Identity and Comedy with Anna Suzuki
Anna Suzuki is raising awareness about identity one UCB show at a time. The comedian and actress, who also calls herself the “Jap-Jap” (she has a Japanese mother and Jewish father), recently launched a monthly UCB show called “AzN PoP!: Live in Concert!”. The show (also starring Maya Deshmukh, Iliana Inocencio, Angel Yau, and Ann Marie Yoo) uses catchy tongue-in-cheek pop songs to illustrate how Asians are often stereotyped and pigeonholed into particular societal and gender roles. The five stars of the show, who all descend from various Asian countries, don schoolgirl outfits and sing about different types of rice and finding any white guy to marry. Anthony Atamkinck, who gained fame with his spot-on Trump impression, recently praised the show on Twitter.
Suzuki has been performing for most of her life, pursuing her passion as a child in both Japan and later in the U.S. Though she supports the efforts to portray diversity in film and television, Suzuki has yet to find a good representation of the bi-racial identity conflict — how mixed race children struggle to find their own communities. She is usually keeping busy auditioning for roles during the day, hosting a diversity-in-comedy podcast called The Soul Glo Project, and pitching a television pilot that focuses on her dual Japanese/Jewish identity struggles. I spent some time with Suzuki at a Brooklyn café discussing her journey from Japan to the U.S., finding her comedic voice, and working with Spike Lee on an upcoming Netflix series.
AzN PoP went through several iterations. How did the idea start and how did you choose the cast?
The initial idea came about maybe two years ago. I grew up in Japan watching those J-pop bands and girl groups and I realized once I moved here that western people thought it was really funny that 18-year-old girls would be in a band together dancing in schoolgirl outfits. But that was just part of my upbringing. I never thought it was funny, it was just part of my culture. So then I started doing comedy here and I realized that there wasn’t a comedic Asian pop group in New York. The New York comedy scene is pretty small so I assembled four Asian girls that I knew in the comedy community and everyone was totally on board. And we all happen to be from different Asian countries, just by coincidence not by design.
You include Japan, Philippines–
China, Korea, and India, which we wanted to include because, I feel like especially white people, no offense, are unaware that some of those countries perceived to be Middle Eastern are part of Asia, like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. They’re south Asian.
Humor based on cultures can sometimes delve into obvious stereotypes, but your show does a great job playing on those tropes, adding a level of self-awareness.
Because I’m bi-racial I don’t go through the issues some of the other girls go through, like I never get called in to play a geisha or those kinds of roles, but they do. We just wanted to bring out all these issues that everyone knows, but no one addresses. And we just wanted to do it through comedy. One of the songs is about how source material can be Asian, but white actors play the characters, for example Emma Stone played a half-Asian woman. Right now there’s this whole Ghost in a Shell controversy, where the main character is a cyborg and she has a Japanese name. So we assume she was written as Japanese, but Scarlett Johansson is cast in it.
I’ve seen some anger directed at The Great Wall for whitewashing.
Its like, why does it always have to be a white savior narrative? The story doesn’t always have to revolve around a straight white man.
How did you come up with your on-stage personas?
Our individual rice names, we modeled it after ’90s pop groups like the Spice Girls, NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys. They all have their little quirks. Our on-stage personas are similar to who we are in real life. I am very laid back and dry and sarcastic and Baby Rice, who’s played by Iliana [Inocencio], she’s very bubbly and positive. So that is who we are. And I think that’s universal for comedy. You’re always sort of playing an extreme of yourself. When you see standup comedians, they’re always amplified versions of their real selves.
You’ve previously discussed the importance of leaning into your real personality as a performer in order to get better.
Whether you’re doing a sketch or acting in a TV show, you’re goal is to create a well-rounded whole person. You’re job is to bring your character to life and when that’s truthful, it’s funny.
Do you have experiences when you’re auditioning where you feel like you may not fit the role?
I have that and I don’t get those jobs. But I’m in a new Netflix show coming out in June that Spike Lee directed. I’m doing a few episodes on that. And originally when they were looking for the character it was like, 22, which I’m not, Korean-American, I’m not Korean, and also, a lot of times I don’t necessarily read Asian, people are like, “what are you?” So the character wasn’t necessarily dead on for me, but they were looking for someone with a lot of attitude. So I just went in and did my personality thing and met Spike and got it.
Leslie Meisel directed the show and Dave Mizzoni choreographed it. How did you meet them?
