Atsuko Okatsuka (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Asian American standup comics, ranging from newcomers to veterans, will be featured in “Comedy InvAsian,” a live and filmed series of six one-hour performances at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, First and Central in Little Tokyo, from Feb. 10 to 26.
One of the six is Atsuko Okatsuka, who is making her mark not only as a standup on the comedy club circuit but also as an actress, writer, producer and director on the film festival circuit.
Born in Taiwan, she grew up in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo and moved to West L.A. with her mother and grandmother when she was 10.
“I only spoke Japanese for a while in my life, then I picked up Mandarin and English when I came here because we moved in with my Chinese side of the family,” Okatsuka recalled. “… Now it’s opposite. The language I speak the best is English, then Mandarin, then Japanese.”
Although she doesn’t have close relatives in Japan, she tries to go there at least once a year. She said she has no difficulty communicating in Japanese “for the most part, unless people want to talk politics or history, or talk in slang.”
One of her role models was Margaret Cho, who was the first standup comic Okatsuka had ever seen. “I didn’t know what it was before, at least American standup. So for a while after I saw Margaret … I thought standup comedy was exclusively an Asian female thing. Little did I know … So for a period in my life it was strange to think I had actually normalized Asian women doing comedy.”
She enjoys a variety of comedians — Patton Oswalt, George Carlin, Louis CK, Chris Rock, Kate Berlant and Tig Notaro, among others.
Her own entry into comedy was a class that she found on Craigslist. “I always liked performing and I wanted to get into telling jokes, standup, regularly … I got into it eight years ago and I haven’t stopped since.”
Okatsuka’s first performance was at the Comedy Union in Culver City, a club featuring mostly African American comedians. “I loved it,” she said. “I never really started with a white crowd as most people do.”
How did her family react to her career choice? “With comedy, I think they didn’t realize it was a bigger part of my life than they thought. They always thought it was something I was doing on the side, kind of like taking a piano class as a kid; they don’t expect you to actually become good at it or want to pursue it as a career. They’d prefer that you still pursue something more studious. But now … they’re very supportive.”
Part of her act, particularly when she was starting out, has been about encounters with people who make assumptions about her because of her ethnicity. “I think things like that were sort of like boiling up inside of me that I wanted to get out for a long time … People might think it’s a positive thing when they’re talking to someone about their heritage because they watched a documentary … But sometimes it’s not a positive thing.
“I like twisting things around like that. People think it’s really exciting to be able to talk to me about someone like Takeru Kobayashi, who ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. But I would like to think they know a little more, do more research about Japan, not just some weird spectacle …
“More recently I talk about less Asian-specific things just because that is also part of my world view, whether it’s politics or more observational, daily things.”
Asked if the same jokes get different reactions from different audiences, Okatsuka observed, “Very rarely, actually. I used to think they did, so I would tailor my jokes. Most times laughter is pretty universal. People can relate to being talked to about something because they look a certain way … For the most part I can talk about my experiences and have them understand a lot.”
She has appeared on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” and performed for judges Howard Stern, Sharon Osborne and Howie Mandel. “They love to see people swallow flames or swallow swords or get shot out of a cannon. They don’t really want to see jokes … especially during the time I was talking a lot about race in Texas, that’s where they flew me out to. It was fine, but it isn’t a show about showcasing talent and really bringing it out; it’s a show about what crazy things can you do, and what kind of crazy story do you have.”
“Most times laughter is pretty universal,” Atsuko Okatsuka says. “People can relate to being talked to about something because they look a certain way.”
Unlike some of her fellow comics, she doesn’t speak loudly or gesture wildly, but she has found that isn’t necessary to make people laugh. “Most people think I’m high all the time. I don’t smoke weed because I’m already so calm. If I smoked weed, I might fall asleep and never wake up again.”
With Dis/orient/ed Comedy — a mostly female Asian American standup comedy tour that she co-founded with Jenny Yang and Yola Lu — Okatsuka has traveled to San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Philadelphia and the South, and she’s also performed in Singapore and Malaysia, where she taped a Comedy Central Asia special.
Unavoidably, Donald Trump has become part of Okatsuka’s act. “My job is to acknowledge things that are happening in the world and sort of bring light to it. That’s all we have is words … to encourage, to make people laugh, to make fun of things that maybe you’re scared of saying out loud … I was ready to just chill out for the next four years and talk about whatever else I want for fun, but now a lot of it’s tailored to ‘Yes, we can find a way to get through the next four years.’”
She has opened for her childhood heroine, Cho. “Margaret’s great. She’s very about the community, giving opportunities to younger generations. She wants the legacy to continue, so she works with Dis/orient/ed Comedy when she has a chance.”
Okatsuka also enjoys working with newer voices like Ali Wong, who is also a writer for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” “She’s a great storyteller … She headlined our first Dis/orient/ed show four years ago.”