I’ve been an admiring, if not slightly
lurking, fan of Atsuko Okatsuka’s from the day I first encountered her work four years ago. I keep up with her comedy sketches, watch her documentaries, and laugh at her “Grandma and Me” Facebook videos. Atsuko doesn’t spin jokes; she tells stories. Whether it’s hiding in a garage, growing up an undocumented immigrant, or watching a hot dog eating contest, she resists the urge to tie a neat little bow on top of her tales. She leans into the stories, expands on them, and explores the psychology of her reactions. Then, she juxtaposes them with other stories and builds an arc to her set. “If you don’t have an origin story, you fall back on observation,” she tells me, citing tired shticks like “I was walking around the other day” and “you ever notice how coffee looks?” She tells me “a lot of white dudes” do that. Fair enough. Mainstream comedy is still undeniably dominated by white men. In 2012, Atsuko co-founded Dis/oriented Comedy, the first-ever Asian American, mostly female, national comedy tour, as a way to foster a safe, empowering space for Asian American comedians and audience members. She is quick to point out that Dis/oriented isn’t just for Asian people; “it’s for all people of color, immigrants, queer people, and those who don’t usually have a chance on mainstream comedy stages.” Atsuko’s fervent sense of ethical responsibility is a through line in everything she does. But don’t forget, she’s also funny as hell—a shining example that compassion and comedy should coexist. Before you read the interview, I must get this out of the way: Atsuko’s name is pronounced OTTS-koh oh-COTska. Whatever you do, don’t call her Stacey. Chrysanthe Tan: I must confess, I normally hate comedy. It doesn’t do anything for me. But somehow, I think your stuff is really funny. My favorite piece is the Comedy Comedy Festival video posted on YouTube.
Atsuko Okatsuka: When I was naked on stage? A designer said, “I want you to wear my piece in your show. It’s a dress.” I was like, “Sure, I would love that. That’s awesome.” When he gave it to me, I said, “Where is the rest of the dress? This is a bathing suit.” That was a dress? Whoa. How intentional are your costume choices?
Sometimes I play myself down a little bit. I like dressing up, but if it’s a more industry-type show, instead of a dress I’ll wear overalls that make me look like a tarot card reader. That’s so that the audience is not so focused on my nice dress. In comedy, once you step on to a stage, you have to establish your theme and brand very quickly, so they can figure out how to get on board with you. I don’t want my 32
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dress to be my theme. What I like to do is a weird, sad voice where I’m pissed and sad at the same time, so I start that the moment I get on stage. I usually like to see the audience before deciding how I want the set to go. Do you peek out from behind the curtain?
I may go, “That’s a lot of white people tonight…” How do you treat white audiences?
Well, I guess “white” is so broad. I don’t mean that if it’s a white audience, I’ve got to do my set a certain way. Is it that there’s an absence of Asian people in the crowd?
There’s always an absence. Asian people don’t go to comedy shows. Not even to see you?
A lot of them say ‘It doesn’t speak to me…’ Or, if they’re the only Asian in the audience, they get called out, heckled. They get ching, chong, ching, chong, especially sitting up front. So, they never go see comedy. Do you see Asian American audiences at Dis/oriented shows?
Dis/oriented, brings out Asian American communities. I think it’s encouraging to see comedians they can relate to—and not just because we look similar. They connect through our stories. And they won’t get picked on. It’s crazy that we have to start our own platform, just for people to feel safe about seeing a live show. A lot of themed rooms started that way, too: Latin-themed nights, Def Comedy Jam, etc. But funny is funny. Storytelling is interesting. It shouldn’t have to be ethnically themed for it to be relatable. That’s what the alternative comedy scene is trying to do right now. Hold up, alternative comedy? I didn’t realize there was a distinction between mainstream and alternative comedy.
At first, I didn’t necessarily want to make experimental or alternative work. You’re not alternative. You’re just you.
The alternative scene just happened because we didn’t fit the Comedy Store style of comedy; we hated it and just didn’t want the tourist crowd and dick jokes. So we started these underground shows at little bars and laundromats. We weren’t vibing with mainstream comedy. So alternative is a label that you now embrace?
Totally. And it’s thriving now because there’s a positive air and uniqueness, and actual stakes. It’s like Get Out, the movie. It’s in the genre of horror. But if you’ve lived as a black person in America, I would argue that Get Out is