From a childhood in Canada to SNL: Bowen Yang is changing the game

On the CBC podcast Chosen Family, Yang talks about his journey from his francophone childhood in Canada, his NYU pre-med student days in an alternative sketch group, to breaking boundaries for representation at the top levels of comedy.

Bowen Yang was voted as the "most likely to appear on Saturday Night Live" in high school, but never thought it was something he would do. 

"It was never this white whale of like, 'I'm going to be on SNL someday,'" says Yang on CBC's Chosen Family podcast.

Yang is now SNL's first Chinese-American and its third openly gay cast member, and his presence on the last three seasons has been changing the game.

He's done sketches with Schitt's Creek's Dan Levy, and his impressions have ranged from Kim Jong-un, "Trade Daddy" Chen Biao to the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

On the CBC podcast Chosen Family, Yang talks about his journey from his francophone childhood in Canada, his NYU pre-med student days in an alternative sketch group, to breaking boundaries for representation at the top levels of comedy. 

Montreal's Just For Laughs opened Yang to the world of comedy

When he was young, Yang's family moved from Australia to Canada, where he grew up in Brossard, a suburb of Montreal, Québec for seven years. He recalls speaking French better than English or Mandarin, begging his parents to get rotisserie chicken at St-Hubert's, and going to Just For Laughs (JFL) every year.

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"That was my first exposure to what different kinds of comedy sort of converging at the same point looked like, and it was just so thrilling. I, as a kid, really sort of lit up over it," Yang says on Chosen Family

It was "truly a heartbreaking moment" when at eight years old, his family moved from Quebec to Denver, Colorado. When he came back to Montreal for Just For Laughs in 2018, it was a "full-circle moment" for him.

"I thought, wow, this place that I came to as a child, like the place where I discovered my love for comedy and performing… just to be able to come back here as a performer in this capacity meant everything."

A med-school identity crisis

"After high school, I really learned to love myself. I finally stopped getting bullied by straight people. Then, I pretty much immediately started getting tormented by gay people for my taste in music..."

When Yang went to NYU for medical school, he joined an improv group with Anna Drezen who he now works with on SNL. He was much more invested in the comedy world than his academics, he says.

"I was going through this identity crisis of being like, 'I don't think I want to be a doctor anymore.' And, 'oh my god, have I made a huge mistake? What do I do?'"

When his now-best friend Matt Rogers asked him to be a member of the Pop Roulette sketch comedy team, he was thrilled. 

Pop Roulette did musical sketches heavily inspired by Andy Sandberg's Lonely Island, "but lower budget, with a layer of queerness or a layer of millennial cynicism," says Yang. Together for four years, they put on live shows like "Live on Broadgay" and "Drag Court". 

Yang now co-hosts the podcast Las Culturistas with Matt Rogers, produced by Will Ferrell. 

Queering & diversifying comedy

Saturday Night Live's comedy has been getting more queer friendly, largely thanks to recent additions like Yang, Punkie Johnson, as well as writers like Julio Torres, Sudi Green, and Toronto's Celeste Yim.

But the LGBTQ take-over has just begun. There has been a groundswell of queer comedians in from San Francisco, Montreal, Los Angeles or Chicago, "Everywhere that there is a comedy scene," says Yang. 

As one of the few openly gay SNL cast members, he is always careful about "self-tokenizing" in his jokes. He says there is a difference between being "utilized" or "serviceable." 

"If you're being serviceable, that means you are kind of just a tool to like, I don't know, get a punchline or something, you know?" says Yang. 

"I think as queer people, we were very used to accommodating."

Although he doesn't want to be the "joke police," Yang has been fearlessly holding people to account and expressing when he thinks a joke is inappropriate.

"There have been times where I have said, even in a sketch that I'm not in, 'I don't think you should be making that joke at the expense of Asian people'."

Yang gave a speech on SNL urging people to "fuel up" and "do more" to stop anti-Asian racism. He even gave a shout out to CBC's Kim's Convenience

"I feel like I need to do this for as many people as I can, just in terms of people who are marginalized."

Yang is also looking out for LGBTQ talent coming to the series in the future,

"My dream is that there's like, seven of us at the same time. That would be like, truly phenomenal."