By Jenny G. Zhang
“Don’t fall asleep with the fan on!” a mother tells her son as she bids him good night, citing a Korean wives’ tale that sleeping with the fan on will result in death. Scoffing, the son ignores the warning and nods off. In the darkness, the fan swivels to a halt and a shadowy figure emerges, standing menacingly over the slumbering man.
Looks like “fan death” isn’t just a kooky urban legend, after all.
The sketch, which features Nic Park, Ray Hui and Loreen Targos, is characteristic of Chicago comedy troupe Stir Friday Night’s unique brand of humor: a blend of Asian-American and universal truths that speak to multiple audiences.
Known as one of the nation’s premier Asian-American comedy troupes, and called “the original Asian-American comedy voice” in Chicago by industry professionals such as Chicago Improv Productions executive director Jonathan Pitts, Stir Friday Night works to 1) provide opportunities for Asian-American artists, and 2) challenge perceptions of Asian Americans, according to Avery Lee, the group’s executive director.
But Stir Friday Night’s shows are not just for Asian Americans. Nor are they for audiences who have no interest in watching any material dealing with race, ethnicity and culture. The rule, according to Second City director and teacher Jay Steigmann, who directed Stir Friday Night’s current revue, is to strike a perfect balance of sketches that are one-third socio-political, one-third universally relatable and one-third just plain entertaining.
“Living the life of an Asian American, it comes through in your writing, even if it’s not explicit,” says Park, 25, who wrote the popular “fan death” sketch. “What inspires us includes things that really hit home.”
At the same time, he emphasizes, “The first priority is, it’s gotta be funny. If it’s not funny, it doesn’t fly.”
The struggle to achieve an equilibrium between racial and ethnic identity, broad appeal and comedic gold isn’t a new challenge for Stir Friday Night. That tension has been there even before the current lineup – Lee, Park, Hui, Targos, Christina Seo, Dacey Arashiba, Jonald Reyes, Kannan Arumugam, Scott Hanada and TJ Medel – going all the way back to the establishment of the group in 1995.
Leaving cliches behind
Keith Uchima, one of the troupe’s original co-creators, remembers how it was “so easy” in the first season of Stir Friday Night to tackle Asian American-related misconceptions, foods and stereotypes with the young performers, who had very few professional opportunities elsewhere. The goal was to make the audience laugh with them, not at them, because they were Asian American.
“We tried to make everything related to the Asian-American experience,” Uchima recalls. But now, he says, “Those are sort of old jokes and very cliche.”
That’s the same mentality that many Stir Friday Night members still felt trapped in back in the early 2000s, says Brian Posen, who directed three shows with the group at the time.
“They said, ‘We are tired of everything having to be Asian, Asian, Asian,’ ” says Posen, a Second City improv teacher, Stage 773 creative director and founder of the annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. He remembers the performers feeling pressured to center all of their work around satirizing Asian-American issues.
“You are Asian, and you are creating, so not everything has to be […] poking fun at Asian things,” he says, pointing out that everything will come from an Asian-American perspective, regardless.
That’s an idea that Stir Friday Night appears to have embraced now. For every bit about Jeremy Lin or Confucius, there’s another about a condo association meeting breaking out into a brawl over pizza, or a goofy song crooned by a guitar-strumming figure named Bagel Beard, who wears a tangle of doughy, carb-heavy facial hair. That’s not to mention the group’s improv, which is lightning-fast and sharp as a Santoku knife, or their audience-interactive pieces that bring onstage charmingly reluctant volunteers.
The best part is, no matter what mindset an audience member may arrive with, he or she will walk away having learned something, whether about “comfort women,” World War II’s internment camps, the model minority myth or more, according to Steigmann.
“There are very few comedians trying to get an angle on their histories,” she says. “That’s the difference.”
The cast members’ honest representations of themselves, whether touching on Asian-American issues explicitly or implicitly, stand out in a community where diversity is, frankly, a little lacking.
“It’s a white world,” says Targos, 29, during a Thursday rehearsal. Park cuts in: “That’s the system in which the Chicago improv world, for better or worse – well, worse – grew up. As minority performers in what is frankly a white world, you just kinda have to deal with it, and it sucks.”
“A thirst for different voices”
In a city famous for its laughs, very few of the most famous performers produced by the local comedy scene – Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert – are people of color. Steven Yeun from “The Walking Dead” and Danny Pudi of “Community” fame, both Stir Friday Night alumni, are some of the few high-profile Asian-American actors who have made it big on mainstream American media by way of Chicago.
Steigmann acknowledges that much of comedy has traditionally been dominated by straight, white men, but says that individuals and institutions such as Second City are taking steps to make the comedy world more inclusive and diverse. Second City’s 40th e.t.c. Revue cast, she points out, is made up of four women, including two black women, one Asian-American man and one white man, which is emblematic of the changes taking place in the community.
Now, more than ever, there is “a thirst for different voices,” says Lee – different voices, actors, stories and representation. And that’s where Stir Friday Night fits in, offering 10 different voices from a group of writers and actors who range in age, ethnic background, beliefs, sexuality and more.
Stir Friday Night’s role in highlighting different voices meshes well with their current “home” venue, The Revival, one of the only comedy stages on the South Side.
“There’s a tremendous community of people on the South Side, but thus far they haven’t had as many theater options as their North Side counterparts,” says owner and founder John Stoops, who opened The Revival near Hyde Park last November.
“Giving voice to the Asian-American community is incredible, and offering a home to some of Chicago’s finest Asian-American performers is incredible and is a welcome addition,” Stoops says. “It allows them to tackle some issues from a perspective that some other groups might not be able to.”
Stir Friday Night is a “tentpole” in the community, he says, because the group has been producing so consistently for so long.
That longevity is a rare and impressive achievement in a world where groups can appear and disappear in a matter of months.
“Out of all these comedy troupes that come and go in the Chicago comedy community, even non-minority groups, is there any other group that’s been around for 20 years that still has a name?” asks Reyes, 37.
And after more than two decades of history and legacy, there’s still no end in sight. In human years, the troupe has reached maturity, but it’s constantly evolving and welcoming new waves of cast members young and old.
“Stir Friday Night is much bigger than any one person,” says Posen. “It keeps replenishing itself and bringing new artists in. They built something beautiful, and they keep passing it on generation to generation.”
Artists keep something alive, according to Park, and that’s why Stir Friday Night will continue to exist.
“It’s more about how much people who aren’t yet part of our group want it to exist,” he says. “Asian-American artists will always want to be a part of something like this.”
In the meantime, says Lee, they have high hopes for growing even bigger and better in the future, with more funding, tours, regular performances, videos, their own space – all the while ensuring that Stir Friday Night will always exist for those who need and want it.
“The most empowering thing is that we’re doing sketch comedy, and people are coming to see it, and we’re doing the best we can. That’s the most you can ask for, and that’s what we’re getting,” says Park. “We’re going to continue to grow and continue to do awesome shit and make people laugh and hopefully make Asians feel a little more special.”