Bowen Yang

Jan 8, 2021

In high school, comedian Bowen Yang was voted "most likely to be on Saturday Night Live," a prophecy he shrugged off in his interview with NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg. "It wasn't specifically that people were like, he's going to end up on that show. It was just like, "Oh, Bowen he does improv in the cafeteria every other Friday... he tries to get us to come back to school and watch him do short form improv.""

The child of immigrant parents, he grew up without cable but spent his Saturday evenings adjusting the bunny ears on his family's television to religiously watch Saturday Night Live. In 2020 he made history when he became the first Chinese-American cast member on the show.

Yang began his time with Saturday Night Live in 2018 in the writer's room. When he appeared on Ask Me Another in 2019 he talked about the show's rigorous audition process and how, by the end of it, he was running out of Asian public figures to impersonate. "I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel by the end. I did, like, Michiko Kakutani and like... I thought about doing Hanya Yanagihara."

Yang also discusses his love of pop culture on his podcast Las Culturistas with comedian Matt Rogers. His Ask Me Another challenge combined some of his favorite TV shows and video games into new, imaginary crossovers.

Interview Highlights:

On the era of Saturday Night Live during COVID-19

I think it's mostly the same, although it's kind of a fun unwrapping moment on Saturday when cast members take the masks off. Because throughout the entire week, all the way up to dress rehearsal, even when we're watching ourselves block the sketches on camera, everyone has their mask on. Which is how it should be. I think it has been a nice precaution that has erred on the side of safety. It's a fun thing to remind each other that we have faces.

On the newfound popularity of the game Animal Crossing

I was an early adopter. I was really really looking forward to it coming out even before lockdown happened and then of course everyone glommed onto it. And I embrace that that's the whole point of the game, you want to build a community throughout this video game. I love it. I bless it. I got really freaked out within the 4th week, like other people having more developed islands than me. And I felt weirdly inadequate so I stopped.

Heard on Mayim Bialik & Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang: Our Best New Show Of 2021.

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And speaking of Final Fantasy, our next guest is a huge fan of that role-playing video game series and all other things pop culture. Returning to the show, he hosts the podcast "Las Culturistas" along with comedian Matt Rogers, and he's now also a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." Bowen Yang, hello.

BOWEN YANG: Hello. How are you?

EISENBERG: Good. In high school, you were actually voted the most likely to be on "SNL."

YANG: Yeah, but that was, like, the very floridly worded way of saying, like, goofiest...


EISENBERG: Right - funny guy.

YANG: Funny guy. That's - it wasn't specifically that people were like, he's going to end up on that show. It was just that, like, oh, Bowen - he does improv in the cafeteria every other Friday. Or once a month at 7 p.m. on a Friday, he tries to get us to come back to school and watch him do short-form improv.


YANG: That was a - it was a dark time.


YANG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Did you watch "SNL"?

YANG: Just classic immigrant story - I mean, child of immigrant story - did not grow up with cable and so felt constantly like I was being spoken to in a foreign language when I would go to school. And people would be like, did you watch this? Did you watch that? I'd be like, no, but I did watch "SNL." So I watched it pretty obsessively and then would have to adjust the bunny ears every Saturday so that I would get Fox, which came in clearer, and watch "MADtv" and then at 11:30, switch it over to NBC and then reorient the antenna.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Amazing. Amazing.

YANG: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So, I mean, when we last had you on the show, you were writing on SNL. And now you have moved to not only cast member but the first Chinese American cast member in the history of the show. I mean, just huge congrats all round.

YANG: Thank you.

EISENBERG: You know, you - as a cast member of "SNL," you have a pretty unique vantage point right now because, well, you were a writer. Then you're a cast member. Then you do a Zoom version, and then now you're back in the studio doing "SNL" but with a smaller live audience.

YANG: Right.

EISENBERG: I imagine just a very different feel around the studio.

YANG: I think it's mostly the same, although we kind of - it's kind of a fun little unwrapping moment on Saturday when we take - when cast members take the masks off because throughout the entire week all the way up to dress rehearsal, even when we're watching ourselves sort of block the sketches on camera, I mean, everyone just has their mask on...


YANG: ...Which is just how it should be. I think it's been, like, the nice precaution that's been - that's erred on the side of safety and all that. But I feel like it's a fun thing when, like, you - we remind each other that we have faces.


YANG: But otherwise, it just feels remarkable and crazy and lucky that we're even performing a show at all...


YANG: ...In front of an audience.

EISENBERG: Oh, my goodness. I know.

YANG: An audience.

