Michelle Krusiec and Alonzo Bodden
“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guests today are two young performers featured at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Joining us today, Michelle Krusiec and Alonzo Bodden. Welcome.
Michelle Krusiec: Thank you.
Alonzo Bodden: Thanks.
Paulson: You come from different aspects of the performing arts. Michelle, in your case, you’ve had a lot of success — early success — in television. Alonzo, you’re a stand-up. What brings you to this festival?
Krusiec: Well, I was invited to do my one-woman show, which is called “Made in Taiwan,” and it’s a project I’ve been working on for several years now, so somebody got wind of it and just got into the process, and so they asked me to come here, and it’s been really exciting.
Paulson: And you are walking the halls with literally hundreds of stand-up comics.
Paulson: This is a convention here. And you’ll be performing at the festival, right?
Bodden: Yeah, I’m performing in one of the showcase groups.
Paulson: And the idea is to catch the eye of bookers and…
Bodden: Yeah, everybody who’s here. I mean, there are agents. There are people who book clubs, film and television people, and it’s kind of an opportunity to let them know who I am and what I do.
Paulson: So how much time do you have to show them who you are and what you do?
Bodden: Well, each set is supposed to be seven minutes. In comic terms, that means I’ll do ten. So, you know, I mean — no, seven-minute sets on each show. Some shows are different. There are some people who have their own one-hour shows and things like that. But for most of us, we’re doing seven-minute shows, and every night, we do a different time and a different venue, so we get to perform all around the festival.
Paulson: Just for people who have never actually worked as a professional stand-up, how much work goes into developing seven minutes of material?
Bodden: It a — that’s a very difficult question. It varies. I mean, for something like this, I spent about — probably about a month picking out exactly what I wanted to do because it was a — it’s a matter of presenting a certain aspect of my act and showing them, you know, “This is what I want to show you, so this is the material I’m going to do.” Now, of course, that can change in a moment’s notice, because my job’s to be funny. So if I go up there and something happens in the room, or for whatever reason I go off into something else, it’s okay with me, as long as it’s funny. My manager and agent get highly upset when I do that. I have a bad habit of making fun of network executives, which really gets in the way of the career, but if the crowd laughs, I’m OK with it.
Paulson: Short-term gain, long-term loss. We want to talk to you today a bit about the popular culture we all live in, entertainment — film, television — especially as regarding diversity. The Freedom Forum, an organization with which I work, actually funds a program where they encourage minorities to go into work in America’s newsrooms because they feel like America’s newspapers in particular don’t reflect the communities at large. They don’t fully understand the cultures that they serve. And in the work you do, do you see a lot of stereotyping, or do you see an accurate reflection of the cultures of our country?
Krusiec: Well, definitely, just being an Asian-American actress, I mean, I get stereotyped all the time, in terms of what I’m asked to audition for, the types of roles I’m auditioning for. And so when I look at these roles, a lot of times, I’m seeing what current writers are seeing me as and who I represent within their story line, and oftentimes, it’s — you know, it’s the smart Asian girl or it’s the newscaster, or you have the prostitute, and I run across those all the time. And then, of course, you have the martial artist. And it’s very difficult to go beyond that right now, but I find that there is a process you have to go through, which is kind of like a — you’ve got to prove yourself. You’ve got to prove that you can do those. And then once they see that, then they start going, “Oh, well, you know what? You could also be the blonde best friend.” And that’s, I think, the place I’m at now in my career.
Paulson: And you’ve had good success. You have appeared on “One World,” and then you’ve moved on to be a recurring character in “Titus,” and expanding, as I understand it, into some films: “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Pumpkin.” What are those roles?
Krusiec: Actually, in “Pumpkin,” I am the — the film’s very clever. It takes a lot of stereotyping and parodies it and also satires it — satirizes it — at the same time. It’s — I play a sorority girl who was taken into the sorority because I was the token Asian, and I am the Asian girl trying to fit in, knowing that I was taken in as the token Asian. And so it’s kind of a — you know, it’s a double-edged sword that my character has, that even though I know I was in — I was accepted — because of my race, I’m also ignoring that fact, but it’s also played against me as well in the film. It’s kind of difficult to explain. But there’s a lot of references of, like, “Oh, even her, even she — she can do it as well,” just because I’m Asian-American.
Paulson: As an Asian-American, and aside from your acting career, when you watch America’s popular media, do you see anything that truly reflects the culture you perhaps grew up in?
Krusiec: Um … no.
Paulson: I know you’ve — if you’d talk a little bit about your background, because it plays a major role in “Made in Taiwan.” If you could just give us some sense of what that show is about.
