BWW Interview: The InvAsian of Kevin Yee & How He Got Here
Boy Band-er, Broadway hoofer, now out comedian; Kevin Yee has already experienced a number of lifetimes in this performing career. Kevin's currently involved in capturing his stand-up routine for inclusion in the six-episode series, most cleverly titled Comedy InvAsian.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kevin!
Tell us about InvAsian and your involvement in it.
I am one of six comedians that are filming one-hour comedy specials over two weekends in February! The comedians are all Asian, but come from very diverse backgrounds. There's Amy Hill (star of The Great Indoors and All American Girl), Robin Tran (a hilarious transgender comedian), Atsuko Okatsuka (who is one of my favorite Japanese comedians), and two funny dudes Joey Guila and Paul PK Kim. Then there's me: a gay Chinese Canadian comedy singer. I feel like it's a great way to showcase how many different stories there are within the Asian communities. The entertainment industry often portrays Asian people as one-dimensional caricatures, so I think this series can really help start an important conversation. Sit back, relax, and let us tell you our stories!
Comedy InvAsian co-creator Quentin Lee told me his first impression of you, "I fell in love with Kevin's own unique brand of comedy as soon as I saw his YouTube videos. There's simply nothing like it out there... and I thought we gotta have him be a part of our inaugural season." How did you initially hook up with Quentin and his co-creator Koji Steven Sakai?
Quentin was the one who initially approached me after seeing some of my YouTube videos. I got a random Facebook message. We chatted a bit and then we had a meeting with some of the other comics he and Koji had decided on. I really liked the idea of showcasing Asian comedians because there are so many great ones out there and they aren't often heard. So I signed on because: a) cool, I get to film a comedy special; and b) I get to be surrounded by amazing Asian talent that I love and respect!
I love the name 'InvAsian.' As many times as I've seen the word, I've never seen 'Asian' in it. (BTW, I'm Asian.) Who is the genius behind coining "InvAsian"?
Ha, ha! I asked Quentin and he told me that he and Koji came up in the 90s generation of deconstructionists who enjoy playing with words and making new ones. One of the tag lines for Quentin's first feature Shopping For Fangs was "GenerAsian X." InvAsian plays on Asians being foreign while at the same time satirizes it... I think it's perfect for what are doing.
When did you realize you wanted to be a performer?
I can't say there was ever a moment of realization. I just have always been a performer. I started dancing and singing and acting when I was four. So, at first it was a hobby, and then it just kind of progressed into my bread and butter!
What kind of classes did you undertake then?
I mainly trained as a ballet dancer when I was a kid, and then with singing and acting, I kind of just learned by doing. I didn't go to college because I was always working. But I don't think my path is for everyone. In some ways, I think I could have benefited from college. I was really thrown into things at a young age and had to learn things the hard way. There was a lot of trial and error. But I also think the life experience I've had could never be taught in any school.
What do you remember of your first successful audition? Was it at age 6 for THE KING AND I opposite Rudolf Nureyev in 1989?
Yes, I think THE KING AND I was the first. It was a touring production that hired local kids, and my mom heard about the audition from the radio. I don't remember having to do much. I probably had to sing. I remember having to bow a lot. Also, I had to be Asian. You'd think that would be a no brainer, but the majority of the kids who auditioned were white kids with slanty-eye makeup painted on. I think the kids who got in the show were all the Asian kids who showed up with maybe one or two various dark-haired kids.
What was it like working with one of the legendary male ballet dancers of all time?
I'll admit that I was too young to really understand who he was. But as I grew older, and especially because I was training as a competitive ballet dancer, I came to appreciate just how meaningful it was. I mean, what a way to start my career in show business!
Tell us your audition process to be part of Quincy Jones' boy band Youth Asylum?
The band was already signed to Quincy's record label, so they were just looking to "cast" the singers. It was one of those "I know someone who knows someone" type of connections. Anyhow, the team behind the band somehow got my number and called me. It was basically one of those "Hollywood dream come true" type of calls. They asked me to sing on the phone for them, which I did, and then I guess they liked what they heard because they asked me to fly out to LA to audition for them in person. I think they had decided to sign me then, but it took about five or six months of flying back and forth to meet executives and pair me up with other singers until they finally decided on who they wanted and gave me a contract to sign!
What did you know of Quincy before working with him?
I was too young to really know any of his work, but I did know that he was important and that I should respect him.
What did you learn from Quincy after working with him?
I found him to be a very grounded and spiritual person which is something I hadn't really seen a lot of in Hollywood. Like TRULY grounded and spiritual, not fake at all. He was very generous, which I think set a good example for me. Also, he produced one of our songs, so I got to watch him do his thing in the studio. Our band worked with some of the best producers out there and I now produce all of my own music and feel like I had the best teachers in the world, whether they realized they were teaching me or not!
