“Saturday Night Live” made headlines last month after removing one of its newly hired cast members Shane Gillis for homophobic slurs and racist remarks toward Chinese people. While this news is important and should be a catalyst to discuss discrimination of marginalized groups, it’s important to also raise awareness about Bowen Yang, the first Asian American member to join the cast after 44 seasons of no such representation.
It may not come as a surprise, but Asians have been largely underrepresented in the media and not just on “SNL.” According to a 2019 report published by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University, Asian Americans make up only 2% of people in newsrooms, and that number drops to 1% for TV News Directors. In addition to this, only 4.8% of the characters in the top 100 films in 2017 were Asian American — that means that 37 of the movies did not have a single Asian speaking character, according to a report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
“SNL” has specifically had a scarce number of Asian roles — there have been only a total of six Asian hosts. Additionally, there have been times where writers, like Akira Yoshimura, played the roles of Connie Chung and Sulu from “Star Trek” skits due to limited staff options. And Yang, who joined “SNL” as a writer last season, wrote multiple sketches, such as “The Actress” starring Emma Stone, and even portrayed Kim Jong-un in “Kremlin Meeting” alongside Sandra Oh.
Just based on experience, it’s a no-brainer that “SNL” promoted Yang from a writer to a series regular. However, what’s more important to highlight is that Yang’s inclusion will give Asian Americans a voice. In comedy, it’s crucial to have someone telling jokes and stories that the audience can relate to. Everyone can joke about common issues that happen in everyday life that may yield a funny response. However, by supplementing the “SNL” cast with an Asian American cast member, the show can now tap into identity topics within that community. In essence, “SNL” has access to a wider range of sketch possibilities that can reach a broader audience.
Look at 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” starring an all Asian American cast. While the movie followed a typical romantic comedy plot and didn’t address any deep messages, its ground-breaking feat came from the fact that Asian Americans were given the spotlight as lead characters. “SNL” must take a lesson from this and realize that groups cannot be reduced to overshadowed sidekicks or extras that are deemed irrelevant. As I watched Asians on-screen, both this movie and 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” gave me an immense sense of pride to see people that resembled me play important roles. I didn’t reflect on it much at the time, but I was able to come to a stark realization in the days after Yang was added to “SNL:” the movie advanced the role of Asian Americans by portraying them as something more than just a marginalized group or an archaic trope.
With Yang on “SNL,” the show must take steps to ensure the Asian American voice isn’t drowned out. The show has already taken action to prevent this: After reprising the role of Kim Jong-un in “Impeachment Cold Open,” Yang played democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in the sketch “DNC Town Hall.” And even though his appearance was a brief, short-lived 10 seconds, “SNL” appropriately used his skills to joke about Andrew Yang and his standings in the polls.
It’s commendable that “SNL” took the first step to promote diverse perspectives in its show by hiring its first Asian American cast member, despite how easy it is to criticize how the show failed to properly include them for over 40 years.
Viewers should applaud “SNL” for staggering away from discrimination and moving toward a potential future where Asian Americans can view sketches that they can feel a strong connection to.
Vincent Leo is a sophomore writing about Asian American identity. His column, “Sincerely Asian American,” runs every other Thursday.