Bowen Yang contains multitudes.
When the 31-year-old isn’t on an urgent deadline as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, he’s fulfilling his weekly duty to sonically satisfy a bona fide audience of listeners on Las Culturistas, a pop culture podcast he co-hosts with his best friend Matt Rogers. And if he’s not occupied with that, he’s probably on set for one of the waggish, cerebral screen-based media projects he has in the works.
This summer, Yang stars in Fire Island, a Jane Austen-inspired queer summer rom-com written by his long-time friend Joel Kim Booster and directed by Andrew Anh. The narratives that shape the movie and the characters that Yang and Booster play spotlight the complexities of the gay Asian male experience, informed by Booster and own experiences traversing the gay community.
In a candid interview, Yang opened up to The RepresentASIAN Project’s managing editor Nathan Sing about the cultural duality of navigating life as a gay Chinese American, the cardinal importance of chosen family for queer people and the definition of comedy through the lens of a comic beloved by the world.
In Fire Island you play Howie, a romantic, sweet, intelligent best friend to Joel Kim Booster’s character Noah, harbouring a longing for love. Of course, you were Joel’s inspiration for this character. What was your experience navigating gay spaces as an Asian during the time in your and Joel’s life that this film encapsulates?
Bowen Yang: It pretty closely resembles what’s in the film. This duality that I think a lot of queer people of colour have in queer spaces where they go ‘I want to transcend the desires that I have as someone who’s sentimental and who has maybe modelled a lot of their intimacy off of heteronormative ideal of romance, [and then] how do I queer that by being super slutty?’ There’s just this wide breadth and gamut of how we want to approach our own otherized selves.
Howie is someone who has internalized a lot of rejection, and Noah is someone who’s internalized a lot of rejection, but they both have decided different diverging paths from that locus. I would always go into gay bars feeling completely invisible, the way that Howie sometimes feels … feeling undesired. I think it’s pretty plainly stated in the movie by the end that this is something that not only a lot of queer people of colour feel, but everyone feels at some point in their lives—that they are just overlooked people. And the worst feeling you can have as a human being is this feeling of alienation in general. Howie is someone who is at a loss for what to do by the end of the second act before the [film’s] climactic moment.
“I would always go into gay bars feeling completely invisible, the way that Howie sometimes feels … feeling undesired. I think it’s pretty plainly stated in the movie by the end that this is something that not only a lot of queer people of colour feel, but everyone feels at some point in their lives—that they are just overlooked people. And the worst feeling you can have as a human being is this feeling of alienation in general.”
Your character Howie and Joel’s character Noah were the most equitable, honest on-screen representation of gay Asian men of our generation that I’ve ever seen. I’ve observed introspectively how movies that challenge and subvert the insidious misrepresentations of the Asian diaspora have influenced my self-relationship. Has being in the writers’ room and playing these groundbreaking characters on-screen been a healing experience?
It’s been healing, and it’s also broken the wounds open again and then sewed them back shut. And that’s something Joel was responsible for. As the sole writer of this movie, Joel shaped [Fire Island] in a way that was ultimately equitable. If I’m representing Howie as this honest representation of what the gay Asian American experience is like, that has a lot to do with Joel’s pretty lived-in rounded-out experiences. Joel is someone who has seen it all, and that is kind of only possible insofar as he is this desirable Asian American queer person, but he’s also even still navigated this low floor low ceiling existence of being a queer Asian person where you are so summarily, violently, rejected or ostracized, but then also sometimes fetishized and glorified to an overcorrect of extents. Joel has really seen a wide berth of things.
Being both Asian and gay is a very politicized identity, because of how gay Asian men have been both fetishized while concurrently deemed undesirable within gay culture. And for me, Fire Island captured a reimagining of our identities in the mainstream and also showcased how the oppressed can oppress others.
Definitely. The brilliant thing about Joel is that he’s taken the classic beloved text of Pride and Prejudice and layered on this new element, which is the notion of belonging. A place like Fire Island is supposedly a refuge, and yet people’s preconceived notions about Fire Island rest on whether or not they feel like they belong there in the first place. A lot of queer Asian people don’t feel like they belong, and yet Joel and I have gone there in spite of that nagging feeling and carved out a space for ourselves to feel like we work here, we belong here, we can have fun here, we can have an aspirational time here that people will also want to have. I hope that’s illustrated in the movie … even though Margaret Cho‘s character Erin’s house and that chosen family are a little bit limited in their experience there in terms of their resources, they’re still having a great time.
“A place like Fire Island is supposedly a refuge, and yet people’s preconceived notions about Fire Island rest on whether or not they feel like they belong there in the first place. A lot of queer Asian people don’t feel like they belong, and yet Joel and I have gone there in spite of that nagging feeling and carved out a space for ourselves to feel like we work here, we belong here, we can have fun here, we can have an aspirational time here that people will also want to have. I hope that’s illustrated in the movie.”
