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I was a writer and co-executive producer on Fresh Off the Boat for its first three seasons, and though I’ve moved on to write features, the show holds a special place in my heart. When I grew up there were no Asian families on TV. Then Margaret Cho got a show on the air and I was obsessed. It meant so much to me to see an Asian family on TV, and then it got canceled.
Twenty-some years passed and finally another show about an Asian family came along, and it was good … really good. That same year Black-ish premiered, and that show was good too. Two funny shows, representing folks people don’t usually see on TV. It all felt like steps in a good direction. But that was 2015, and since then the world has been changing. And so have our shows.
I watched the first two episodes of Roseanne and I thought they were good. John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf are both always amazing. The jokes are tight. I found it most successful when the humor came from who the characters are as opposed to trying to draw political lines between them, but even still, I thought it achieved the nearly impossible: It was a good multicam.
Then Wednesday morning I heard about the joke. “Well that’s annoying,” I thought. “But who cares?” I kept trying to get work done, but I kept being brought back to that joke. I wanted to shrug it off. But for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
They say feelings don’t go away. If we don’t acknowledge them and process them, they go inside of us and turn to anger and depression. So instead of pretending I wasn’t bothered by it, I decided instead to give myself five minutes to think about why some stupid joke on Roseanne was bothering me so much, and it all became clear.
When I was in fourth grade doing a play with a community theater, a kid I had just met slanted his eyes and sang, “Ching-Chong-Chinese-People” at me. I didn’t want to be someone who couldn’t take a joke, so I forced a smile.
I wanted to just let it go and “be cool.” But I couldn’t. So I chose to try and educate.
“You know,” I said, “I’m not Chinese. My dad is Korean. And I was born in Hawaii.”
“It’s all the same,” he said.
His message was clear. All that “Asian-y” stuff is the same, but it’s not the same as him.
He was saying, “You’re different. You may be here doing Wizard of Oz with a bunch of white suburban kids, but you are not one of us.”
Another time as a teenager I was with some friends and there were two Asian women on the sidewalk speaking Chinese and sort of slowing us down. A friend said, “Ugh, why don’t they just go back to where they came from?” I shot her a look and she quickly clarified, “I don’t mean you. I mean them.”
Them? In these jokes, and in the others like these, at the heart of them, whether the joke-teller means it or not, is a divisive spirit. “Us.” “Them.” It’s always drawing lines. Separating. Whenever these jokes have been said to me, the thing that is the most hurtful is not the insensitive dullard who said it. There’s always going to be people like that. What hurts the most is when everyone else in the room laughs.
Kourtney Kang’s credits also include working as a writer and exec producer on the entire run of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother. She is currently writing and executive producing a feature for Paramount, developing a half-hour comedy with Bad Robot and developing a feature to direct.
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