a new comedy special on Amazon Prime. But among all the filming and press, there's a joke in his special that suggests he's been preparing for quite some time for social distancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "JIMMY O. YANG: GOOD DEAL")

JIMMY O YANG: My dad still calls me, like, 20 times a day just to check up on me. It's annoying. But I understand that's how he shows love. I was talking to my friend here. And he was, like, oh, I haven't talked to my dad in three weeks. I'm like, you do understand if I don't call my dad back in three hours, he's going to call 911. Nine-11 - what's your emergency? My son is dead.

(LAUGHTER)

YANG: It's like, sir, is everything OK? Is your son dead? He's like, no. But he's dead to me. OK. Bye.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The actor from "Silicon Valley" and "Crazy Rich Asians" joins me now. Jimmy O. Yang, welcome.

YANG: What's up, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not a lot, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of this moment, you recently wrote an article for Bon Appetit titled "All I Need In Quarantine Is My YouTube Abuela And Carniceria 21." By the way, I love this lady. Her name is Dona Angela, who cooks out in the countryside in Mexico. And it has just gone viral. People love her.

YANG: I know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you do, too.

YANG: I watch her every night before I go to sleep. It's just so soothing. I don't understand Spanish. So I don't really know what she's saying.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What?

YANG: And there's no subtitles. But I can - like, now I know garlic is ajo, right? Like - and, you know, the chiles and the tomatoes. And she always says sabrosas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

YANG: And now I understand what that means.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tasty.

YANG: So I'm learning Spanish from this lady, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, hola, mi gente, she says. Hey, my people.

YANG: Hola, mi gente. That's my favorite.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) You feeling like you're a good cook now?

YANG: Lulu, not to brag - I've always been a good cook, OK?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. I'm sorry. Yeah.

YANG: Now I'm just forced to be a good cook now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Let's talk about the special. Tell me a little bit about this because it tells sort of your story. I mean, you were born and grew up in Hong Kong until you moved to LA at 13 years old. And how - you talk about you did grow up like the Asian stereotype.

YANG: Absolutely. I grew up playing ping pong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

YANG: I grew up playing the violin. And I was extremely good at math.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And then when you arrived in the U.S., you learned English and American culture watching BET "Rap City" and stand-up comics on that channel. And is that where your love of standup was born and comedy?

YANG: That was my love of stand-up and my introduction to stand-up. There wasn't really stand-up growing up in Hong Kong, at least the time when I was there. So when I moved here, the first stand-up comedy I saw - because I was so obsessed with hip-hop music videos - I would watch BET all day. And then at night, they would switch to BET "ComicView." And I saw all these comics doing five to 10-minute bits. And I was like, oh, my God. What is this art form? I've never seen this. And it's so refreshing. It wasn't just jokes, right? Beyond that, it's telling me about American culture, even on a very surface level.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And you have this whole bit that's hilarious in the special about a rap group that you ended up forming with your friends.

YANG: Oh, boy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it was called The Yellow Panthers.

YANG: It was The Yellow Panthers, man. It was me, my black friend Julian (ph) and my other friend Yuji (ph), who is half-black and half-Japanese. So we're perfectly one-and-a-half black dudes and one-and-a-half Asian dudes. And it was named Yellow Panther in jest.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

YANG: Probably wouldn't be OK these days - but no. I still have some Yellow Panthers tracks. It's - there were some good jams. I got to tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YELLOW PANTHERS: (Rapping) Woke up in the a.m. to the radio - stereo bumping to my favorite show. The prince called me up - said for sure, for sure...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Well, you do a great impersonation of your dad in this special.

YANG: (Laughter) Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is a very central figure in this. Has he seen it yet?

YANG: He has not seen it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh.

YANG: One time, I did bring him out to Vegas. It was a big show I was doing. And then afterwards, my friend, who was the opener, asked him - was like, hey, Richard. Do you think your son is funny? He did such a great job, right? Isn't he so good? And then my dad just - super dry just told us all - he was like, no. Jimmy is not funny...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

YANG: ...In front of everyone that was, like, lining up to try to shake my hands. Like, he didn't care. But I think he's came around. He doesn't understand stand-up, but he understands acting and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he's also an actor.

YANG: He started acting after I did because he's like, so - if it's so easy, he can do it. I can probably do it. I was like, fine, you know? So I signed him up with my agent. I was like, go see how hard my life is. But then that completely backfired 'cause he started booking everything because he's actually, like, pretty good. And maybe just a little surprise - I don't want to give too much away. But "Space Force" that's coming out - you just might see Richard O. Yang in that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's amazing. You joke in this that there's a lot of pressure when it comes to representing the Asian population and that there's a lot of expectation among the Asian community for you to represent them. Do you still feel like that, I mean, now that you're farther along in your career?

YANG: Oh, I mean, moreso, right? - (laughter) and I try to not think that way. I'm just trying to be funny. I'm just trying to do my job, right? But it would be also reckless to not think about it at all. I wish I was white. Nobody asked Matt Damon about representation - right - you know? And I think, hopefully, the conversation will only go away if there's enough diverse representation even within your own ethnicity. I think, you know, when they said the problem with Apu or, like, Long Duk Dong, those kind of characters back in the day, they were amplified, like, tenfold because they were the only Asian and Indian characters, you? Know. But now I think with a movie like "Crazy Rich Asians," you saw a whole spectrum of Asians. If you see a whole spectrum of people, I can just represent a character that reminds you of your, you know, annoying cousin or something because that's what acting should be, right? It should be about the characters, not to take on the brunt - the weight of, like, an entire race.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does it feel right now with the rise in racism against Asian Americans due to the coronavirus outbreak?

YANG: It's extremely disheartening. And I try to do my job in entertaining. And, hopefully, if you laugh with me, you know, on this special, on "Space Force," then it becomes like, OK. I feel like I actually know an Asian friend in my life, even if you don't have one or whatever - to be just more relatable and humanizing the experience to entertainment. And, hopefully, that helps. But yeah, it's sad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you do to find humor in a moment like this?

YANG: I think you have to find humor in a moment like this, right? This is the time where humor is important. People's got to laugh. And I think it's a good time for, I guess, distractions and get drunk with your friends on Zoom and kind of shoot the crap with them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jimmy O. Yang's new comedy special is "Good Deal" on Amazon Prime. And he also stars in the new Netflix show "Space Force" out later this month. Thank you so much.

YANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.