When did you realize you were funny?
I've always been a little weird and unintentionally funny because I'm so awkward. I didn't think I could necessarily make a career out of being funny until I was well into my 20's. Being serious just didn't feel right to me. So I was writing these funny songs and they made people laugh, so I just went with it. I just kind of followed what the universe was telling me!
In another life when I pursued an acting career, I was told, "You don't look Asian enough." But I did book a job as an Eskimo, since nobody knew exactly what Eskimos looked like. Do you have any interesting audition stories along that line?
Ha, ha! That's funny and sad. Sure! I have a lifetime of stories! I was just thinking about this one film I did where I played a Japanese father. I auditioned in English, but once I got the job, the director asked if I could translate all of the dialogue into Japanese. Well, first of all, I'm Chinese. And second of all, I don't even speak Chinese. But I did it. I paid someone to translate it and teach it to me phonetically, because I was younger and hungrier. It's probably the most cringe-worthy work I've ever done.
I just started auditioning for projects again after taking a bit of a break. A couple of years ago, I was called in for an audition that made me reassess my life a bit. If you see a picture of me or meet me, you'll see a young cheesy gay Asian. Nothing about me screams "older." If anything, I have the perfect look to finally be playing a teenager! You know those Asian genes! But I was working with an agent who convinced a casting director to see me for a big movie. The breakdown for the character was for an AsIan Male, age 50-80, for the role of the "ancient Chinese grandfather." I mean, there was no way I was going to get that. I was embarrassed for the state of show business! I turned the audition down and left that agency and just concentrated on my stand-up after that. I've just started to dip my toe back in the water, but I think stand-up works better for me because I can just be me and not some random stereotype.
I guess you looked Greek enough to be cast as "Pepper" in MAMMA MIA. But you didn't have to look British to be cast in the original Broadway company of MARY POPPINS in 2011, right? More open to color-blind casting by then, correct?
I think that a lot of the characters in MAMMA MIA aren't supposed to be local Greeks, mostly expats and vacationers. I think MAMMA MIA has always tried to cast diverse. And MARY POPPINS was definitely open to diversity. I think the connection is that they are both British creative teams and they are more open to color-blind casting on that side of the pond. Plus, add the fact that you have Disney co-producing MARY POPPINS! Disney has always seemed to be more open-minded when it comes to their casting.
What does being an out Asian performer mean to you?
It means being completely proud of who I am and intent on making my story heard. There's a powerful spirit that comes with finally fully accepting who I am. And although I feel every locked door, every insult; I come back with unlimited determination. I feel like we all need to tell our stories now more than ever.
Were you ever 'in'? Were you 'in' or 'out' as a Youth Asylum?
I was in the closet during my time with Youth Asylum and it was a very homophobic environment. The music industry was terrible back then. It seems to be better now, but there was a lot of messed up stuff that went on. But being submerged in a homophobic environment made me realize that I couldn't hide my sexuality any more. When the band ended, the first thing I did was come out of the closet. But it wasn't a decision I made lightly. Being in the band taught me that I could not be openly gay and successful in the music industry. So coming out of the closet meant giving up on my pop star dreams. But I've obviously lived a much happier life than if I'd stayed in the closet. So I have no regrets.
You are taping your February 12th show, as well as, five other comedians' shows for the digital comedy series Comedy InvAsian. Will your one-hour shows be edited down to half-hour episodes?
Currently, I believe the intention is that they will all be full-hour episodes! Hopefully, it will be coming to a network near you very soon, but why wait? Come to our live tapings! You'll be glad you did!
What do you hope for or envision for Comedy InvAsian?
I hope that we can have it shown on large platforms where people all over the world can be exposed to our diverse stories. It would be especially meaningful if communities without a lot of Asian representation could see it and meet us, and for young Asians to see themselves being represented properly in the entertainment world. Hopefully, we can prove that having diverse stories doesn't mean that we aren't relatable. I think that if people watch our series, they will realize we are all more alike than different! Especially with the country being so divided, I hope people watching will feel like they're making some new friends! And then I hope that they will want to make more friends and more Asian comics will get to showcase their comedy with future seasons!
Thanks again for taking the time for this interview, Kevin! I'm looking forward to experiencing your InvAsian!
For more info and ticket availability on Kevin Yee's live taping on Sunday, February 12, 2017 @ the Japanese American National Museum; as well as, the other five comedians' Comedy InvAsian shows, log onto www.comedyinvAsian.com