Krusiec: Well, my show starts out talking about how I grew up with the insecurity of being Asian and wanting very much to deny that as a child and how I struggled with that acceptance. And I look at it through more of a comedic eye, because as an adult, you look at it, and you think, these are the things you did, you know, because you were trying to cover up who you were ethnically. And that’s the background in which I introduce the show, but I don’t really stay there for very long. I introduce that as a part of myself, and then I go into the world of my family life — my parents, specifically my mother — and how their psyches affected my psyche and how my mother’s standards were imposed upon me and how my mother, even though she was very old-school Asian, became Americanized, and she changed her values in accordance with her own Americanization, which then affected me, because here I was, struggling to be American totally and deny my Asian self, so it’s a very complex journey.
Paulson: And what kind of reaction are you getting from audiences?
Krusiec: It’s been, fortunately, wonderful. It’s been really, really great. Almost everyone has remarked on — even though it’s a very specific journey, it’s been very universal. Because when it boils down to it, you know, human relationships, and the ones that I focus on, which are my mother and I — our mother-daughter relationship — it becomes universal. And even though it’s a little culturally specific in the beginning, it has nothing to do with just being Chinese in the end.
Paulson: Alonzo, we had a chance to talk a little bit before we sat down here, and, of course, race plays a role as well in stand-up comedy.
Paulson: Is there a difference in the kind of comedy that a black comic is expected to do as opposed to a white comic?
Bodden: Well, that’s a — that’s a very interesting thing in the business. Stereotypically, yeah, there are definitely expectations, and I think it — a lot of it had to do with, like, shows like “Def Comedy Jam,” which gave everybody — everybody meaning the decision-makers as to who does what in television and film — that they got this impression of black people as like, “OK, they’re all from the ‘hood, you know, and they all have a, you know, issue with white people, and, you know, that they don’t know their dad, and, you know, this” — ’cause that’s what a lot of the jokes on that show were about. So it made it difficult for me, because my background — that’s not my background. I come from — I’m from New York. I grew up in the suburbs — you know, middle-class. My parents are, you know, together. They’ve been married for 40-some-odd years, you know. So that’s not my reality, and yet I’m still black. And the joke that we have — ’cause there are a few other guys who I know who are like me — it’s like, we go on auditions, and it’s like, “Oh, man, I’m not black enough,” you know. And they’ll never say that, but you know that that’s true. It’s like — even the way we speak. If you speak the way I do, and, you know, then it’s like, “Well, can’t you, like, you know, add a little something to that? You know, a little slang, you know, or whatever?” And it’s comical because you know what they want to say, but they don’t know how to say it. They’re afraid to say it, so it becomes comical to us. The other side of the coin is, being a comic, we play on stereotypes. I mean, of course I use stereotypes in my act. When I hit the stage, they see a huge black guy, you know, and if I’m in a predominately white area, they’re gonna notice that and maybe be a little afraid, and I play with the fear. And what happens is, after a few minutes, they get at ease. They’re like, “OK, this one’s not angry, so we’re OK here,” you know. And a lot of that — again, it has to do with how I grew up. I grew up being bused to white schools, you know, before it was this huge issue. And what happened was, as a result, I’m comfortable around white people. I have — you know, I mean, I’m not naive. There are race issues that go on. I think the other thing is with, like, you know, the MTV culture, for lack of a better description — the black and white thing has crossed over so much, you know. You go to places that there are just no black people, and all the kids are dressed just like they’re living in the ‘hood, you know, and they talk like they’re from the ‘hood, and things like that, and that’s comical to — you know, that’s comical too, because it’s like, “OK, you’re playing at something, but you don’t really understand it.” But again, if you’re a comic — you know, as long as you’re funny — you can cross all of those lines, and that’s a big part of our job. Cross those lines, make people laugh at it, talk about it, because it’s there, and it’s reality, and you can’t pretend that — you know, I’m black and you’re white, and we can’t pretend that there are no differences. Of course there are differences. It doesn’t make one better or worse, but some things are different. Our job is to play with that, and comedy’s always been that way, you know. Don Rickles could — the beauty of him is, he could insult anybody. It didn’t matter where you were from, he had — and that would be amazing. It’s like, not many comics have, like, Polynesian jokes. You know, and he could pull it — and the thing is, if you make it funny, people accept it, and they allow it, you know. And you can tell — you can feel it when it’s not funny. You can feel it if someone makes a racial comment and there’s hatred behind it. There’s an awkwardness in the room, and if they’re doing it and it’s funny, the awkwardness is removed from it, you know, and it’s difficult to explain, but it’s something that we do.
Paulson: Michelle, I’m curious. Have you ever turned down a job because it was stereotypical?
