@BowenYang Talks Politics, Language, and “Colors of the Wind”

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Bowen Yang is a Brooklyn-based comedian and producer. He performs monthly with the sketch group Pop Roulette at UCB Chelsea and co-writes the live show Lake Homo High, back at the Annoyance on September 24. Previously he’s created and produced the live shows Live on Broadgay and Drag Court, and appeared on Broad City and The Outs. This week Yang talked to me about three of his favorite tweets, and we discussed casual gay racism, syntax, and Carl Sagan.

Yang: This was a fun little phrase people were tossing off during the primaries, and in a lot of instances they would use this as a preface to some horrible thing they’d say about either Bernie or Hillary. “I’ll support either candidate in the general, but Bernie looks like a lich fiend,” etc. etc. It’s the same kind of thing as saying “I’m not a racist, but…” in that way people think will absolve whatever stupid statement follows. But anyway, I like this tweet because it’s silly to call sex “lovemaking” and plugging in any (specific enough) non-sequitur in the quotation marks works.

In the current (often discouraging) political climate how do you keep tweeting about politics fun?

I think it has to be fun out of necessity. Everyone on every side wants this election to be over, so tweeting about politics with any iota of levity is the only way to tide yourself over. What’s interesting is that I was much more engaged and checking Twitter more often during the DNC than I was the RNC, so I reject the notion that it’s more fun or compelling to tweet about the other side (Republicans, in my case).

Do you have favorite characters or POVs you like to tweet from?

There’s probably not a huge gap between my Twitter POV and my baseline, “regular” voice, but lately I’ve been trying to hone in on this persona who is the nightmare version of Carl Sagan: someone who questions knowledge as a skeptic but then smugly, obsessively seeks absolute truths in the sciences and says hurtful things in the process. I’ve done a bad job of performing that character, but it’s a work in progress.

We’ve bastardized moments of silence to the point of them becoming a verbal meme, and we all tack on some intentionally frivolous thing to them: “Moment of silence for the eggs benedict I just fisted in my mouth” or whatever. But here you literally have a moment of silence for something that requires a moment of silence. I tweeted this out and thought, “Ugh, this is too inside-baseball,” but then people responded to it and I was like, “Oh yeah, everyone and their mother has been on shoots before and I’m trash for thinking they’re hallowed spaces.”

What’s the most surprised you’ve been by a reaction to a tweet of yours?

I’ve been beating this dead horse/syntax for a while now where I’ll tweet that something is classist (e.g. “Aperol Spritz is classist,” “Your blue collar fetish is classist,” “Blizzardproofing is classist”). People kind of liked it at first and have slowly gotten sick of it over the last year or so. It’s not that surprising, but I think it’s been a silly case study on something that barely started out working as a joke losing all steam after the fifth iteration or so.

What’s the most surprised you’ve been by your reaction to someone else’s tweet?

I’ve never been more viscerally shocked and delighted by someone’s account than I have by Annie Donley’s. She’s just a phenomenal human being to start, but her Twitter is such an affront to both the English language and Jim Henson’s legacy that your brain doesn’t really know how to process it. Slowly, however, your brain makes the right connections and eventually it’s this marvelous, revelatory experience, like when a baby learns her first word. It’s that crazy. I just went to see it right now and her three most recent tweets just made me cry. I never thought I’d enjoy an account as much as I do Annie’s.

It’s important to first acknowledge that “Colors of the Wind” is the ultimate #staywoke song. One night I was drunk at a piano bar that my friend Henry was playing at, and I sang “Colors of the Wind” on a whim and then proceeded to get my life, as they say. It’s really such a beautiful, perfect song (Thank you Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken!) and I love any kind of musical theater number that is didactic and earnest and trying to teach a lesson. “Colors of the Wind” is just vague enough for it to apply to anything, and one of my fun recurring struggles is to call out casual gay racism, so the two tie together quite neatly. Asian men are sterilized by default, and so me singing this song to anyone who says “No Asians” on their Grindr profile probably isn’t helping either of us.

How does your approach to Twitter compare to your approach to writing and performing larger-scale material?

I feel like I’ve compartmentalized longform writing and tweeting as two separate things that exercise two completely different muscles, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Twitter’s good for capturing discrete, granular thoughts in the moment for me, and I’m not one of those people who drafts tweets and lets them simmer first or whatever. For longform things you spend most of your time grafting some connective tissue to every part, which I’m not at all concerned about on Twitter. I’ll just be boring and say both approaches are equally valuable.

What are some other examples of “fun recurring struggles”? When do they become not-fun?

Oh, well Asian men being desexualized is certainly not fun. Well, skincare is a fun recurring struggle for everyone. That’s probably the only fun one.

Jenny Nelson lives and writes in Brooklyn.

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