Bowen Yang: ‘My Only Job Is to Tell the Truth’
Since joining SNL three years ago as a staff writer and then cast member — the show’s first full-Asian series regular — Bowen Yang has managed to stage a subtle millennial coup by queering the late-night comedy staple, bringing in hordes of new fans who are eager to scream “Yasss!” to his takes on everything from North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un to a thirsty SoulCycle instructor. In one of the final sketches of this just-concluded 46th season, he teamed up with all the out LGBTQ cast members and musical guest Lil Nas X for “Pride Month Song,” a segment that skewered the LGBTQ experience of spiraling during June’s overabundance of rainbow-themed festivities.
To continue this very Bowen moment, the 30-year-old is now starring in Hot White Heist, an Audible Original from writer Adam Goldman (The Outs) and director Alan Cumming. It’s a zany scripted comedy about a gaggle of LGBTQ misfits who steal frozen sperm of some of the greatest minds in history from a secret bunker beneath Seattle, Washington’s Space Needle. Along with Yang, it features a stunning cast of queer performers, including Cynthia Nixon, Abbi Jacobson, Jane Lynch, Margaret Cho, Bianca Del Rio, MJ Rodriguez, Shannon Woodward, Stephanie Beatriz, John Cameron Mitchell, Cheyenne Jackson, Jonathan Bailey, Peppermint, Brian McCook (as drag queen Katya Zamolodchikova), and even legendary screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner. So what was it like taking on this latest storytelling format?
“Gosh, my own podcast, Las Culturistas, is so unstructured and loose,” Yang admits. “There’s no preparation that goes into it. It’s just about plugging in and playing. So for this Audible series, it was really about tracking character arcs. It was like doing a play or TV series. I guess it’s more like a radio play? But that makes me think, like, ‘I see a penny-farthing!’ or something old-fashioned.”
Amid a year when he even got the opportunity to react to Fran Lebowitz’s disappointment in his caricature of her, the comedian talked to us about his many projects, including his episode in Season One of Girls5Eva, how he’s managed to subvert Saturday Night Live tropes as a writer and performer, and what it was like to inhabit the main character of Hot White Heist, Jude “Judy” Fink, a “feminine top” who definitely is a “skilled bottom.”
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you and Adam Goldman come to work together on this Hot White Heist?
Well, he texted me over a year ago, being like, “I’m working on this thing.” We’d already developed a nice candor over years of friendship. It was just such a casual thing, where it was implied that I would be involved. It was my first instance of, like, “Oh, a friend is writing something for me.” I never experienced that luxury, capital “L.” There was just already a really deeply established trust.
Why is that?
Well, in terms of guiding this trip with projects, I was such a fan of The Outs. When it was being released, it was the first prestigey-feeling web series.
Yes, it was, I agree.
And it’s just so well-written, and it captured something still lived-in about being gay in 2012. I was just like, “OK, Adam can really do something really special.” He just has a skill for storytelling in general. And then, when he ran the pitch by me for Hot White Heist, the premise, it was, ‘That sounds so diametrically different from the outer edges.’ It’s this broad, comedy caper, thrill-y thing. I didn’t know he was interested in that. So I was like, “Yes, let’s do it.” And so it was a pretty quick onboarding for me.
And it’s directed by Alan Cumming. First, how do you feel hearing Alan Cumming say your name? Because it’s kind of phenomenal.
Oh, [in Scottish accent] “Boö-en.” Yes, it’s “Boö-en,” and it’s wonderful. Oh, it’s great.
Had you ever met or worked with him before?
I’d see him around town. He’s just, like, this bon vivant in New York City, and I’d performed at [his East Village nightspot] Club Cumming. I just talked to him this morning, where we waxed nostalgic about the days when that space used to be Eastern Bloc, which is this gay bar….
Oh yeah, I did many bad things at Eastern Bloc…
I didn’t do anything too bad, but I watched people do that. All I did was just maybe, like, do one twirl around the pole. They used to have a stripper pole…
I did a twirl around it, too! And the bartender threw lemons! Like, “Get down from there!” It’s better than tomatoes…
But the vodka sodas are going to be just unembellished!
Well, anyway, that’s my story… But Alan, what what it like working with him?
