Jimmy O. Yang, who moved to the US from Hong Kong when he was 13 years old, has quickly established himself as a rising star in the comedy industry. He was recently promoted to be a regular on the hit HBO show Silicon Valley, where he plays Jian Yang. We sat down with him at Fun Fun Fun Fest before his performance there.
Which part of Hong Kong are you from?
I lived just mainly on the Hong Kong Island in one of those high-rise, twenty-five-story buildings. It was pretty cool.
You moved here when you were 13. Why did your family move here?
Some of my family were already here, like my grandfather and my aunt, and mainly I think they just wanted a better education for me and my brother because the schools aren’t, in Hong Kong, as prestigious as the American schools. That’s the main reason we came out here.
When did you decide to get into comedy?
I think it was when I was 21, whatever year that was. It was probably 2008 or so. I actually wanted to study abroad in Florence, which I strongly suggest because we’re just doing trips to different countries every weekend and partying every night. It was such an awesome experience. And then when I came back to the States, I was doing the same old shit, like watching TV and playing Madden, and I’m like, “Nah, I gotta do something else now” because that was such a culture shock for me. So I started doing random stuff. Like, I took boxing classes, jujitsu classes. I wasn’t any good at that, so I thought I should try and do stand-up. It was pretty fun, so I just kept doing it and doing it.
Nice. You start when you’re 21, and now you’re traveling the country.
It’s been great, man. I kind of fell into it, I guess, but I always had a knack for public speaking. I remember in high school I had a public speaking class. Other people would have to prepare two weeks and would really stress out and write everything down. I remember I wrote down some bullet points on my hand five minutes beforehand, and I would get the highest grade in the class. So I knew I had something there; I just never knew it would translate to stand-up, per se.
How was your experience when you first arrived in America? Were you treated well? What bumps on the road did you experience, if any?
Yeah, just imagine: thirteen-years-old, going to not just a different city but a different continent where they speak a different language. I learned a little bit of English in Hong Kong but on paper. Conversationally, I couldn’t really- y’know. And then slang and stuff, it was tough. I remember the first day in PE class, this girl came up to me and said, “What’s up?” I had no idea what that meant. I started looking up like an idiot. So it was little funny moments like that. I was still wearing tighty whiteys, ‘cause that’s what people in Hong Kong wore. I was in the locker room, and people were making fun of me for that. My shorts were like short shorts, and everybody else was sagging their pants back in like early 2000’s and stuff. So yeah, there was definitely some comedy that came from there. Luckily, I was never really bullied ‘cause I was always kind of the funny kid. It was not much of a problem; it was good. I think overcoming that language barrier and that cultural difference made me feel like I could conquer anything.
How does coming from a different country affect your comedy?
I think it’s good with acting and comedy. Not to just be an actor, but to be just a comedian, like going to acting school and all that. I think you have to experience life and then pull certain experiences into your act and your character’s life, whoever you play, so you’re full. So you can understand and relate to what’s going on. You’re relatable, not just some kid growing up in the Hamptons and going to acting school at USC. I feel like there’s not much substance to that. I feel like you have to live your life, and lucky for me, I had that experience when I was young. And now, y’know, I try to still do different things and experience different things so that there’s stuff that I can pull from.
You just got promoted to series regular on Silicon Valley. How did you first get the part? What’s it like working on set? How did you first find out that you had been promoted?
This is a funny story – I think I can talk about it- it first started off as a very small part. It started off as a small part, I thought it was just one episode, a couple of lines. And I was improving with the guys. Everybody is a comedian and improving, and they saw that I could do that. I’m not just some shmucky guy that they hired. And I kinda had a really good sense of who I wanted this character to be, and I think that vision kinda matched what they wanted. It’s not just a nerd, it’s not just a foreign guy; I grew up with these people, you know what I mean? Especially when I went to college. I went to college at UCSD, and there were a lot of people like that. It’s a very fun character to play because I don’t have to try and look good. I’m not like a heart throb or anything. I can just make this character as funny and as ridiculous as possible. My main goal is to make people laugh, which is great. It is so fun to work with those guys. All these guys are comedians, like Kumail [Nanjiani] or Thomas [Middleditch]. TJ [Miller] is a great comedian. Zach [Woods] is awesome at improv. Everybody is so great on the show, and they let us play around so much. Mike Judge is just a freakin’ genius, and he’s such a nice, cool person to work with, both him and Alec Berg. They let us have a lot of creativity on the set. You can just tell when you walk on set that it is going to be fun, mellow, and stress-free. We’re just having fun, and I think it reflects on the show. And as far as being promoted to series regular, my part, when I was going to table reads, I knew was going to be expanded a little more this season, which I was super-stoked about. And then I got offered another series, but I really wanted to do Silicon Valley, so we end up working out a deal and I turn down the other series. I’m super happy to join the Silicon Valley family as a regular, and hopefully, year in and year out, my part will expand more and more. Really looking forward to everything on the show.