Aside from being a commentary on the elements of toxicity within the gay community, Fire Island spotlights a signature of the queer experience — the chosen family. What does chosen family mean to you?
Chosen family is something that fills out all of the traumatic vacuums that have been carved out into our souls. There’s this sense of deficiency and lack as we grow into ourselves. As queer people, [chosen family] is so vital. Our survival depends on making sure we find people who make us feel complete. That’s what a chosen family is about. Joel even writes a Howie line into the script … “you find a family that fills in the gaps.” I think that’s what it is, and I’ve been very fortunate to find that in many places—certainly with Joel, certainly with Matt Rogers, who’s also in the film. The three of us are just very, very connected. Even though we are on separate professional journeys in life now, we still find that time to check in. It’s about as familial as any relationship I have in my life.
I had such a visceral reaction to this film, the only films that I recall having a similar feeling upon watching were Everything Everywhere All At Once and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.
Oh my god, Happy Together! I saw In The Mood For Love growing up and was blown away, but I didn’t watch like the rest of Wong Kar-wai’s work until college and after graduating. But that was the right time for me to consume them so I could really understand what was being played with and what was so groundbreaking about his movies. Happy Together is portraying queer Asian intimacy in this completely different ethos of violence and toxicity all between these two characters. And there are those elements in [Fire Island], too, but it’s hopefully something that can be a tonic to whatever is being portrayed in Happy Together, which ends on this beautiful note that is still mournful. Hopefully, there’s something slightly uplifting about Fire Island.
“Chosen family is something that fills out all of the traumatic vacuums that have been carved out into our souls. There’s this sense of deficiency and lack as we grow into ourselves. As queer people, [chosen family] is so vital. Our survival depends on making sure we find people who make us feel complete. That’s what a chosen family is about.”
What are your favourite films that have been formative in your life?
I would say [Everything Everywhere All At Once and Happy Together], too. Everything Everywhere All At Once became one of my favourite movies of all time when I saw it. I never cry at movies, and I cried multiple times. Kung Fu Hustle is just like the perfect movie for me in terms of combining a Looney Tunes aesthetic with the tropes of a martial arts movie, a Wu Shan movie and a comedy. Stephen Chow is probably one of the first auteurs I latched on to. I remember watching Shaolin Soccer and thinking this is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, and there’s a beautiful romance in that movie, too. I think [Chow] is such an alchemist in terms of filmmaking. Return on Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I would consider maybe comedic … that’s one of the most beautiful romances that’s ever been committed to film. I will also say Josie and the Pussycats and Charlie’s Angels in terms of being movies about people who come from disparate lives that come together for a common shared goal, and that is, in some ways, chosen family. Those movies have some lightness to them and deliver something really powerful and potent in terms of how people relate to each other.
For the people who don’t know, can you define comedy?
I can’t. My comedian friends and I talk about this all the time. Our favourite thing about comedy and humour is that you can’t define it. Everyone knows that comedy is subjective, but humour itself is this thing that no one can agree on, and that’s the puzzle that [comedians] solve every time you try to write something that’s “funny.” It’s like this Zelda dungeon; you have to move the blocks around to figure out the pathway to the thing you want. That’s what happens at SNL all the time. Every week is a new challenge, a new puzzle, figuring out how to deliver something as funny as that can be within five days. People don’t realize that we’re working under the clock, and it’s not always going to be the best version of what it could have been, but it’s the fun version because all of this was made in five days.
The thing that stuck with me in defining comedy is that it’s an error and stimulus that something hits your ear the wrong way. Your mind recognizes something as being a little not what it’s supposed to be, and you laugh at the incongruous aspect that something’s not quite right, and that’s why it’s funny. Like in Everything Everywhere All At Once Once with “Raccaccoonie”; my mom has done that a million times for a million different movies, and that’s funny to me because she’s so wrong. That’s an encapsulation of what humour might be.
“That’s kind of what Fire Island is about … the movie itself, going there—it’s just about forming these bonds that can’t be broken by the outside world.”
What is your most memorable experience while on Fire Island?
My most memorable Fire Island experience is probably a little chemically addled. With a few of our other friends, Joel and I took LSD our fourth time going there together. It was our first time doing a psychedelic, and Joel and I came out of that trip being like, “Oh, we’re bonded for life.” There was no question before, we were very close friends, but we just went through this amazing mental experience together and there was just this cosmic feeling that we would [always] be in each other’s lives and, and that’s kind of what Fire Island is about … the movie itself, going there—it’s just about forming these bonds that can’t be broken by the outside world.
Fire Island is streaming now on Disney+.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.