Comedian Bowen Yang shares his professional experiences in student webinar


Juliet Norman

Bowen Yang attends Zoom webinar with Emerson students

By Juliet Norman, Opinion Editor

Saturday Night Live featured player Bowen Yang joined Emerson students during a live Q&A titled “A Night with Bowen Yang” on Tuesday night. During the hour-long Zoom webinar, he discussed Andrew Yang’s run for New York City mayor, the making of Saturday Night Live’s Sara Lee sketch, and how he brings his queer identity into sketch comedy.

The webinar, hosted by Director of Student Leadership and Engagement Jason Meier and moderated by sophomore Monica Keipp and senior Max Boone.

Meier, who has been working on getting Yang to speak for the event since November, said Student Engagement wanted to kick off the spring semester with something exciting for the college’s “Week of Welcome.” Meier said he handpicked Keipp and Boone as student moderators for the event.

 “I just knew they would have such good chemistry and so much to say and learn from,” Meier said in an interview. ”That was maybe the easiest decision I’ve had to make all year.” 

Yang joined the cast of SNL in 2018 as a writer.  A year later, he was promoted to featured player, also known as a trial cast member, for the show’s 45th season. Yang said that, while he does miss the creativity of the writers room, his work acting as Edmund on Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens prepared him for his on-camera role as a cast member.

Bowen Yang, who impersonates Democratic mayoral candidate Andrew Yang frequently on SNL, got positive feedback on his performance from the politician himself. Andrew Yang reached out to commend the portrayal during his primary run in 2019. 

During the webinar, Bowen Yang revealed that after the former presidential candidate saw his impersonation, Andrew Yang kept in touch with him. Andrew Yang called Bowen Yang around Christmas to let him know he was planning on announcing his run for New York City mayor.

“I was getting in the shower, completely naked. I get a phone call from an unknown number. I was butt-naked talking to Andrew Yang on the phone, being like, ‘congrats,’” Bowen Yang said.

Since 2016, Yang has also hosted Las Culturistas, a pop culture podcast, where he and his co-host, Matt Rogers, have perfected their signature segment, “I Don’t Think So, Honey!” Yang called the podcast segment “the lowest-concept idea.” 

Yang said the segment has lasted so long because of how little preparation goes into creating each episode. “It’s just us being loose and talking extemporaneously,” Yang said. 

Yang said that even after being on television, he still gets nervous before auditions. 

“I remember auditioning for SNL before I got hired as a writer and thinking, ‘well, I’ll never be nervous for anything ever again because this is the most nerve-wracking thing I could imagine,’” Yang said. “But then, of course, things just sort of level up with you as you move along. So it’s kind of fun that it never goes away.”

Yang helped create the Sara Lee sketch that later starred him, Harry Styles, and Cecily Strong. In the sketch, they make fun of the bread company Sara Lee with ridiculous social media posts. Styles’ character captioned photos with personal updates that chronicled his sexual frustrations as a queer man. Yang said the sketch that the writers originally created for comedian John Mulaney, as the intern, was to be paired with the brand Nestlé. 

“This was right around the time when it had been an established phenomenon in social media that certain corporate accounts would be tweeting from, like, a weird, disconnected voice,” Yang said. “Mulaney had also occupied this very fun space in people’s imaginations in terms of struggle, Twitter, and people just love to attach a queerness or a queer thirst to Mulaney.”

As SNL’s third openly gay male cast member, Yang noted that his perspective for queer comedy is limited to his experiences as a cisgender man. Yang—who often worked closely with writer Julio Torres in the writer’s room—said that they couldn’t create sketches which fully showed universal queer experiences. Yang said he wants all of the queer community to be able to somewhat relate to the sketches that he writes.

SNL has had this whole legacy of queer writers from the beginnning,” Yang said. “The way that I try to weave in some other thread in my experience is that there’s a way to present this to the audience.”

Yang said he was hesitant to add a reference that suggested one of his characters, Chinese military general Chen Biao—known on the show as “Trade Daddy”—might be queer, but ultimately decided to go with it.

“You kind of have to accept this with equal weight in order to appreciate the joke and once you do, hopefully you like it,” Yang said. “So that’s the method so far.”

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic started at the tail end of SNL’s 45th season, resulting in the last three episodes being produced virtually from the cast members’ homes. Not having access to NBC studios was challenging for Yang, who had to figure out how to work a ring light, fit a green screen in his apartment, and improvise without the props he normally had access to on set.

“I was barely in those shows, and I think it’s because I was really struggling with the way things worked,” Yang said. 

The experience of performing for SNL from home, as with many other television programs, set new standards for producing mainstream entertainment with less of a production team. Yang said that because media production is constantly evolving, it’s important for performers to find something they can do well for a  unique audience.

“The best comedian is who people love; people who you would listen to talk forever,” Yang said. “Just set up the foundational building blocks first and then you’ll have a sense of ‘oh, I can do something differently that no one else has seen yet.’ And that’s what really grabs someone.”