Oscars: Why Make Cheap Jokes at the Expense of Asians?

Oscars Asian Kids GETTY - H 2016
Courtesy of A.M.P.A.S.

Could the Oscars braintrust come up with nothing funnier (or fresher) than these jokes?

The second annual #OscarsSoWhite Academy Awards needed to deliver a pointed message about diversity, and on most fronts, Chris Rock and the rest of the show planners did not disappoint.

The host delivered an opening monologue that felt like it could have been ripped from one of his trademark blistering stand-up sets and peppered the rest of the evening with smart but funny segments that drew attention to the violence that African-Americans have experienced in the nation’s past and present and called out the disparity of opportunity between talented black and white actors.

Amidst all the finger-wagging, some awkward race jokes appeared:

Taken separately and devoid of context, the jokes at the expense of Asians pack little punch, mostly because they aren’t very funny. After at least 150 years of Asians existing in America, this year's Oscars jokes about them still began with “dedicated, accurate and hardworking” and ended with “tiny dongs.” They were tired attempts at humor, and utterly unsurprising — the worst sin in comedy.

Although the gags were met with laughter inside the Dolby Theatre, others instantly heard the tone-deafness. "Half-assed Asian joke, #Oscars, and then preach about diversity? #LoseMe," tweeted actor Jeffrey Wright. Glee-turned-Shadowhunters star Harry Shum Jr. chimed in: "Lazy, uncreative joke after a brilliant monologue @chrisrock #DiversityMyAss," while Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu shared a text from a friend: "Chris Rock's self awareness of the joke shows that there are just no actual consequences to making fun and degrading Asians. So that in an entire broadcast totally obsessed with racism and diversity, throwing Asians under the bus is totally fine." 

The #OscarsSoWhite controversy has understandably been dominated by the inequities facing black talent, many of whom were legitimate contenders in the race. Meanwhile, who can even name a qualifying performance from an Asian actor this year, when the most talked-about character of Asian descent was Aloha leading lady Allison Ng, played by Emma Stone? But true diversity obviously includes all races, a point explicitly stated on-air only by one Compton theatergoer during Rock’s man-on-the-street segment.

The Academy clearly is aware of this fact, as it invited Priyanka Chopra, Benicio Del Toro, Byung-hun Lee, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Sofia Vergara to present last night. In that case, why the cheap racial gags at the expense of one specific minority group? If the producers were looking for a creative alternative to the traditional appearance of the real PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants — sorry, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz! — could the Oscars braintrust really come up with nothing funnier (or fresher) than a lazy stereotype about math?

Ultimately, it’s just a couple of dumb Asian jokes at the Oscars. But if these arbiters of influence think nothing of continuing to make Asians the butts of jokes (and with roughly five percent representation across the board, that’s still punching down), that underscores a subtle reality about Asians' continued positioning as outsiders to mainstream American culture. Coming especially on a night when Hollywood was trying to be peak “woke,” the Academy really slept on this one.