Comedian Helen Hong on Family, Mental Health and Using Her Platform

“Growing up, I didn’t know comedy was a thing.”

“Growing up, I didn’t know comedy was a thing.”

by Rebecca Gao
January 17, 2024

Trigger warning: This story discusses suicide and suicidal ideation.

When Helen Hong was first getting into comedy, she followed the cardinal rule of writing: write what you know. To 20-something year-old Hong, that meant sex, hook-up culture and dating. As she aged, she still kept it raunchy, sure, but she continued to write what she knew. Which now, in her 40s, means her family, co-parenting her nephew with her sister and her mental health. Though the topic behind her material shifted throughout her career, Hong’s humour has always centered her Asian American identity. 

Ahead of her standup tour dates in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver this month, we spoke to the comedian and actress (who you might’ve seen her in shows like Jane the Virgin and Silicon Valley and movies like Family Switch and Inside Llywen Davis) on her inspiration, why she’s vocal about her mental health and having a dirty mind.

How did you get into comedy?

I got into comedy completely accidentally. I grew up in an immigrant household, so I didn’t know comedy was a thing. A lot of comedians are like, “my dad played Richard Pryor records when I was a kid.” My parents didn’t even know what standup was, so I had no exposure to standup comedy as a child. I didn’t know it was a thing you could do for a living. 

But I was familiar with Margaret Cho when I was young and I thought she was magic and amazing. And I was just like, “who is this crazy Korean woman who just goes on stage and says and is hilarious and says dirty things?!” I was so like, wowed by her. I had always had aspirations to be like an actress and a performer but back then, Connie Chung was pretty much the only Asian woman I saw on TV and that was the only way that I thought that I could be on camera and perform in any way. So I went to school to be a broadcast journalist and I hated it and I ended up with a degree where I didn’t really have any skills. 

Fast forward, I was living in New York and I was working at a talk show that I absolutely hated. It was miserable, I cried myself to sleep every night and to cheer myself up, I decided to take a stand up comedy class at Caroline’s, one of the biggest comedy clubs in New York City. The culmination of the end of the class, the graduation show, is when everybody in the class invites all of their friends and family to like, a 2pm on a Sunday show, when the comedy clubs are all closed. And this is the first time I’m actually doing stand up and it turns out to be like over 200 people, and I’m freaking out. But I went on stage and I was doing well and when I got that first laugh, it was like the heavens opened.

Do you remember any of your material from that first show and how has your material evolved since then?

I have a joke that I did for years and years and years where I said that Helen is the third most unfuckable name after Gretchen and Mildred. And how every other person that I meet would say “oh my god, I love the name Helen, my grandmother’s name is Helen.” And meanwhile I was in my 20s and trying to be sexy. I’d be like, “is your grandmother fuckable, that’s what I’m trying to be.” And I told that joke for years because I still stand by that joke. I still think it’s good.

That’s great. You also have a joke in your special Well Hong that you were named after Helen Keller.

That’s all true and I still think it’s a solid joke. Like Helen Keller was, at that point for Korean immigrants, she was the most famous American figure. That’s why I actually don’t have any of my social media handles because the name Helen Hong is very common amongst Korean immigrants. It’s a miracle that I even have Helen Hong dot com because all these other bitches named Helen Hong have my shit.

And, in terms of your material, it’s always been pretty raunchy. Tell me a little bit about how you’ve balanced the raunch with other stuff, like you do a lot of material about your family too.

I think I just have a dirty mind and I just have to accept that about myself. I don’t know why. Maybe it was my strict Korean upbringing, but I just go to the dirtiest thought possible immediately. And so when I first started to stand up, I was very, very dirty. And, I’m in my 40s now, and I’m still dirty. But I’ve had more life experience now and I have a kid now. So like, you know, obviously there’s more things to talk about and more things to think about and I’m not hooking up with people as much now. 

I think a lot of Asian, especially East Asian, women are driven that way because we were programmed to not be that way by our upbringing. I mean, Koreans are like, if you’re not a virgin when you get married, it’s like you’re trash.That’s how I was raised. I actually have a joke that I did for years where I said, “my parents and I have had one conversation about sex and the conversation was like, sex. No. That’s it.” So I think so many Asian women do very sexual stand-up because we were brought up so strictly and it’s a reaction to that. That’s what happened to me like when I first started stand-up, I was very dirty, and now the pendulum has swung sort of still in the middle, where I’m still quite dirty, but I have other things that I can talk about.

Yeah, a lot of the material you do is about your family, both your parents and you talk a lot about your sister who you’re co-parenting with. Tell me a little bit about that, like kind of finding humor in family.

