A++, Comedy and Decolonizing Improv

“So you guys are funny Asians… right?” I joke with Kim Le and Brian Young.
“I mean, we think we’re funny,” chuckles Brian.
“We have a laugh track included in our contract, right?”
”Can we have a sign for the audience that says, ‘laugh’ on it, too?”

We all laugh as we settle into Kim’s apartment on an abnormally warm Winter Sunday to talk about their new, all-Asian improv troupe, A++, and their upcoming show at the Motor House Baltimore. Having just been listed by Baltimore Fishbowl as one of the main events to check out in the city for the month of February, the group is getting pumped for their debut variety show, aptly named “The Recital” as an homage to their various Asian backgrounds and experiences as stereotypical, child musicians.

A++  Comedy Improv. From top left: Grant Chang, Kim Le, Jacob Joseph, Brian Young, Sam Brunner.

A++ Comedy Improv. From top left: Grant Chang, Kim Le, Jacob Joseph, Brian Young, Sam Brunner.

Before long, we’re all commiserating about growing up in Asian immigrant homes. Brian, and I quickly bond over being Filipino-Americans and Kim enlightens us with some of her own tales growing up Vietnamese-American in Kansas. I begin inquiring more about the group.

“Where did the name A++ come from?”
“We were just spitballing names and we laughed at that one,” Kim says.
“Yeah. We [suggested] spot on the nose names like ‘Model Minority’,” adds Brian, “But A++ didn’t feel too Asian.”

“How did you all find improv?” I ask as Kim sprays her cat with water for love-biting Brian’s hand.
“I think we’d all have different answers to that,” Kim states. “I never was interested in comedy.  The first time I ever watched improv in life was when I was teaching abroad in [South] Korea and there were some expats that were doing improv.  It was really funny.  And then years later when I moved to Baltimore, I signed up for every, single thing.  I thought, ‘I don’t know anyone here so I’m gonna make friends.’  I took a welding class - that is not a great way to meet people, turns out.” Her comic timing is on point.
”You don’t say!” Brian teases.
Anyway, I went to meet-ups, I took improv and that’s what stuck.”  

“For me,” Brian begins his improv origin story.  “I started a new job [a few years back] and the people were just not that interesting.  The co-workers at my old jobs were always funny and enjoyed working. We had fun.  But everyone at this new job was just so serious. So I [started] looking for an activity.  I needed something to do and around this time, I went to Chicago for a gay, Buddhist wedding. I was looking at what people do when you visit Chicago.  And improv is what they do there.”

Chicago: The Improv Capital of the U.S., if not the world.  Okay, maybe just the U.S.  But it makes sense that Brian would find improv in a city like Chicago, where some of comedy’s most prominent names first got their feet wet.  Comedians such as Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey all got their starts at Second City, Chicago’s famous improv school, and many young comedians who dream of writing for SNL move to Chicago to journey on similar paths. 

From left:  A++  friend (and wizard) Lucas Gerace, Brian Young, Kim Le, Jacob Joseph, Sam Brunner and Grant Chang. And Zatanna, the wizard’s python.

From left: A++ friend (and wizard) Lucas Gerace, Brian Young, Kim Le, Jacob Joseph, Sam Brunner and Grant Chang. And Zatanna, the wizard’s python.

But back to Brian.

“So that’s what I did while I was in Chicago.  I watched an improv show.  Then, I noticed there was an improv group in Baltimore.  This was back when Baltimore Improv Group (B.I.G.) was still at the Mercury.  So I took classes there.”

“How did the group get started?  Was it just like, ‘Oh hey you’re Asian!  And you’re Asian.  And you’re Asian.  We should start an Asian troupe!”

“Well, Grant [Chang] really came up with that,” credits Brian.  “I took a class with Grant and we started doing scenes where us being Asian would come up.  I felt strongly that it was good that we got to bring up our background.  Normally, [I wouldn’t bring up my heritage] if I’m with somebody of another race who might not understand where I’m coming from.  Why put them at the risk of having that go wrong?  Whereas if it goes wrong with another Asian person, it’s like, ‘Well… you know what I mean…’”

The experience was slightly different for Kim who, for a while, was the only Asian member of Baltimore Improv Group.

“Back when I was the Asian person at B.I.G., I remember having a conversation with [someone] who is white.  I had just confided in her that I typically don’t feel comfortable doing Asian characters in scenes because I’m just not sure how that would pan out.  And she said, ‘In many ways, you have more license to do that than any of us white people.’  I remember that conversation sticking in my head.  I thought, ‘No I really don’t have the freedom to do that just because I’m [Asian].”

In improv they tell you to reach for details, reach from life.  But if we’re in a mixed group of improvisors, the details that we’re often reaching for tend to default to White.
— Kim Le

It’s the Catch-22 many individuals from underrepresented and societally suppressed communities often find themselves in.  Do we beat everyone else to the joke and make fun of our background as the token minority in a room full of white people? Or does that accidentally give them permission to continue laughing at us at our own expense?  But when you’re not the only Asian or Black person or Latinx in the room, the context of self-deprecating humor changes.  The joke is no longer a defense mechanism; rather, it becomes a way to connect.

