Saturday Night Regression: More Charlie Chan humor from SNL

October 15, 2012 12:37 PM

I called it the "New Charlie Chan-ism" when it surfaced on Saturday Night Live two years ago with its depiction of Chinese President Hu Jintao at a mock press conference

But this past weekend SNL's "Charlie Chan" style is back, and it's actually worse.

Did you see the SNL skit where they show the tech geeks meeting the Chinese factory workers?

Actually, it's pretty funny when the satirical targets are the stereotypical gadget geeks and Apple "fanboys," who will go to great lengths to get the latest iteration of cool from the company that knows how to calculate cool's obsolescence better than anyone.

The characterization of the soft passive whiny nature of the geeks is priceless.

That's funny.

But when the skit writers try to step it up and bring on a gotcha confrontation with the actual Chinese factory workers, that's where SNL begins to tread on dangerous ground.

It is the "Miss Saigon" debate all over again.

Cameron Mackintosh didn't really win that battle years ago. What his company did eventually was to hire more Asian actors to play the male lead.

And that's all SNL had to do last weekend.

The lines they gave the actors who played the Chinese workers were funny. They are the real pin-prickers in this satire. The issues are real. First world geeks and their toys produced essentially by mistreated workers. It's the same thing as the shoes and garments produced from overseas factories. Too bad there's no PETCW, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Chinese Workers.

I mean, how can circumstances so horrible produce something so cool? Fanboys are oblivious. And the workers just want to get infant formula for their babies.

But were the SNL writers not confident in the bite of their satire so that they felt a need to rely on the ching-chongy accents of white actors to make sure it was funny?

A little laugh insurance? I mean, everyone laughs at white people doing ching-chongy accents, right? High satire it ain't. That's morning DJ 101.

I was a little surprised to see Fred Armisen play one of the lead Chinese workers. After all, he did play the Obama character previously until he was replaced this year by Jay Pharaoh. Pharaoh is African American. Armisen, reports say, has a mother of  Venezuelan descent and a father who is German/Japanese. There's no black in Armisen. But Obama is white and African, a mix. There's some white in Armisen. And besides he has Obama's ears cold.

A similar argument was made years ago about Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer in "Miss Saigon." With the character supposedly being Eurasian, Pryce was at least half-right for the part by race.

I actually had no problem with Armisen's transracial portrayals. In the past, he's also done an excellent Gov. David Paterson and Prince.

But when he was replaced this year, I thought it was a move for the better. Not only had Pharaoh emerged as a comedic talent, but I thought maybe it finally dawned on the producers that Armisen's Obama portrayal really was a "nouveau Jolson," a modern blackface role in 200-effing-12.

Does blackface make sense in modern times? Even for laughs? Eddie Murphy playing Buckwheat didn't require extra makeup. If you put a white person in that role, you'd certainly have the NAACP giving Standards and Practices a call.

Yet, when it comes to Asians, it seems the whiter you are, the better, the contrast more ridiculous between serving up a white in black hair and squinty eyes and talking goo-goo-ching-chong pidgin. The high-minded satire didn't need to be dumbed down.

Besides, NBC and SNL surely have the money to spring for a few real Asian faces. There are plenty of unemployed Asian actors and comedians who would have killed to play the parts for real. Usually you see them playing extras as judges and jurors in court shows. Or walking around as nurses in hospital dramas. That's how bad it is for unemployed Asian American actors. They would have made great Chinese factory workers.

Recently, when SNL had Bobby Moynihan do the PSY horse dance, I was ready to pounce. Bobby Moynihan as Asian rapper may be comedic, but even SNL realized how much funnier it was when the real PSY came on the set.

A real Asian guy getting the laugh. That was funny.

The non-Asian Chinese factory workers? Not so funny.

I was watching the Yankees lose and didn't see it the first time as it aired. But I was tweeted by some who were bothered by the bit. Then I looked at the Mediaite site and was surprised that the comments from non-Asians were generally laudatory. "Spot on," said one. "Funny because it was politically incorrect."

A lot of people from all sides just don't seem to get it. They got the insensitivity of the American geeks, and sided with the workers. But they accepted the racist portrayal? Meanwhile, they didn't understand why Asian Americans would be upset. The issue didn't die with "Miss Saigon," as we can see. I don't necessarily want Asian Americans playing Othello. But it would be nice to see more Asian American actors catching a break.

What do you think?
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, @emilamok

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. I am Asian American and thought the sketch was hilarious and very well-written. While watching the skit, I realized that SNL had non-Asians portraying the factory workers but that did not stop me from enjoying it. The actors had the Chinese accents and mannerisms for speaking English spot-on. They did not use overly "ching chongy accents" as you seem to think. If anything, I feel that some Asian actors are more offensive in over-emphasizing the supposed "ching-chonginess" of Asians (i.e. Ken Jeong who plays Leslie Chow in "The Hangover" series).
Posted by: DML | Oct 15, 2012 3:13 PM