EISENBERG: An audience.

YANG: It's wild.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: OK, Bowen, we have a - we've concocted a special game for you. Would you like to play a game?

YANG: I would love to play this game.

EISENBERG: OK, so we know that you are a fan of the video game Kingdom Hearts.

YANG: Yes. This is perfect because Kingdom Hearts is the brainchild of Tetsuya Nomura, who designed a lot of the characters in the Final Fantasy series. But he was given creative control to start his own franchise. And so he came up with this crazy idea to have an original story - all the original story but to have in characters from both Disney franchises and Final Fantasy. And so it was just this really unlikely, unexpected mashup back in 2003 when it came out - 2002, 2003 - excuse me. And everyone in the industry was like, what the hell is this going to be?


YANG: And then it ended up kind of working. And then since then, the plot's become very convoluted. But overall, it's a very charming series. And you see - you get to, you know, beat monsters with Woody and Buzz and Ariel and...

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

YANG: ...You know, like, Simba. And it's like every Disney movie is represented in some capacity. And it's truly - this is pre-"Avengers," where that kind of thing really genuinely blew your mind to see...


YANG: ...These different properties meet up. So...

COULTON: Massive crossover. Yeah.

YANG: Exactly. That kind of thing was the novelty, and it remains novel to a lot of people.

EISENBERG: So this inspired us to write a game...


EISENBERG: ...Where we imagined what would happen if existing video games crossed over with completely unrelated television shows.

YANG: Oh, OK. Great.

EISENBERG: OK, so you just are going to name the video game and the television show that we're hinting at.

YANG: Great. Great.

EISENBERG: Here we go. A new foe has appeared. Debra Messing takes a break from developing a Marilyn Monroe musical to throw bombshells at Donkey Kong, Mega Man and the Wii Fit Trainer in a four-player fight to the finish.

YANG: Lovely. This is "Smash" and Super Smash Brothers.

COULTON: (Laughter).


YANG: Wonderful.

EISENBERG: Even though, again, because I am video game illiterate, when I read Super Smash Brothers, I was like, are those bros who...

YANG: Bros.

EISENBERG: ...Really like "Smash"?

YANG: To smash?


YANG: Could be.

EISENBERG: Who knows?

YANG: Who knows?

COULTON: All right, here's another one.


COULTON: Build and decorate homes on Wisteria Lane, where every virtual stay-at-home spouse has a dark secret. Use a floating green crystal to make Teri Hatcher light her kitchen on fire, or give Eva Longoria a heart-shaped bed for her affair with the gardener.

YANG: This is "Desperate Housewives" and The Sims.


YANG: Desperate House-Sims.

COULTON: That's correct. Yeah.

YANG: Great.

EISENBERG: All right. This franchise enters its 25th cycle with a fresh batch of contestants. During makeover week, Charmander gets a smoky eye, and Squirtle reluctantly removes his shell. Evolve quickly, or Tyra Banks will give a passionate speech about how she was rooting for you.

YANG: Wow. This is - I'm just going to combine - I know this is not the prompt. I'm just going to combine the titles.

EISENBERG: I want you to.


YANG: OK - America's Next Top Pokemon.


YANG: Great.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Snorlax is smizing (ph) - so many things that could happen here.

YANG: I would watch that show.

EISENBERG: I would watch that show, too.


YANG: Hundred percent.

EISENBERG: All right. Well, now you have to do mashups for all the rest of them now that you've said.

YANG: Yes.

EISENBERG: By the way, do you have a - I mean, I think Snorlax would probably be in Next Top Pokemon. Do you have...

YANG: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...A Pokemon that you think might be a good contender?

YANG: I have always loved - not Jigglypuff. Are you are you familiar with Jigglypuff?

COULTON: I do like Jigglypuff.

EISENBERG: Jigglypuff.

YANG: The singing pink ball.


YANG: Well, Jigglypuff evolves into Wigglytuff, where...


YANG: ...They have longer ears, a more filled-out abdomen - really versatile. You know, you might not think that Wigglytuff can, like, throw a thunder or lightning-type move at you. But, oh, just you watch.

EISENBERG: Watch out. Watch out. Right.

YANG: Watch out. Watch out.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Fierce. That's right.

YANG: Fierce. Yep.

COULTON: OK. Move to the deserted island of Hollywoo, and build a beautiful mansion that you realize won't bring you happiness. Welcome a community of anthropomorphic animals like a depressed horse, an overly positive dog and a cat who just can't balance work and family life.

YANG: BoJack Crossing or Animal Horseman, Animal BoJack.