Krusiec: You know, I have a role on an HBO series called “The Mind of the Married Man,” and when I first got the sides, which is the excerpt of the script in which you use to audition with, I literally read them, gawked, and dropped the papers and called my manager, and I just almost freaked out, ’cause it was so stereotypical. I was playing all the stereotypes. I was a massage-parlor girl. I had an accent. And on top of that, they wanted me to be topless. And it was like, you know, why don’t you just make me a bad driver on top of that, you know? But I met with the producer, and he was also the — Mike Binder, the creator of the show — and we really talked about his intentions for the character. And, you know, once we got an idea of what he wanted to do — and he actually came to see my one-woman show, which I believe led him to really deepening the character. You know, once we got to a basic understanding of what we both were looking for and what his intentions were, I was able to sort of step beyond that and say, “Well, listen, this is a stereotypical character, but I think I’m a complex enough actor to bring more to the stereotypicality of this character than maybe somebody else, and if there’s anybody who’s gonna do that, I would like to be the person in charge of doing that.” So it was very stereotyped, but, you know, I sort of thought, “Let me figure out how I can add a little more depth to this person,” because, really, there are Asian massage girls out there. It’s not like they don’t exist, and it’s not like, just because a character has an accent, they should be demeaned at any sort of level. And so, you know, for me, I have to figure out this person and create that person, and not look at it and say, “Well, I am playing a stereotypical character,” ’cause otherwise, you’re not gonna create any sort of real human being.
Paulson: So when you finally saw it onscreen, did you pull it off?
Krusiec: Yeah, because you know, I pulled it off; I pulled my top off. Um, but… Yeah, you know, my character was throughout the entire series, and I end up dropping my accent in the very end of this — the season finale, and you discover this massage-parlor girl is just this college kid who just does this accent to make her customers feel very comfortable. So we did get to a level where the character arced, so I was very happy.
Paulson: Just as there are presumably Asian massage-parlor employees, there are probably African-Americans who sell drugs and stick up convenience stores.
Bodden: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Paulson: That may be true. And yet, I think you see a lot of comics who actually play to some stereotypes.
Bodden: Yeah, definitely, definitely.
Paulson: And may be guilty of reinforcing some?
Bodden: Well, I do it at times. I mean, I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m above that. I do jokes about stereotypical experiences that I’ve never had, because it’s funny — you know, jokes about being in jail or whatever.
Paulson: Have you been in jail?
Bodden: Just for one night. You had to bring that up, didn’t you? You couldn’t let that go.
Paulson: Those words didn’t come from my mouth.
Bodden: Yeah, but you could’ve let it go at what I said. But no, it’s okay. It’s okay.
Paulson: This is “Speaking Freely.”
Bodden: I’ve been to Asian massage parlors too. So let’s–you know, let’s just get it all out right now.
Paulson: Okay, good, good. But do you draw from real life for your routine?
Bodden: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I draw on my experiences, and the stereotypes — yeah, we play to them. I play to them, and comics play to them sometimes. It’s part of the business. It’s–I don’t have a big problem with doing a stereotypical character. I mean, there have been shows that were — you know, it was like a very touchy issue for a while. There were some shows that were very stereotypically black and described as, like, step-and-fetch-it kind of comedy shows and stuff like that, and that’s not my style, and I don’t agree with it, but I don’t knock the guys for doing it, because it got them out there, it got them on the air, and it made them a presence, you know. And like Michelle was saying, some of these things are stepping-stones, where you may have to do that just to get a presence on the air and just to get the opportunity to create something bigger, to show, “Okay, now that you see that we’re profitable and we can, you know, entertain, let us do some more.” And that has happened, you know, and there are people who are — you know, you break any stereotype, where you’re thought of as a comic, not a black comic, as you’re an actor; you’re not a black actor, and that does happen. So, you know, my personal view is, I’ll do what it takes to get in the game, you know, and then work from there. You can do it from the inside. It’s much more difficult to do from the outside.
Paulson: You know, on this show, we’ve had a good number of people who were successful performers but also used their fame to work for civil rights — Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, among others. And I think at one point in their careers, they thought it was over the hump, that the stereotyping, the prejudice, the kind of hiring you described, would go away. And yet, what you’re talking about is not that dissimilar to what people have faced for many, many years in this country. Do you see progress? Do you see this stereotyping going away at some stage, and where will that come from?
Bodden: I think there’s progress, but I also think it’s always going to be there. And, I mean, I can’t speak for — maybe “always” is the wrong word. Maybe I can’t speak in perpetuity, but it definitely goes on, and again, to me, it’s almost like I’d prefer people admit it. You know, why not just say it? Because it’s true. It’s almost more frustrating to dance around it, when you know it and the person at the other end of the table knows it, but you can’t say it for whatever reason. That’s almost an annoying part of the game, but, yeah, I don’t know that it — I know it hasn’t gone away. It’s not as — maybe not as prevalent or as blatant as it has been, but it still exists.
