Emmys 2017: UCLA alum portrays Asian-American experience on ‘Master of None’
Alumnus Kelvin Yu stars in Netflix’s Emmy-nominated comedy series “Master of None.” While many of his previous roles depicted offensive stereotypes, his character Brian Chang helped him portray an authentic Asian-American experience onscreen, he said. (Courtesy of Kelvin Yu)
July 23, 2017 10:32 p.m.
UCLA alumni have lent their acting, writing and directing talents to several series nominated for the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards. Contributing to nominations in categories such as Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Limited Series, Bruins have showcased their skills in both acting and production as parts of the casts and the crews.
Kelvin Yu was tired of getting cast as the Asian man who killed his wife or sister on shows like “CSI: NY” and “Without a Trace.”
Yu, a UCLA alumnus, said that Asians are usually assumed to have bad driving and strong math skills, stereotypes similar to those he experienced in his first acting gig as Freddy Gong in the television series “Popular.” But other nuanced stereotypes – the image of repressed Asian men who are uncomfortable with their feelings and are waiting to explode – are equally presumptuous. The offensive typecasts of his roles reaffirmed Yu’s realization that people of color need to accurately represent themselves both onscreen as actors and behind the scenes as writers, he said.
“You don’t just want more people of different ethnicities on the screen, you want to tell their stories,” Yu said.
The opportunity to portray an authentic Asian-American experience arose when Yu started working with comedian Aziz Ansari for “Master of None,” a Primetime Emmy Awards winner for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.
Although they previously had brief encounters through mutual friends, Yu said he didn’t become well-acquainted with Ansari until after he landed his current writing position for the animated sitcom “Bob’s Burgers,” in which Ansari started voicing a featured character named Darryl in 2012.
Yu said working on “Master of None” allowed him to break the ignorant depiction of Asian-Americans that is a common broad perception by screenwriters.
In one scene, Yu said the line, “My dad grew up riding a water buffalo and now he drives a car that talks to him,” which he improvised during rehearsals. Yu said he took the time to call his dad to confirm the accuracy of the statement because Ansari refused to include a line that would be a derogatory generalization if it weren’t actually true.
The line ultimately made it into the script, marking the first time Yu could relate to his character on a personal level. Playing Brian Chang in “Master of None” shows how far he’s gone since his Freddy Gong days, he said.
Yu said that while he grew up watching six white people on the sitcom “Friends,” kids nowadays can watch characters of color who aren’t just stereotypes. The characters in “Master of None” – such as Ansari’s Dev, who is the star of the show rather than a token minority – do everyday things such as babysit their friends’ children and learn how to make pasta – and have successful romantic endeavors.
“As a writer you have total agency over your creative endeavors – what ideas do I come up with, what hilarious moments can I invent or what meaningful story can I tell,” Yu said. “My favorite thing about my job is that I get to play as an actor … then at the same time I get to write my own world.”
John Alford, a friend of Yu’s since his days at UCLA, said the show gave him a more complete understanding of the immigrant experience that he – as a white man born and raised in Orange County, California – otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to. Alford said that Yu was fascinated with communication theory, introducing him to philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.
“He was interested in wide-angle ideas that impacted his notion of himself and how he influenced society,” Alford said.
Yu’s UCLA friend Travis Leete said Yu’s humor is unapologetically irreverent, and finds it funny how he can hear his voice in particular episodes of “Bob’s Burgers” because it sounds like something they talked about over beers and dinner.
Despite his long-standing dedication to acting since junior high, Yu transferred out of the theater program at UCLA to take classes from other departments and become well-rounded and informed as a writer and actor.
But Yu said acting on “Master of None” was different from his other acting experiences because he knew that it was special for young viewers to see their races or sexualities onscreen, unquestioned. The show makes a statement by disregarding historical viewer-based favor toward a conventional straight white male lead, Yu said.
“It is a very big deal to go to Netflix and pitch a show about a regular guy who happens to be Indian-American, and to win awards and Emmys and get a lot of viewers,” Yu said. “That speaks volumes to studios – like, ‘Yep, we can do this.'”
After taking on his role in “Master of None,” Yu began speaking at events for Asian-Americans on his experiences of being a person of color in media. In his speeches, Yu emphasized that it might be harder for Asian-Americans to delve into an industry full of people who look like Jennifer Aniston and Ryan Gosling, but that future Asian-American actors should recognize that they deserve for their stories to be told, their ideas to be heard and their paychecks to match everyone else’s.
“In arts and entertainment there’s a spotlight,” Yu said. “And there comes a time when you have to say, ‘I’m going to step into that spotlight.’”