“In improv they tell you to reach for details, reach from life.  But if we’re in a mixed group of improvisors, the details that we’re often reaching for tend to default to White.”  

This grabs my attention.  “So basically you want to decolonize improv.” 

Brian and Kim burst out laughing in approval.  

“Yes!” shouts Kim.  “That’s exactly what we’re doing!”

Kim Le, Jacob Joseph and Zatanna the snake.

Kim Le, Jacob Joseph and Zatanna the snake.

All three of us know too well the implications of growing up in immigrant homes in a country like the United States, a nation that expects all Others to assimilate at any cost.  For most immigrants, defaulting to White is marketed as the only viable option in America, especially if you want your children to succeed. Usually, it’s the second generation (or in some cases like my own, the “one-point-five gen”) that feels the consequences of that assimilation most acutely.

“It’s like that American t.v. sitcom, Leave it to Beaver experience,” Brian comments.  “Most of us don’t have families that look like that, or sound like that, or are structured that way.”

And even if you’re an Asian in America who grew up in a two-parent family and lived in a mid-sized single family house, your American experience is still bound to be vastly different than the one of your white American neighbors and certainly different from the American experience represented in popular culture. Thankfully, the face of comedy in popular media has been evolving.  Whereas before Margaret Cho seemed to be the lone Asian American holding down the fort for Asians in comedy, now there is a plethora of Asian comedians to watch, each bringing their own unique experiences as Americans to the stage and into private homes (thank you Netflix, Facebook and White House Correspondence Dinners).  

“Something that connects us in this group is that our parents aren’t just a different generation.  They have different cultural touchstones than us,” continues Kim.  “We were kind of like halfsies.  Like, I had to figure out the world around me and then come home and translate that to my mom and dad.”
”There’s a complexity with being Asian,” I interject.
”Or being Asian-American, specifically,” responds Brian. “It’s never just straight forward.”

In comedy you can absolutely, out loud say that something is absurd.  But sometimes in drama, that can [create] negative tension.
— Brian Young

”I stopped getting offended at the question, ‘Where are you from?’ When I moved to South Korea, I realized that I am legitimately confusing,” Kim explains.  “Ethnically, I am half Chinese.  Both my mom and dad are from Vietnam so I’m also Vietnamese-American.  But when I went to Vietnam, first [they saw me as] American.  Secondly, they thought I was Chinese or Korean. And then they would yell at me in Chinese or Korean when they were trying to sell me stuff.”

The experience of the Asian-American diaspora is what makes connecting with others outside our general demographic so difficult throughout our lives. The more we talk about our immigrant families and Third Culture Kid experiences, the more it makes sense that groups like A++ gravitate toward comedy.  It’s a way to cope with our upbringings and make sense of our pasts now that we’re adults.  Comedy makes it easier for people to digest hard issues. Because if we can laugh about it together, maybe then we can finally talk about it. 

“In comedy you can absolutely, out loud say that something is absurd.  But sometimes in drama, that can [create] negative tension,” Brian explains.  “You can show how absurd something is [in comedy] by changing the context a little bit.  Rather than going to a place in the real world that shows it as this horrible thing.”

“Did either of you ever want to be comedians growing up?”
“I never aspired to be a comedian,” Kim responds, “But I always liked comedy and I would watch Margaret Cho.  Did you want to be a comedian when you were younger, Brian?”
Brian thinks for a moment.  “No, not really.  I wanted to perform, but I did it the Asian way. Because I learned piano.”

We all laugh. 

Kim reflects a little more. “I’m grateful that [improv] is going in this direction where people are more cautious towards being politically correct.”
“And being considerate and thoughtful.  Both for the audience and for the performer.”
“We’re still navigating those boundaries,” Kim concludes.  “But we have been talking to other groups.  Casually Dope is a [Black improv] group that’s been around for a really long time [in Baltimore].  And they have worked together to where they have a fluid vocabulary.  We’re hoping that we can get there, too.”

We wrap up the conversation. Kim ushers Brian and I to the front door where we hurriedly put on our shoes and jackets so she can get to a birthday party on time. As we walk out the door, we say our goodbyes and give our Asian half-hugs.

“I’m really excited,” Kim says outside.
”Me, too!” Brian exclaims. “I think this is going to be good!”

I do, too. Baltimore art is changing and we can all feel it. It’s about time that we started decolonizing these local institutions that have represented the arts and artists for so long. And I, for one, am grateful that A++ is on board with that prerogative.


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A++ Presents The Recital: Comedy Variety Show

At the Motor House Baltimore
120 W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21201
Friday, February 15 at 8 PM
Doors open at 7:30 PM

Tickets are $10 online and $12 at the door.

For more information and to purchase, click here.