There’s so much humor. Like even the fact that my sister is a single mother by choice. Like this is not a common occurrence—it’s unheard of in Korean culture and probably in all of East Asian culture. And even in Western culture, being a single mother by choice is unusual, you know? I have a joke in my special where I say, “Okay, we don’t know the words in Korean for sperm, turkey baster, single mother by choice, so how do we even explain to our immigrant parents?”  

Something else that you mentioned in your special that I then went to look up online is you started a YouTube channel with your dad where you kind of talk a bit more about the heavier stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about balancing talking about the lighter stuff but also kind of getting serious talking with the heavy stuff?

I started the channel in the middle of the pandemic because my sister and I both live on the west coast and my parents still live on the east coast and we didn’t see them for a year and a half so we started Zooming. At the same time, the Asian hate stuff was happening, particularly to Asian elders so we were super concerned about that. I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods and I spent all this money on mace and I was like, trying to teach my parents how to use bear spray. It was a horrible time, like thinking your loved ones and your elderly parents who you’re worried about are gonna get attacked randomly in the street. So, we were Zooming and my dad told me super casually this insane story about how he had a brother, a two year old baby brother, who died in the middle of the Korean War. He just casually mentioned and I’m like, wait, what? That’s when it occurred to me: there were all these things that I didn’t know about my parents, and if we didn’t ask like we just wouldn’t know. The fact that they survived the Korean War, which in and of itself is a crazy thing, and we hadn’t really heard that many stories about it. I had a friend who was a producer for Now This and I told him the story he was like, so we did a Zoom interview with my dad which inspired me to start the YouTube channel. It’s mostly with my dad. The only reason why it’s not with my mom is she’s very camera shy even though my mom I think is actually more hysterical, just naturally on camera. So that’s why the channel is called Old Korean Dad Stories and Sometimes Mom. 

He told me this story about how they used to run after the GIs and the GIs would sometimes just throw GI rations at them, and how it was like the happiest moment. So I had this idea that I would go on eBay and find an actual Korean GI ration, and I bought them off of some weird collector and I sent them to my dad, didn’t tell him what they were and just turned on the camera. We got this incredible video of him opening up these GI rations and crying. I’m tearing up just thinking about it, like it’s so touching. I think this is true of everyone, immigrant or not, your parents have lived these incredible lives and have these incredible stories that if you don’t dig for the stories, you just don’t know that they’re there. 

Something else that you also talk a lot about in your special is mental health, and I really liked that you make light of things like depression and getting medicated, especially since mental health and getting help is so stigmatized in Asian communities.

I’m actually about to drop a really deep and heavy Twitter post about how I almost committed suicide this past year. My sister was like, if you don’t go see a shrink, I am going to have you committed to an institution. That is a real thing that happened to me this past year. And the post will talk about how seeking professional psychiatric health and getting on heavy duty medication saved my life. 

There was a comedian but just three weeks ago, he jumped off a building in Harlem and killed himself. His name is Neil Nanda and he was a friend. When I heard about Neil Nanda, I said there but by the grace of God go I. And that’s going to be part of my post. The thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that stand-up comedians as a population probably have a higher rate of severe depression and mental health, there’s something about stand up comedy that is not normal. The average person says the scariest thing that’s scarier than death is public speaking. We stand-up comedians overcome the thing that average humans say is the scariest thing on earth, scarier than death, because we crave validation from complete strangers. So when I heard that my friend Neil Nanda jumped off of a building in Harlem to his death, I wasn’t shocked but I said, but by the grace of God go I and but by the grace go I and everyone in my profession. 

So if I, Helen Hong, killed myself in 2023 everyone would have said, Oh, my God, what a shock she seemed so together, which is what folk did with Neil Nanda and every other comic who kills themselves. That’s something that I really want to delve into this year. So I want to talk about mental health more. Mental health is so stigmatized in the Asian American community and in the Asian community generally. 

I want to also talk about my breast cancer. I’m a pretty private person. I don’t actually like to display every thought that I have on social media. But I do want to share more about my experiences with breast cancer and with mental health on social media, because I do think that’s important, especially for the Asian American community, because cancer is a thing that Asian women have dense breast tissue. Like why is that not common knowledge amongst our community? I’ve been talking about that. I have a joke about it. Like, hey we don’t usually think about Asian women being thick in the titties. But we are thick in the titties. So a mammogram doesn’t cut it, you also need to get an ultrasound and you need to demand one because of our fucked up health system.

It’s really great to open up those conversations and use your platform. 

And I’m going to be talking about this on stage, too.  As well as on social media. It’s kind of against my nature. I don’t really love splaying all my dirty laundry on social media, but like this is laundry that needs to be talked about because this is stuff that can literally save lives. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Helen Hong will be performing in Toronto on January 19, Montreal on January 20 and Vancouver on January 27. Click here to purchase tickets.

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