By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The path to stand-up comedy, like the path to any other creative endeavor, can run along seemingly infinite routes. For Seattle’s Bernice Ye, who grew up in Wuhan and was at one point the top-ranked student in that Chinese city, that path didn’t seem appetizing at first.
“I remember going to my first live stand-up comedy show. It was Jim Gaffigan at the Paramount Theater back in 2008,” she said. “Everyone else was laughing, but I was like, ‘What’s a pop tart?’ I didn’t get the reference, and I felt stupid. Not only did I not think I could do stand-up, I stopped going to stand-up shows as an audience member.”
Fate lent a hand, however.
“Around the year 2016, I started watching comedy specials on Netflix. I noticed more comedy from diverse voices speaking of experiences that I can relate to.
Also my English was better by then. I was watching Ali Wong, Hasan Minhaj, Chris Rock, Gad Elmaleh… [and I thought], maybe I should give it a try!
When 2018 came, I made a New Year’s resolution: by the end of the year, I would go to at least one open mic. It’s quite powerful how the universe responds to our wishes once we set our minds to it. I signed up for a stand-up class in February, and the rest is history.”
For Deborah Tahara, a funny lady and filmmaker who grew up in Hawaii, peer pressure proved important.
“The two people who made me want to do stand-up are my co-workers who invited me out to try an open mic,” Tahara recalled. “I told them, ‘No way! I could never do stand-up!’ But I went anyway to go watch and support them. When I saw them bomb, I thought, ‘I can do that.’ So I wrote some jokes and the next week, I went to the same open mic to perform stand-up for my very first time. After that, I was hooked!
“I’m the only one of the three of us still at it. If they didn’t bomb, it might have turned out differently.”
Asked about discrimination, the two agree that they don’t see much of it outright.
“I don’t know about outright racism on the scene,” Ye elaborated. “But in my experience, it is more the gatekeepers (bookers) making assumptions that their white audience won’t like me or relate to me, as a result not giving me the booking opportunities.”
Explained Tahara, “Fortunately, I have not experienced outright racism. I sometimes feel overlooked or invisible, but I blame my own insecurity rather than discrimination. Making people laugh and hustling to improve and get booked are the ways I try to be seen and respected by comedians and audiences.”
Asked about the best places to perform, Ye’s quick to praise Nate Jackson’s Super Funny Comedy Club in Tacoma.
“First of all, Nate is a very funny comedian with lots of industry credits and experience, he respects and loves the craft of comedy, and is genuinely interested in nurturing talents. Second, he is an authentic, generous, and giving human being, and he creates a very supportive and safe environment where everyone treats each other with respect and no judgment, which is crucial for young talents to experiment and grow.
“Lastly, it’s one of four black-owned comedy clubs in the nation and arguably the one with top state-of-art stage. Nate books extremely funny veteran comedians and draws full crowds, so it’s amazing to learn from the pros and it’s a super fun stage to perform.”
Tahara holds her own preferences.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for open mic at dive bar Tony V’s Garage in Everett, because that’s where I started and it’s a great place to take risks in trying new material. Every week, the place is full or near-full of audience members, which is rare for a free open mic show. I’m a regular at Club Comedy on Capitol Hill. Their new location is classy and they get crowds even for weeknight shows.
“Theater shows are my favorite over bar shows,” she adds. “In theaters, the audience wants to laugh and they’re rooting for you to make them laugh. In bars, you have to win over the audience, but when you do, it’s totally rewarding.
Awesome theater venues for comedy are the Carco Theatre in Renton and Red Curtain Center for Arts in Marysville, both of which I just performed at in the last two weeks.”
Both women have also tried booking comedy nights. During the pandemic, Ye moved to Camano Island, which she describes as “a predominantly-white, retirement community.”
“There wasn’t any comedy going on so I brought the comedy to my local community. I also started bringing comedians with diverse backgrounds (POC, immigrants, LGBTQ+, etc) to an audience who had very little exposure to these voices. And it’s absolutely beautiful to see people connect and laugh together.”
As for Tahara, “I just produced my own show on April 8, 2022, at the Red Curtain Center for the Arts in Marysville. It was my first time producing, so I viewed it as a learning experience. We had a lineup of five comedians from the Seattle area, including me, and one from Portland. The comedians were amazing and the crowd enjoyed it. We did not sell out, but I hope to grow the audience with future shows. There are no other comedy shows in the Marysville area as far as I know, so I think the venue has real potential.”
Asked about future plans, Tahara said, “I plan to keep improving as a writer/performer and continue to create experiences that bring audiences together in laughter, whether at a comedy show or watching a film. Watch for more episodes of my web series ‘Funny and Fearless.’”
For Ye, “My mission and passion behind my stand-up have always been: bridging cultures and empowering immigrants through my personal stories. I want to continue to hone my craft and unique voice in stand-up with that vision in mind, but also get into acting and screenwriting. I’m a firm believer that the more people hear and see authentic immigrant stories, the more we are humanized and the more connected we will be with each other.”
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.