Leslie is amazing. She’s been part of the UCB community for a really long time. She’s a performer herself. In the comedy world when you’re looking to attach people like directors and choreographers it’s basically just emailing. We emailed a couple of people we really wanted to work with. It was tough because a lot of people still didn’t know us in the UCB community. This was our first show at UCB. It’s difficult for directors to commit their time and energy when they don’t know if it’s going to be any good. Leslie was super excited to work with us. She’s one of the reasons the show is great. Dave Mizzoni is also a New York comedian and he was also really excited for the show. Most of the shows [at UCB] don’t really tackle identity issues or social issues and we do. A lot of people took a chance on us and it worked out.
In what ways do you tackle social issues in the show?
One of our most popular songs is about how Asian girls will date any busted white guy, which sort of plays into how Asian women are expected to be quiet and submissive and take whatever is given to them. If the roles were reversed it would be questioned. The fact that we are women who are not 18 wearing schoolgirl outfits and performing for this white audience, it’s a play on how white people see Asians.
When I saw the play there definitely seemed to be a good reception from a mixed-race audience.
Some of our audience members, who are people of color, said it was a very cathartic experience because they had never seen anything like that before. It’s like the one time they were allowed to laugh at these issues that they would usually be depressed about.
How do performers go about getting their own show at UCB? What was your experience?
UCB has a process where basically you audition your show. It’s called a Spank. First you have to send in your script. You have to have an idea for a 25 minute show. You send in the script, the artistic director reviews everything, and then you are called in to actually audition the show or not. We [auditioned] once about a year ago and the artistic director called us in and she gave us a lot of great notes so we rewrote it. So we auditioned it twice.
You have an interesting upbringing. Your father is Jewish and your mother is Japanese.
Yes, so my dad looks exactly like Jason Alexander and people mistake him for him all the time. In Japan he was doing a lot of TV work, he was an actor. He was in this insane Japanese variety show from the ’80s that’s now viral on YouTube. My dad loves performing and we immigrated when I was in 7th grade. We moved here from Japan because the educational system over there becomes super strict once you’re in middle school and you sort of start losing all your personal freedoms. When you go to school you can’t bring magazines or snacks. You can’t dye your hair and you have to wear your uniform a certain way.
That goes from middle school to high school?
Yeah, through high school. It’s so strict so my dad was like, “fuck that.” So we moved her and I didn’t speak English at all. I only spoke Japanese. I was 12. Those are your formative years, 12-15, the years you want to be cool. I had no friends. I remember these cool girls would have little huddles in the bathroom and they would just lock me out. But I got through it. So I would go home and watch a lot of Japanese variety shows and want to go back. My dad loves performing, but I’ve always felt like when we moved here for our education my dad had to give up that life. He’s a Jew who speaks Japanese fluently. That was his schtick. Over here he’s just a Jewish guy, [in Japan] he’s like a commodity.
What’s the comedy scene like in Japan?
I would say most comedy is done in duos in Japan. Solo standups are less common. Everyone is in pairs. One person is in charge of the setup and one person is in charge of the punchline. It’s like vaudeville.
How does diversity factor into your career?
I feel like diversity is becoming really hot in comedy and entertainment right now, but I still can’t relate to most things on TV. There’s Fresh Off The Boat, but my family is not 100% Asian. A lot of times I don’t feel Asian enough for Asian people or white enough for white people so I feel like I don’t really belong anywhere. By creating AzN PoP, we set a precedent.
I know others who are dealing with a similar identity crisis. It’s not often discussed.
It’s totally a crisis. I’m developing this project with Pakistani Muslim standup, Omar Shaukat, that’s based on my life growing up biracial in Japan. Asian countries are very homogenous, as opposed to western countries where a lot of races are mixed. I go back to Japan and I start speaking Japanese and people really do get surprised and upset and confused because they can’t fathom Japanese coming out of this face. I have two brothers, one of them looks way whiter and one of them looks more Asian than me so I’m sort of right in the middle. One time I saw this Japanese family, they looked really lost on the A train. I was about to go help them and then I realized if I start giving them directions in Japanese the children are going to be terrified.
Yeah! That has been my experience.
What advice can you offer to a comedian just starting out?
After college I made sure whatever day job I had would not interfere with my comedy. I would only take jobs that would allow me to pop out for an hour during lunch break if I had to go audition. That would be my advice to people trying to figure out how to make money, but also pursue a passion. I would always make sure you prioritize your passion. In the long run it’s worth it for me to make a little less money and be able to voice a dog during the day.
Photo by Alex Schaefer Photography.