“East of California West of New York” features Midwestern, Asian American stand-up comedians


April Li/The Daily Northwestern

William Paik, producer of stand-up comedy show “East of California West of New York,” performed as part of the all-Asian American lineup Wednesday night.

April Li, Reporter

Audience members packed the Red Room in Chicago’s Lincoln Lodge on Wednesday evening for “East of California West of New York,” a stand-up comedy show featuring Asian American comedians in the Midwest.

Comics Becca Tham, Jessica Misra, William Paik (Weinberg ’20) and headliner Tony Vinh delivered sets that covered topics from having immigrant parents to growing up in Iowa to high school cheerleading. The show’s aim was to highlight Chicago and the Midwest as a place where, in Paik’s words, Asian Americans “live, work, fall in love, take yoga classes and blow our noses.”

“This show isn’t like anything I’ve ever really seen … both the lineup and the audience is mostly Asian American,” said Paik, who also produced the show.

Even though Paik has participated in shows featuring all-Asian comics before, the audiences for those shows tended to be mostly white, he added.

The show’s proceeds benefited mutual aid projects run by Axis Lab, a community and arts organization serving the Argyle neighborhood.

Paik said the inspiration for the show’s name came from the East of California movement in the 1990s, which sought to establish Asian American studies in universities beyond the West Coast. One of Paik’s goals for producing the show was to highlight that Chicago, like the coasts, is a space of Asian American people and histories — even though it’s not as widely recognized as communities in other parts of the country.

“That’s not to say that there’s a lack of (Asian American) people in the Chicago area,” Paik said. “But that sense of ‘We are the Asian Americans in Chicago,’ isn’t quite there.”

The Asian American comedy world reflects a similar focus on the coasts, Paik said, with groups and festivals such as Crazy Woke Asians in Los Angeles and the Asian Comedy Fest in New York. Chicago, he said, doesn’t have many similar institutions.

Paik also aims to deconstruct assumptions and power structures with his comedy.

“Making white audience members feel uncomfortable, and thinking about how to do that, is a political project too,” he said.

When Paik does bits about his parents, he wants to represent them as he sees them — funny and interesting — instead of how Asian immigrants are stereotypically portrayed in mainstream media.

Comedy, he said, has the power to be more than just funny.

“If you can get (a punchline) to resonate with someone, and it’s a learning moment too, that’s a very beautiful thing — it’ll stick with them for a while,” Paik said.

Misra, a comedian of five years, said she loves the show’s mission of highlighting Asian American comedians in the Midwest.

She said she wants to see Midwestern Asian American comedy continue to grow in a way that especially features women comics.

“I love being a Midwesterner. I think it’s the funniest thing that could ever happen to anyone,” Misra said. “And I feel like Asian Americans bring their own experience on top of that. So it’s just this amazing, weird perspective that I love and I want to see everywhere.”

Audience member Amy Yang (Weinberg ’21), who has been to stand-up shows in the past, said attending an Asian-centric one was “refreshing.”

Yang said she enjoyed hearing about the performers’ varied experiences of growing up Asian American.

“It’s cool that the performers all have different backgrounds,” Yang said. “Even if I don’t relate to every joke, understanding the range of the Asian American experience is fun and insightful.”

For Paik, “East of California West of New York” is just the beginning when it comes to creating Asian American comedy spaces in Chicago.

“This is the first iteration of something,” Paik said. “The goal of today was to start building that kind of community.”

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