Research Notes · 11/22/2019

No Good Very Bad Asian

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Leland Cheuk writes about No Good Very Bad Asian from C&R Press.

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One of the funnest parts of writing my novel about a fictive famed standup comic was the creation of a parallel pop culture that mirrored and coexisted with the pop culture we knew and loved from the decade of the aughts. My protagonist Sirius Lee, a Chinese American, attends a predominantly white high school in Los Angeles that’s featured on a reality show similar to MTV’s Laguna Beach, which ran from 2004 to 2006 and was later spun off into The Hills, which would run for the rest of the decade. In this high school in “Guernica Beach,” Sirius meets the daughter of his eventual comedy mentor Johnny Razzmatazz, who I imagine as a cross between Andrew “Dice” Clay and Ozzy Osbourne. The show Johnny’s on is entitled The Family Razzmatazz, an obvious allusion to The Osbournes, which was a hit on MTV from 2002 to 2005.

Looking back on Laguna Beach and The Osbournes, it’s hard to believe that we watched these silly shows in large numbers. The editing-manufactured he-said, she-said dramas between tawny high schoolers and the family of a drug-fried washed-up metal star became everyday grist for celebrity ridicule. And yet, we watched and watched these train wrecks week after week in a pre-streaming daze. Those shows starred all white people. And all those white people went on to have decades-long careers. Sharon Osbourne became a daytime talk show host (CBS’s The Talk). Lauren Conrad parlayed her star turn on The Hills into a fashion and retail empire including YA novels, as well as clothing, cosmetic, and bedding lines. Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (or Speidi) appeared on their own reality show (I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, Season 2) and Heidi would, of course, try and fail to record a pop album. Nearly 15 years later, The Hills was recently rebooted (The Hills: New Beginnings). What’s interesting to me about the phenomenon of those shows like this is how far down the ladder the stars were in terms of cultural import and yet, they all have quite lucrative careers today. Contrast this with the 45 years it took for Saturday Night Live to cast its first Asian American (Bowen Yang) and the 25 years between The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians and you see the absurd opportunity gap between the top Asian Americans in TV and Film and the 10,000^th^-ranked white celebrity talent. In other words, Randall Park and Constance Wu, who have been on a hit sitcom together for five years can only dream of the multichannel empire that Lauren Conrad has.

Saturday Night Live was another show I enjoyed cloning for fictional purposes. In Sirius’s world, Saturday Night Live still exists, but on CBS, he’s a cast member on Live On Air, a competing sketch comedy show that runs on Sunday nights. For details about Saturday Night Live that I could twist and remake, I read Live From New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live As Told By Its Stars, Writers, and Guests, by James Andrew Miller and Pulitzer-Prize-winning TV Critic Tom Shales. The book is a definitive oral history of the show and I’m a fan of using oral histories as research because the people involved often include details that one can only know if you were actually there. From the book, I learned what day the read-throughs were, how the auditions were held, what the interns did and didn’t do, and the long hours they worked, and of course, I altered those details to create the workplace of Live On Air. I had the producer of the show be someone who had no comedy background and instead came from sports programming. This is a reference to the Dick Ebersol years of SNL from 1980-85 after Lorne Michaels left NBC. Ebersol was a sports guy, not a comedy guy, and those years are generally thought of as inferior to other seasons, though Eddie Murphy became the breakout star from those casts.

The rest of Sirius’s movie career references a number of movies and TV shows that were huge hits, but probably not the finest moments for Asian American representation. Bangkok Family Vacation is a version of The Hangover, in which Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow is a composite of various Asian stereotypes—a profane criminal with a small penis. Sirius turns down an audition for Han Lee, the Brooklyn diner owner on the CBS show 2 Broke Girls. Played by Matthew Mok, the character is the butt of constant jokes about his height and sexuality. The movie Red Justice, which Sirius hopes to be his breakout role as an action movie star, is based on 1999’s The Corruptor, an action movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Chow Yun-Fat. As you can see here in the movie poster, half of the international movie star’s face is in shadow while Marky Mark’s mug is fully visible.

For all the progress on race we’re supposed to have made as a country, it’s amazing how easily one can find examples of overt racism in highly successful works on both the small and big screen. We like to point at Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and celebrate how woke Hollywood is now while ignoring the very racist representations of people of color that persist to this day. From Apu on The Simpsons to Jimmy O. Yang’s Jian-Yang in Silicon Valley, one doesn’t have to look too hard or far to see that Hollywood continues to be an instrument of white supremacy.

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A MacDowell Colony and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is the author of the story collection Letters From Dinosaurs and the novel The Misadventures Of Sulliver Pong. Cheuk’s work has been covered in VICE, Poets and Writers, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Asian American Writers Workshop, and has appeared in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, among other outlets. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at lelandcheuk.com.