COULTON: (Laughter) That's right. Animal Horseman is...

EISENBERG: Oh, animal - that is frightening.

YANG: Animal Horseman...

EISENBERG: (Singing) Animal Horseman...

COULTON: That's right. It's "BoJack Horseman" and Animal Crossing put together.

YANG: Wonderful.

EISENBERG: Do you - are you playing Animal Crossing? Is that...

YANG: I'm sorry to take this tone.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YANG: I was anticipating Animal Crossing. I was an early adopter. And then I was really, really looking forward to it coming out even before lockdown happened. And then, of course, everyone sort of glommed on to it. And I embrace that. That's the whole point of the game. You want to build a community through this video game. I love it. I bless it. I got really freaked out within the fourth week at, like, other people having more developed islands than me, and I felt weirdly inadequate, so I stopped.



EISENBERG: You were like, you know what? This was better when it was my thing.

YANG: Exactly.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) I don't need all of you...

YANG: And that's what I'm saying.

EISENBERG: ...First-time people. Now this is...

YANG: Outpacing me...


YANG: ...Ridiculous.


EISENBERG: All right. We've got a few more for you.

YANG: Great, great.

COULTON: OK. How about this one?

YANG: That was a beautifully written one. Yes, OK.

COULTON: When Yuna is unexpectedly trampled by a giant chicken like creature called a chocobo, Sandra Oh steps in to continue her sphere-hunting quest. However, she develops mixed feelings after meeting her rival, the evil yet charismatic Leblanc. The tension builds until you just want to yell, kiss already.

YANG: Whoever wrote this was very specific with the Final Fantasy entry because its Final Fantasy X-2.

COULTON: (Laughter) That is correct.

YANG: Killing Fantasy X-2.

EISENBERG: Yeah, sure.

YANG: "Killing Eve."

COULTON: "Killing Eve"...

YANG: OK, great.

COULTON: ...That's right.

YANG: So X-2 is the "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" of the series.

COULTON: (Laughter).

YANG: You play as three, like, girls who are carefree and who fight crime. And it's really lovely.

EISENBERG: I just want to do an entire show called Bowen Yang Explains Video Games to Me because I feel like this is an education. And I'm finally understanding.

YANG: Well, you know, the best compliment I've ever gotten from a coworker is Anna Drezen, who is a longtime friend of mine from college, which she was like - one day she turned to me and she said, you know, Bowen, you make video games seem accessible or you make it seem - you make them seem less esoteric or whatever she said.


YANG: I'm like, yeah, like, they should be. Like, they're fun. That's the point. So that means a lot, Ophira. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I remember a math teacher who made calculus seem to me like it existed in the real world, and I'm having a similar feeling.


YANG: Well, that's a full con of them.


YANG: Calculus does not exist in the real world.

EISENBERG: All right. I've just been sent a bonus question. Play as McDreamy, McSteamy, Waluigi. Race to get ahead in a fast-paced field of emergency medicine. Choose to play in Shondaland or Bowser's Castle. Fire a fork at your opponent or distract them with your ex-boyfriend's ghost while listening to "How To Save A Life."

YANG: Wonderful - wonderfully worded, written clue. I mean, Mario Kart's Anatomy or Grey's Kart.

EISENBERG: I think Grey's Kart is pretty funny.


YANG: Grey's Kart is a beautiful portmanteau.

EISENBERG: I like that - yes.

YANG: Race car, yeah.


EISENBERG: Grey's Kart, yes - all correct, all correct and correct.

YANG: Great. Thank you for writing to my specific one intersection in culture - pop culture.

EISENBERG: Everyone was excited. Everyone was excited. Bowen Yang stars on "Saturday Night Live" and co-hosts the podcast "Las Culturistas." Thank you so much.

YANG: Thank you for having me. As usual - as always, this was a pleasure. And this is my favorite NPR show.



YANG: Yay.

EISENBERG: Thank you.

YANG: Thanks, guys.

EISENBERG: Thank you. And that's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles are written by our staff, along with Camilla Franklin, Cara Weinberger and senior writer Karen Lurie. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel, and our boss's bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias...

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: ...And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.


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EISENBERG: Next time on ASK ME ANOTHER, we revisit an episode from October. Our guest is Heidi Schreck, writer and star of "What The Constitution Means To Me." And we all try to keep it together as kids read excerpts from the Constitution.


MICHAEL: For the United States of America.


COULTON: That kind of made me cry a little bit.

SCHRECK: I got teary.

EISENBERG: So join me on NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER, the answer to life's funnier questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.