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.”
While Cho was one of only a few Asian American comics in the early ’90s, the Comedy Comedy Festival — held last year in Little Tokyo and co-presented by Dis/orient/ed Comedy and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center — featured more than 100.
“It’s beautiful that there are so many now, whether they’re starting out, up-and-coming or been doing it a while,” Okatsuka commented. “That’s what Comedy InvAsian is trying to highlight. We can make a series now … a continuous series where each episode is one Asian comedian. There’s a lot of us.”
Koji Steven Sakai, co-producer of Comedy InvAsian with Quentin Lee, confirmed, “The plan is to do six every season, so we hope to be able to do this for a long time.”
He added, “We picked these particular folks because we thought they were funny. We were fans of their work and wanted to showcase them.”
Okatsuka has worked with four of the other comics, including Paul Kim, founder of Kollaboration. “He’s kind of a veteran in Asian American comedy circles. I think he’s been doing comedy for 20 years, since I was like 4.”
Also featured are Kevin Yee, Robin Tran, Joey Guila and Amy Hill, who played Cho’s grandmother in the sitcom “All-American Girl” and now has a recurring role on the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
“I’m excited — all of them are brilliant artists,” Okatsuka said.
A Career in Film
In addition to comedy, Okatsuka studied filmmaking. “I was in psychology when I was trying to sort of do something academic still so I could please my parents but also study something I was interested in, which is people. But then during the course of that, I realized I really just wanted to get into the arts … You can tell stories about human beings …
“So I started going to community college … I started collaborating with this filmmaker. He had the equipment like cameras and stuff, and I had the stories — immigration stories, stories about coming here.”
Okatsuka’s credits include a documentary about her grandmother, “In Waiting,” and a “Desert Trilogy” consisting of “Littlerock,” “Pearblossom Highway,” and “Lake Los Angeles.”
Atsuko Okatsuka in a scene from “Littlerock.” (©Variance)
“I was a version of the same character in all of them,” she said of the trilogy. “The first one I played a Japanese girl who comes to the States with her brother to go to Manzanar to visit our grandfather’s grave. Along the way our car breaks down in the desert, so we’re stuck … Two Japanese people who barely speak English start hanging out with rednecks as they get their car fixed for the next few days …
“The second one [is about]what happens if that same girl had stayed in the States in the desert. We have her working as a prostitute and sending money back to Japan to her sick grandmother. Then the third one is actually a completely different story. It’s a story about the border between Mexico and the States and also holding houses.”
She explained that holding houses are places where undocumented immigrants are hidden from the authorities while waiting to be picked up by a relative or to be taken to their next job.
“Those were very dramatic films,” Okatsuka said. “…Because the immigration story is something I’ve told so much, I sort of want to transcend that and make comedies. Still about humans struggling with life, but funny.”
She also enjoys working on other people’s films, including Travis Mathews’ “Discreet,” in which a drifter returns home after years in hiding and discovers that his childhood abuser is still alive. It will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on the same night that Okatsuka is performing in L.A. She plans to go to Germany the next day.
Okatsuka is developing a film called “This Is Chinatown.” “It’s a comedy about artists and immigrants living together … and what happens when a big, evil, more rich power tries to come in and take over this community that’s been surviving off of this strange dynamic for a long time … Right now we’re trying to secure funding for it.
“There’s a lot of projects I’m working on in between … My brain’s going crazy.”
Visit her website at www.atsukookatsuka.com.
The Comedy InvAsian schedule: Paul Kim on Friday, Feb. 10, at 9 p.m.; Atsuko Okatsuka on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m.; Kevin Yee on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Joe Guila on Friday, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m.; Robin Tran on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m.; and Amy Hill on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit http://comedyinvasian.com.