Krusiec: Yeah, I mean, that’s really tough, because, you know, I’ve definitely — it’s pilot season right now, and I’ve been witnessing a lot of projects where a lot of the networks have openly said, “We want to be ethnic. We want to support,” you know, “casts that have diversity.” And it’s wonderful, in the sense that they’re taking a really active approach, but I find that, you know, the intention and the outcome are two very different things, and so I think the intention is there. I just don’t know if necessarily the execution always gets completed. So I think that we are definitely progressing, but, you know, I don’t think we’re at the place where I think we would all like to be, which is probably at the place where we’re not talking about stereotypes anymore, you know, where we’re not really acknowledging that. The fact that we’re talking about it suggests that, you know, I think it’s very much still a bigger part of, you know, the American psyche. So I guess that’s not really a very clear answer, but I don’t think it’s a very clear subject, either.
Paulson: Have you — in your travels to college campuses — you do stand-ups there, right?
Bodden: Yeah, I perform at colleges.
Paulson: Is that — what are you seeing there, from the next generation? Are they responsive to your work? Are you able to say whatever you want on college campuses?
Bodden: Some college campuses. When I first started doing colleges, it really surprised me how many schools limit what you can say, and that’s because they have a politically correct agenda or sometimes, I guess, a policy in writing, and it really limits — like, you can’t mention so many things, and it surprised me, because I would think colleges would be the one place where there’s open thinking, and you could talk about any topic you want, but, they’re — again, they’re worried about the liability of maybe a person being offended in a particular group and taking the school to task for it, so that was surprising. And it’s not all schools, but some schools. It’s very limiting. It’s surprising.
Paulson: Do they give you comedy guidelines?
Bodden: No, they just — they tell you certain topics that are off limits. As far as how the students respond, the students respond to comedy, you know. And you see a lot more diversity in the students, in the way they dress and the way they speak, and the various cultures do cross, and that can be funny. I’ve seen things in places that I just didn’t expect. You know, doing schools in Montana and Western Washington, and the whole thing is, like, hip-hop based. And I’m like, “OK, hip-hop has made it up here.” But it has, because — and I think a lot of that has to do with the universality of cable television. You know, like I said, it’s an MTV thing; it’s a CNN thing; it’s a BET thing. Everyone’s seeing what other people are doing, and if they like it, they copy it, and they run with it.
Paulson: One of the real pleasures of being at this Festival is, you see so many people, like the two of you, who have had some success but have been at it for just a few years, and clearly, your best work, you know, will continue to come. You’ve done just about everything. I love the fact that you’re a voice-over for “Power Rangers.”
Paulson: And you’ve done “Star Trek.”
Paulson: As we close here, could we talk just — if each of you would just share a minute or two about what you hope for the future in your own career. Michelle?
Krusiec: I think I would like to see more Asian writers, more images of — I mean, really, and I don’t want to just say Asians, but just growing up, I never really had any Asian role models, and it would just be nice, I think, for, you know, kids these days to have a lot more images of Asians in the media, Asians in all kinds of fields, but mostly in the media, because it’s the most — you know, it’s the most visual, so that it inspires, I think, the Asian community to be more expressive. I think, as a community, we’re a little bit more — we have a kind of like face thing that we do, you know, where we don’t tend to be as maybe artistically vocal or expressive. And I think that if those images were present, it might encourage more people to be more vocal and express themselves in a more artistic way.
Bodden: I would think — I’d love to see fewer categories. A lot of my business and a lot of what I see in television, there are definite categories, you know. It might be the black sitcom or the boy-girl show or, you know, whatever, and let people see more so they can choose. Not everybody — not everybody has to be so nice. Not everything has to be sanitized. We were just talking about this the other day, you know. “All in the Family” probably wouldn’t get on the air today. A brilliant show, but because of what they did, it probably wouldn’t go today, just because of the things Archie Bunker said, you know, and how bad would it be had we been robbed of that, you know? I think people need to loosen up. It’s like they try too hard to be diverse, and you worry about, “Oh, is it gonna hurt somebody’s feelings?” Well, maybe it will, but that’s okay, because everyone gets their feelings hurt sometimes. It’s not aimed at anyone, you know. That’s just part of the business. It’s part of entertainment, and I think — I guess film has a lot more freedom in that than television, but I think if they stop trying so hard and allow it to happen, there would be more of it, and there wouldn’t be the hard, defined categories. Like she was saying, you know, “Let’s try to be ethnic, so we’ll just stick a person of some ethnicity in this situation that they would never be in,” and it just looks forced and false.
Paulson: This has been a great conversation. Thanks to you both.
Krusiec: Thank you.
Bodden: Thank you.
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