It's not easy being Bobby Lee. Years of Connie Chung make-up can take a heavy toll. Lee, the Korean-American comic, a six-year veteran on MadTV, has spoofed every imaginable Asian celebrity, alive or dead, male and female. And when people talk about "The Korean Wave," they often point to Lee as a sign it has broken over North America.
By 2005, Asian countries started to implement quotas on cultural imports from Korea. Even Japan, the originator of Asian-cool, felt threatened and as proof of status-anxiety, a controversial comic rejecting Hallyu, Manga: The Anti-Korean Wave, became a best-seller there.
But when Hallyu hit North America, it gathered force not so much through the front-door of Hollywood and mainstream media, but rather through its side-doors of YouTube and torrent-sharing sites on which huge number of fans not only post and share videos but also form collaborative teams to translate Korean shows into multiple languages for non-Korean viewers.
Which brings us back to Bobby Lee, who got big on YouTube. There you can find million-viewed clips of him spoofing well-known South Korean dramas and parodying a certain North Korean dictator. Come to think of it, Bobby struts his way through nearly every Korean and Asian representation and stereotype, adding to them his own stamp of irreverence and subversion. Did I also mention his predilection for stripping down to his underoos? That and his robot dance? Stuff of YouTube mania.
I met Bobby earlier this month before his first Vancouver gig, opened by local comedians Paul Bae and Jeffery Yu. We chatted outside by the parking lot, breathing in the eastside evening air, fragrant with Bobby's smokes and garbage containers ignored under the civic strike. Early in our interview, Bobby Lee startled me by saying: "I'll be honest, the whole Asian thing freaks me out, in the sense that people put too much on it. Korean wave -- there's no wave. It's not any kind of movement. If there was, it's dead."
But 40 minutes later, he wound back to the topic: "Let me say one thing about the Korean wave ... I remember last year, me, Margaret Cho and John Cho all had deals with major networks. Ten years ago, an Asian actor wouldn't even get a holding deal. They wouldn't even be considered. This is a sign of networks and people are getting it ... Me and Dr. Ken Jeong, we're in the new Judd Apatow movie Pineapple Express. Judd's the hot guy, you know. It's a small part, but being part of that kind of thing is cool. And just the fact that I'm getting a network deal every year. Those are obvious positive signs. You know, that's why I have low self-esteem, for me to ingest all that [success] I have to downplay it."
Here's what else Bobby Lee had to say...
On his Hallyu spoofs and who gets it:
"It goes back to comedy of being hacky ... you don't want to be hacky, you want to be original. It's 2007. You want to do comedy that's pretty modern. At times you want comedy that's cerebral. At other times, it can be below the belt. With that piece, it was a weird thing where white kids in America were watching these Korean soap operas. And they get it, the inside jokes. People really like it. It was weird and exciting because it's hard to come up with things people like."
On the misses:
"But we've had failures too .... This Yao Ming sketch where I played Yao Ming. We hired kids to play the other basketball players. So the concept was funny, right? But they [screwed] it up in editing .... There was another one where on paper it was so funny but when we put it on, it was so racist. The sketch was basically where I'm adopted by these white folks who didn't tell me I was Asian. They just pretended to be Asian. [laughter] So it's me coming home with a date and my white parents come out with the [Asian] eyes, make-up and the whole house is decked-out with like gongs and shit. And when I walked in with my dad, the audience [gasped] they thought it was like, blasphemy. I thought it would be okay, because I wrote the sketch and people know I'm on the show, but it just turned out so racist."
How YouTube giveth:
"I'm starting my seventh year on MadTV and as soon as YouTube started, that's when I started becoming accessible. Those two guys that sold YouTube, I brought them to my show in L.A. and thanked them on the show."
And how YouTube taketh away:
[Earlier last year, Lee ran into controversy when a YouTube video of Lee accusing his friend Carlos Mencia of stealing fellow comedian Joe Rogan's material, was circulated. Bobby followed with an apology video.]
"That whole thing between Mencia and Rogan is so deep and ugly, and I just got stuck in the middle of it. The original video [that Rogan posted] is a mash-up where Rogan just cut me into this thing, something he taped me years ago. It was just so bad. I still have the message that Carlos left on my voicemail after he saw the video. It's the worst thing you've ever heard. You want to hear it? But it can't be on tape."
[Tape turned off, we listen to Mencia's short but very expletive message. Bobby is defensive in response.]
"First of all, if I didn't do that apology, it would have severed my relationship with Carlos (he taped it) who's a really good friend. And listen, it didn't hurt Mencia. It didn't hurt his career, you know. He's playing big shows. I ran into Joe the other day and Joe's like: Sorry. And I'm like: Alright, it's cool. I defended a friend, that's all. If that one mistake drives me out of the business, so be it."
On not being an ethnic comic:
"One theme of my [new Comedy Central] show is that I am Asian. There will be elements there. Actually, the first episode has my Dad giving me the List. The list of races I'm allowed to date [laughs]. It's a flash-back to the '70s and on one of those cardboard posters he writes number one: Korean, number two: White. I think [my dad's] list only went to 10, but on my show, the list goes to a hundred. We do a cut to number sixty-two. This is edgy, but it'll be: [in Korean accent] 'Number 62: Eskimo. Number 63: Lithuanian.' Then we do 'cut!' and it's number 99: bugs [laughs] and one hundred: Chinese [laughs]. On the show I bring home my Chinese girlfriend and I find out that on her dad's list, the last is Korean. It'll have that sort of stuff in the show. But, it'll be more about my life. You know, I've been to six drug rehabs."
On universal comedy:
"Oh they [non-Asians] love me. When I started, I went out on the road with Carlos Mencia. I would do all the Hispanic rooms throughout Texas. I've done many shows with Martin Lawrence and the black crowds love me. My shows are fairly universal. A lot of dick jokes, a lot of jokes about how small my dick is. They love that stuff." [I interject: So the shirt is coming off tonight?] "Oh yeah, I'm gonna get really naked tonight."
Bobby Lee at his recent Vancouver performance. Photo by Jodi Muzylowski.
On being a model-minority (and edgy jokes about Virginia Tech):
"I started telling jokes about Virginia Tech the very next day. I find that event baffling and this is my angst against America. Thirty-two innocent people died and that's horrendous and I don't support that at all. But it really has nothing to do with Cho-Seung Lee. Every race has a crazy. We're human beings, it's the human condition. [The contradiction is that there was so much on Virginia Tech but then] we're supporting a war and we're in Iraq where that shit happens everyday. It's horrible. It's also a reality check, this shit is happening around the world, and it's happened throughout history.
"In a sense you could take a positive out of it and, this is edgy, but it's a sign that we're becoming more American too. I've always said that if Asian Americans want to take advantage of the American experience, they have to encourage their children to do all kinds of jobs. Be a porn star. Why not, if you're male? We don't have any male porn stars. Whenever I see a homeless Asian guy, I feel happy. I go: there you go. If I saw an Asian NASCAR driver, great.
"Do I feel role-model pressure from the community? No, because you get a sense of encouragement from it."
On big, and bigger:
"You know, I've been so close to huge movies, but I've had so many disappointments. In the last couple of years, I've lost parts in the biggest comedy hits. I just can't get in."
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