After seeing Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin on SNL in 2008, as a young, queer, Asian kid, I was unexpectedly so impacted by that performance that from then on, I knew I wanted to be a comedian. There was something so inescapably touching about seeing that first SNL Sarah Palin skit- one composed of sharp writing, comedic fearlessness, and a legendary performance, that I knew that is what I wanted to achieve in my career when I was older. To this day, watching this skit as an 8th grader may be one of the strongest moments in my life. I felt alive, fearless, and exceptionally encouraged to be that good, feelings I had never until that moment experienced.
So I did everything I could think of to be a performer and do comedy. Although I had never had any acting or performing experience whatsoever, I tried out for the high school musical my senior year. Didn’t get cast. In college I majored in Drama. It took a few years, but I ended up graduating with a few acting roles under my belt, creating a sketchy comedy group that focused on diversity and social issues, and I was even selected as a student speaker/performer for my graduation. I tried out for the school’s improv group twice (never made the cut), so I took improv lessons at an improv theater down the street. Since college, I’m slowly starting to write more and focus my time and energy to engage with comedy in a more serious and tenacious way.
Last night before I went to bed, I read an article by Chicago Magazine about Peter Kim, a cast member of The Second City’s A Red Line Runs Through It quitting after abhorrent racist remarks were yelled by hecklers in the audience. Although Peter said that hecklers during an improv show isn’t an uncommon occurrence, there was a specific incident that two audience members made a racist joke against a Hispanic couple that crossed the line. Kim, who said that he has heard audience members call him a “fag”, or told his fellow castmates who are women that they are “whores,” to even hearing racist remarks about his racial identity while he was performing, is used to this ignorance and hate. But Kim said this comment made against the Hispanic couple was the ultimate moment where he just couldn’t continue to perform.
A lot of things went through my head when I read this. My first thought was, “I SAW Peter Kim when I was in Chicago!” As the comedy nerd that I am, I took myself on a Chicago pilgrimage this last March to visit the city but mainly to see The Second City, the improv school where comedic geniuses like Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert, among many, many others came from. I saw Peter in the production of A Red Line Runs Through It, where he was accompanied by two actresses- two Black women, who, in my opinion, all stole the show and gave the sketches and story of the production nuance, freshness, and potency. I saw myself in Peter Kim- as a queer Asian American I was awestruck to see someone like me on that stage. I could imagine myself on that stage!
My second thought was how Peter left his “dream job” because of this incident. As an improviser, I have dealt with moments of racial insensitivity or exclusion in improv. I’ve been the only person of color in the room, I’ve watched my castmates appropriate different races, use strange racial references in exercises for no reason, and even made crude jokes about slavery. At first I was absolutely appalled that this was happening, or that this could or would happen. I just wanted to focus on improv, which is a challenge in and of itself. But as a person of color who is gay, I learned, from the advice of mentors, how to be more prepared for these interactions and rise above the stereotypes, microaggressions, or moments of ignorance in improv that I may experience. But to leave a job, a dream job, because there is just too much ignorance and hate in the atmosphere? Devastating. Absolutely devastating.
My last thought was then: “Why didn’t The Second City do anything about this?” Peter said that when those racist remarks were gleefully thrown into the theater, 200 people in the audience went “speechless.” I don’t necessarily condemn the audience, but if the theater company fails to react or create an atmosphere to be accepting, respectful, and one that doesn’t put up with discrimination in any form, not only will departures like Kim continue to happen, The Second City isn’t doing its job. Period.
Reading this article was sadly a much needed wake up call for what I may experience as a minority improviser. It saddens me to hear that the small number of minority improvisers on main stage shows are ridiculed and discriminated against, and not respected in the way that they inherently should. But somehow, I am still motivated to find myself on that stage even with the fear of immense hate and ignorance, because I am truly inspired by Peter Kim and all the improvisers out there who are fighting to embody who they are on a stage.