What has been your favorite experience working on Silicon Valley?
I think my first day there. We didn’t know the show was going to be Emmy-nominated and a hit. We knew we had a great team and everything. For me, I was just a guest guy having a couple lines. I remember the first day it was the scene where I open the door and let the guy in, telling him this is Pied Piper or something. Then, at the end of that scene, we all start blurting out our names. There’s a lot of jokes stacked on top of each other. I think Kumail was saying Zach’s name, and Zach was saying his own name. It was all crazy. We all just improved a little bit. I just think, “What would this guy say?”, and then I start saying my own name. That wasn’t originally written on the script, so it became four jokes stacked on top of each other. It was just so fun. I remember everybody was just cracking up afterwards. That was a really good first day on a show. It’s just awesome that I now get to stay and do more stuff on the show.
It also says here that you are a writer for the Harlem Globetrotters-
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that! I consulted for them for like a couple of days. It’s such a random credit. It’s kind of whimsical for me to put it on there. I never really wrote for them. What happened was, they go on a tour in China every year, and I am one of the only Chinese stand-up comedians out there. They found me on the internet or something, and then their producer or CFO or COO came out to meet me just to make sure the American script fit in a Chinese market, make sure there is nothing racist or anything like that. It’s the easiest job I ever did. Like, I just talked to him for two hours in a hotel lobby. It’s just a fun random experience that I think catches people’s attention, like “Wow! How did he do that? How did he write for the Harlem Globetrotters?” Like, they had Hello Kitty in a sketch, and I was like, “You know Hello Kitty is Japanese not Chinese, right?” Little crap like that. They really didn’t need me. Like I was just there, hanging out. It was fun. They offered me some free tickets to the Globetrotters – I don’t know if I ever took advantage of that- but they were very nice people.
You talk about there not being a lot of Chinese stand-up comedians out there. Do you think the Chinese stand-up comedy scene is growing?
Yeah, I want it to be. There are a lot of great Asian movements out there, like Kollaboration which has been started by my friend PK, who is also a great stand-up comic. They preach on empowering Asian entertainers. They put on showcases every year in a big theatre. It’s very cool. Things like that I am all about because I think as Asians – I don’t know if you get this experience a lot as a half-Asian- but our parents, y’know, they want stability for us. It’s not that they don’t want us to do certain things; they just want us to do jobs that are steady. They want us to play it safe. They want us to go to college, become a doctor, be whatever. I was a finance major in college, but I was still taking on the side music classes and acting classes, things like that. But we don’t really encourage that in Asian families. I don’t necessarily want to jump on and really talk about that in my set, but I just want to lead by example more than anything. Like, “Hey man, I’m just this immigrant kid. If I can do it, you guys can do it. Not necessarily having an agenda or message in my show, but just me being on stage is a message in itself, like “Hey man, you guys can do it too. It’s totally doable, and Asian people can be funny too.” As far as stand-up, a lot of Asians and Chinese are not as apt to stand-up, especially the older generation since they don’t even know what stand-up is. To this day, my parents call it a “talk show”. They’re like, “Oh! You’re going to do your talk show tonight.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I just don’t want to correct them anymore. It’s kind of like a disconnect. But I think the younger generation, they get it. And we always have a natural tendency to gravitate to people who are similar to us. Whether it’s race or point of view or anything. I hope I can get to more and more of the Chinese audience and kind of lead the way to maybe, y’know, inspire seems like a big word, but y’know…inspire [Chuckles] to get people into entertainment because I think we can be just as good as anybody else.