It’s hard not to pay attention to Bowen Yang.
Between his show-stealing iceberg skit on SNL, acting as Edmund alongside Awkwafina in Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, and having the beloved cult comedy podcast Las Culturistas with co-host Matt Rogers, it seems like Bowen is in a steady trajectory of being a pop culture mainstay himself. “I’m not the kind of person who can always sit still,” Bowen admits.
It’s evident by how he’s, in his own way, revolutionizing the projects he’s part of. His formidable yet warm presence coupled with his sharp, ingenious work is proof that the Bowen fever is not stopping anytime soon. Even Time Magazine was caught up in the flurry, crowning him as part of their revered list of The Most Influential People of 2021.
Young STAR met with Bowen over Zoom to talk about what he’s got going on now, and how he finds balance amidst the frenzy.
YOUNG STAR: I recently read your interview with Olivia Rodrigo and saw your post on Instagram about it along with the meme of Olivia with her gay fans. I know you’re not on Twitter, so do you get these gems off Instagram?
BOWEN YANG: Oh, my gosh, well, thank you so much for connecting that line with Filipino-icon-at-this-point Olivia Rodrigo. I’m not on Twitter, I get sort of the greatest hits from Twitter through Instagram now. Anytime something really breaks through — you know, for it to actually break through — means everyone you know has to take notice of it.
I feel like Olivia has done that in her career and I feel like the conversation around her among her new queer fans has been very sort of, “Oh, everyone’s on the same page about this, right?” So it feels like I was just kind of made aware of her around the same time as a lot of other people and I adore her.
I want to talk about Nora from Queens. What was your favorite thing about the show this season?
I feel like this season was really about making sure that these characters all were confronted with their identities. So between Wally getting back into dating and hanging out with his high school friends, or with Nora traveling through time, seeing a younger version of herself perhaps, or between Edmund coming back and being confronted with really difficult circumstances, everyone has had to define who they are and that’s not what you always get with a comedy, I think.
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It’s also wonderful to be working with an all-Asian cast, which is not something common.
No! I had such an emotional experience working on the first season where I didn’t realize that this was something that I wanted. I didn’t realize I wanted to be part of a show or a project that had an all-Asian cast and I took it for granted until I reminded myself that this is not what I’ve always felt going into a set or a project.
I’ve always had to sort of explain things about myself, about my culture, where I come from — everyone’s talking about their parents and I go, well, my parents are from Mainland China and they grew up during the Cultural Revolution and it’s all these things that people kind of gloss over.
It was really nice to have this shared experience even just in terms of the cultural aspect of it with BD, Nora, Lori — and then for Lori to tell you all these stories about when she was coming up decades ago. It’s a beautiful sort of handing down of this shared wisdom that we all come to in terms of what it’s like to work as an Asian in entertainment.
Was it hard to balance that with all of your other projects, especially with SNL?
It was difficult but it was never something that I struggled with, if that makes sense. It was hard to take breaks from SNL and then go to Nora but I looked forward to going to work every single day. When it came to doing Nora — and that just speaks to the way the set was handled, the way that everyone felt safe, the way everyone was just very close — there is this family feeling on that set, especially with the writers, producers and directors.
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By the end of shooting this season, I really looked around and was like wait, this is my TV family and yet they feel almost like a real one too, you know? We all are on this text chain, we all check in with each other and so it was just a really special experience. It didn’t feel like I had to juggle anything, it just felt like a beautiful, seamless way to move from one thing to another.
You have these projects across multiple platforms and so you’re kind of inadvertently carrying the weight of representation with you. Is this something you’re hyper-aware of?
I feel like I go back and forth. I feel like it’s also interesting to try and think of it in a balanced way where it is this very important thing and it’s this communal project that everyone’s working on together. It is very nice to be able to see all these different projects populated by Asian people whether it’s Shang-Chi or Nora from Queens or Kung Fu.
There are all these great, great, great things out now that are made by Asian people and I feel like I can think about that larger context and also think about myself in terms of, “Am I proud of what I’m doing? Am I putting out something good that I can stand by when it comes to my communities?” It’s nice to have those things balanced out where I don’t put too much pressure on myself but I feel, maybe, some responsibility and so that’s the balance that I’m finding.
My last question is kind of a personal one. Is it too late to start Grey’s Anatomy?
Oh, my gosh, I feel like it’s never too late to start especially if you want to just watch the first. I stopped watching after Sandra Oh left just because she’s, like, my favorite character but I feel like those first three seasons — four seasons even — are really, really great. I mean it’s a great show throughout but I really connected with those first several seasons because I thought, wow this is such a great show, and, wow there’s this Asian actor that I like and she’s fantastic.
Catch the latest season of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens on Comedy Central!
Photo by Pari Dukovic for Comedy Central