2. Funny skit but real issue is WHEN will SNL hire Asian men and women as cast members? Less obvious but more important is the class privilege of the geeks here versus workers here and there. The class divide fertilizes the ground for satire of the privileged, including Asians as well as non-Asians. White blind spots still prevail, but class blind spots dominate the media and entertainment industry. SNL can regain its comedy cutting edge by hiring Asian men and women giving them a creative opening and an opportunity for all of us to laugh at ourselves.
Posted by: sjx | Oct 18, 2012 4:08 PM

3. You're right--this isn't funny. I could hardly hear the dialogue because I was distracted by the fake broken English, as if Chinese people can't speak English fluently. I think this kind of satire requires more finesse than perhaps the current cast of SNL is capable of.
Posted by: jca | Oct 21, 2012 3:59 PM

4. Yes. It's heartbreaking. The audience started laughing when the 3 yellow-faced actors are introduced because they knew they could get away with it, even before any one of them opened their mouths to tell a single joke. At times, you think SNL means well, as though they might actually get something meaningful across, and then you see how it's executed. It's like a bunch of white kids throwing a party for the poor Asian kid, but only to celebrate amongst themselves after collecting a lot of money and goods and patting only themselves on the back and then completely neglecting the poor kid after the party. It's all self-serving in the end. SNL should be ashamed.
Posted by: Eastfist | Oct 21, 2012 5:36 PM

5. I'm AA and have taken my share of AA courses in college and was really expecting the worse when I saw this on AAM's website. I read the first couple paragraphs of Emil's article before I stopped and decided to watch the skit first so as to not taint my opinion. I have to agree with DML on this one. I thought the skit was done pretty well and I was laughing. I usually cringe when I hear these Asian accents, but these were tolerable. I wouldn't go as far as saying "spot-on" as DML says but I really expected worse. DML says what I was thinking that some AA actors go overboard with the accents (sometimes more than non-Asian counterparts). JustKidding Films and other similar YouTubers have horrible Asian accents and re-enforced negative stereotypes. It's too bad because I think they do have talent and are generally funny otherwise. I disagree with Eastfist about the audience laughing at the factory workers when they were introduced because they could get away with it. First, there was just a few people laughing, not the entire audience. I personally think they were laughing at the mad/disgusted expressions the workers had and just the general situation of the workers there to confront the fanboys. I think their needing to have the accent is because of the fact that the actors are non-Asian (or mostly in Armisen's case). Otherwise the audience really won't buy them as Asian. If these actors were Asian, I don't think the accents would be needed at all. But maybe SNL could have varied their accents. Like one would have little to no accent, Armisen's character for example since he had the most lines. SNL does not have a good record when it comes to portrayal of Asians in their skits, but I think this skit is one of the better ones. I've been more offended at other stuff they've done. For example when Bobby Moynihan said "chinaman" in that drunk uncle skit, as far as I'm aware nobody said a word about that at all. And this was shortly after the ESPN Jeremy Lin "chink in the armor" thing, too. To me that was more egregious than this whole skit. Emil and sjx has it right that the real issue here is being that SNL needs to hire Asian cast members. But then I'm afraid that they'll be pressured to do the accents and other crap. I loved Bobby Lee on Mad TV but usually did not care for the skits he did with the accents. That said, where's Bobby Lee been? SNL should pick him up.
Posted by: afk | Oct 21, 2012 9:35 PM

6. The test is if they would do this to Africans. The answer is no. Somehow racism against Asians is ok. If Asians would stand up and fight this crap just like African Americans did, this would be more of an issue.
Posted by: Mike | Oct 22, 2012 1:19 AM

7. I was okay with Bobby Moynahan during the PSY skit. I *was* ready to pounce Taran Killan for playing the guy with the bowl cut; when "PSY" and his buddy were trying to look for the way out, Taran started bowing and doing the whole "sankyu" bit, as if he were Japanese and not Korean -- Taran couldn't even get insulting Asian stereotypes right! But back to the iPhone skit, I'd really like to tell Film and TV writers that, yes, there are Chinese people out there with thick accents but are also capable of speaking proper English. As it is, half the humor of the skit came from outdated stereotypical impressions rather than the material itself, and that's the problem.
Posted by: Marcus | Oct 22, 2012 8:22 PM

8. As an Asian American, the skit was very funny and was a great illustration of our "First world problems" compared to the issues at the Chinese factories. But the workers' accent was not at all racist(or at the least, poking fun of). Those were the character, and had nothing with how they spoke, but had everything to do with *what* they spoke. At no time was there a charlie chan-type punchline. We need to understand that potraying an accent alone is not grounds to get all up in arms about it. Is it actually insulting if a New Yorker speaks with a southern accent? Calm down....
Posted by: Soney | Oct 24, 2012 2:41 PM

9. Need to point out that Fred Armisen's parents are Venezuelan (mom) and German-Japanese (Dad), Nasim Pedrad is Iranian American (born outside the US), I'm not finding as much info as I'd like on Cecily Strong, but sources are calling her 'hispanic' and 'multi-racial'. I don't think it's a great sketch either, and 1 actor being 1 quarter Japanese does not equal 3 Asians playing Chinese characters, but at the same time this isn't exactly a 'whites are playing Asians' thing - my question - is it still 'yellowface' if multiracial or non-European actors actors are playing Asian characters? What do people think?
Posted by: Valerie Weak | May 20, 201312:07 PM

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