2019 was a big year for Bowen Yang, he was shooting Awkwafina’s “Nora from Queens”, touring the country for his “Las Culturistas”, writing for an upcoming Apple TV and he became one of SNL’s first openly gay and first Chinese American cast members.
By the time his promotion to cast member was announced in fall 2019, Yang was almost too exhausted to absorb it. “I was fully burnt out — and in some ways I think that was good,” he says, “because I was just fully numb.” He then booked himself a solo vacation that let him take a beat and absorb it all, for better and for worse. “I just decompressed and let it all hit me,” he says, with the careful consideration of someone who knows when he needs to thread a verbal needle. “It gave me the perspective I could not confer upon myself for the 12 months leading up to that point.
Adding to the pressure were the unavoidable facts that Yang is one of the cast’s first openly gay men to star on the show, and its first Chinese-American star, period. Neither fact escapes Yang, but he approaches his place in comedy with enthusiastic opportunism. After auditioning for “SNL” a few times, he says he actually felt freer to do his own thing after he ran out of famous Asian figures to impersonate. “I really enjoyed the challenge of working around what might have been perceived as this ‘handicap,’” he says. “I could just have fun with it, put on a wig and pretend to be [former New York Times book critic] Michiko Kakutani. I was like, ‘No one else can do this.’”
Since then, Yang’s had more surreal moments on “SNL” than he can count. He’s tackled breakout impressions of presidential hopeful Andrew Yang and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as no one else could. He’s slapped RuPaul across the face in a “Dynasty” parody set in a coal mine and lectured Harry Styles about using a corporate Instagram to promote his sad thirst traps. Characters from his initial auditions — including a manic SoulCycle instructor and the man from the ubiquitous “choking poster” who bears more than a passing resemblance to Yang — made it onto the show, a fact that still blows his mind.
No matter the role, Yang’s delivery — somehow bone dry and histrionic all at once — makes him stand out on a legendary show that once taught him the basics of American pop culture when he and his family first moved from Canada to the United States. “I was 8, and I was probably too young for it, but that’s when I started to watch ‘SNL,’” Yang says. “That’s when I got a sense of what American humor was.” He remembers sitting down in 2000 to watch his first episode, which was hosted by Charlize Theron, and thinking that she must be important if she got to host “SNL.” At that point, he says, the show “opened all these doors in the scope of my pop culture knowledge.”
Yang doesn’t remember a specific time when he had a lightbulb over the head “I’m gay” moment. What he does remember is others pointing it out for him with mocking sneers, which made it all too easy to internalize the idea that he was messing up just by being himself. “The way I see queerness now is that, best case scenario, another queer person reflects it back at you,” he explains. “Worst case scenario, which is what happened to me, is having people say, ‘Well, you like Michelle Branch, so you must be gay.’ Someone points out how there’s something about you that’s unusual, and you go through some Kübler-Ross grief stages with it.”