Standup comic jokes about race and gender in Netflix special
The Santa Clara
February 28, 2019
Comedians are particularly obsessed with limits—especially how far those limits can be pushed. In his first-ever stand-up special, Ken Jeong crosses racial thresholds and relies on familiar, crude humor that uses the Asian stereotypes that made him famous.
One of the most trending specials on Netflix, “You Complete Me, Ho” is brimming with jokes at the expense of the Asian culture.
The special lacks substance and has received backlash about how this approach to comedy is ruining what little representation Asian-Americans have in the media.
There is an unspoken rule about how comedians are granted the excuse to make jokes that rely on racial stereotypes as long as it’s about their own culture. Since these comedians are given the invisible right to laugh at their people, they give the audience permission to laugh with them. Less than seven minutes into “You Complete Me, Ho,” Jeong begins mocking Vietnamese culture and justifies his slander by saying he is married to a Vietnamese woman, Tran Ho.
Jeong goes on a rampage about ways to laugh at Asians and defeminizes women by using the common Vietnamese surname to riffing repeatedly about his wife, last name “Ho.”
Jeong gets the crowd started by saying, “I married a Ho, I can say anything the f*ck I want, and it’s street-legal. Get in the car, Ho. Make me some rice, Ho.”
When the camera shifts to show Jeong’s wife sitting in the back, she flashes a forced smile and blows him a kiss. What a great way to introduce your wife, right?
A few minutes later, Jeong randomly asks a girl in the front if she’s Vietnamese and then proceeds to ask her last name. Not only is her last name Ho, but her first name is also Tran.
The crowd goes into a roar of laughter but Jeong stands there looking annoyed. When the audience calms down, Jeong yells to the girl, “Don’t you ever upstage me, Ho! Don’t you ever be funnier than me, Ho! How dare you, this is my Netflix special, Ho!” Whether this was improvised or staged, I would hate to be in her position because of the joke’s level of disrespect.
This type of behavior allows the audience to enjoy problematic jokes without having to feel guilty. Jeong challenges the idea of using self-deprecating humor as a tool, thereby pushing his fans to consider the price of making comedy at the expense of the Asian community.
Though the audience was predominantly Asian in “You Complete Me, Ho,” Jeong ’s comedy didn’t feel authentic and some jokes left a bad taste in my mouth.
Some of the most talented comedians do this to push their audience to think about stereotypes critically, however, Jeong misses the mark and perpetuates the stereotypes that he is trying to dismantle.
In a time when Asian Americans are finally being recognized in the media, Ken Jeong is one of the most famous Asian actors in Hollywood. He became well known from his recurring role in “The Hangover” and his television show “Dr. Ken,” along with other achievements.
If one of our most accomplished and beloved Asian American comedians is still making jokes at the expense of Asian American experiences, this indicates that stereotypes about Asians are still commodified in Hollywood. It’s also contradicting for Jeong and his recent interview with TIME, in which he says that “Comics like Hannah Gadsby or Ali Wong exemplify how you can do deeply personal work in a stand-up format. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. It’s definitely for the better because you can only tell so many d*ck jokes. You need something deeper to say.”
Jeong is right. Comics like Wong define Asian comedy more substantially while still being funny. Wong has supplied the demand for comedy rooted in Asian-American-centered experiences—like the extremes of motherhood or being part of an immigrant family. She promotes femininity and her Asian-American identity. But there is hardly anything deep in “You Complete Me, Ho” and the message Jeong gives is a reiteration of ways to make jokes about Asian people. Instead of showing authenticity, Jeong whitewashes Asian identify and normalizes “idiotic” traits by adapting them to his personality.
He degrades women and race to gain acceptance and popularity from fans. Jeong will need a different approach if he wants to become a household name.
Contact Azariah Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.