What can you not say that’s great about Alan, that is not positive or perfect and like, just — yeah! I was just talking to Adam earlier about how Alan was able to intuit so many things about my energy coming in. Like, the first day, the first scene, I was just a little flustered and hadn’t done something like this in a while. And I just cut him off, very rudely, and was like, ‘You know, if you want to just to give me the line read, that’s fine, too, because that’s how we do it at SNL.’ There’s just no time and people give line reads all the time. And then he just very politely chuckled and was like, “Oh, no, don’t worry about it.” He proceeded to be professional and give me direction in a way that was not feeding me the line. And I was just like, “Oh, yeah, he’s seen it all; he’s been in every possible position in showbiz and every kind of project that I can imagine.” So, how lucky was I to work with him? So lucky!
Were you guys recording remotely? How does that work these days?
It was a Zoom room. And then I was going to Soundtrack NYC, this audio studio, and they have a camera setup. So it’s just sort-of projected hugely in front of me. And then everybody could see me from this weird, awkward angle, but it ended up mostly working.
I interviewed Glenn Close about doing a similar thing for another podcast, and she told me one reason she loved this format is that she could be with her dog and be in her robe and just do it from anywhere, rather than having to get into hair and makeup. Is that part of the appeal?
I would say so, yeah. You’d be lying if you said that it wasn’t one of the value-adds of doing this. By the end of the process, I got very, very sentimental about that, the way that I’m able to take the line again, the way that it’s all sort of patched together — it’s probably technically really difficult for the editor or for whoever is working in post, but for for me, and for Alan and for Adam, it was just nice to really nail it down.
This cast is crazy! It’s like a murderers’ row of talent. Are you able to vibe off each other when you’re recording remotely? And let’s start by discussing your character. Tell us about him and, well, can I call you Judy?
Yeah! Well, I will say, Judy Fink, my character, is this kind of queer, grifter femme in Washington Square Park who runs this mini racket where he scares unsuspecting tourists of their money in exchange for these, like, basic Tarot card readings. And he’s happy doing that, because he’s good with people; he is able to read people in such a way that is so specific and always correct. So it’s baked into his intuition. And then he gets a visit from his aunt, Kate, played by Cynthia Nixon, who has escaped to a lesbian compound in Montana for the past 15 years, and she enlists his help in organizing a heist to take this… Just to organize [to steal from] a government sperm bank [storing the sperm of] all our presidents.
The process for recording was, well, because of the scheduling craziness around just making sure we could get everybody… It was a little patchy, but I was able to do my scenes with Bianca Del Rio, who plays Toby, and that was important, because we play best friends and we really needed to get that patter down. And that was so fun.
How did you how did you get a word in edgewise with Bianca?
Oh, Bianca, she came on my podcast, and, basically, she was so wonderful because you just let her speak and run the whole thing. I could just listen to her speak for hours, but she is just so professional, and there was this instant acknowledgment of, “OK, let’s just, like, let this queer friendship be.” It was something we’ve seen in the real world and not necessarily played out in the media — and that was fine.
And then the other person I got to do my scenes with was MJ Rodriguez. I think the most poignant interactions in this whole show are between Judy and MJ’s character, Eve. And this one scene especially, it’s written so well: It’s the night before the heist goes off. And just being able to act opposite MJ was really special to me. I’m just like, “Wow, it’s really this pioneering actor who I’ve admired for so long.” She’s just so exquisite on Pose. I can’t believe I get to, like, share this grounded scene with her!
As the Gen Z kids would say: “It’s iconic.”
Yes. It’s iconic. It’s iconic…
When you say this scene is something you’ve never experienced in queer representation before in mainstream media, what do you mean by that?
What I love about this project is that it’s — not to take away from the representative value of it — but the axis along which the characters are developed is their queerness. And I just haven’t truly seen that before. A lot of different people under the queer umbrella come together but… Like there’s something inherently queer about the heist genre, in some way. It’s about just flying under the radar and procuring something furtively or, you know, that thing that is just so fun and high-stakes in the way that a lot of queer experiences are.
So, for this character, Judy, who’s a gay man, who’s working out all of these family traumas with his aunt, who is a lesbian, and he is best friends with a drag queen, who is a master of disguise… So, in the heist then, he’s trying to navigate this conversation about Eve’s disclosure in her past, about being part of the military. I mean, all these relationships are flattened along the same line of queerness, and these relationships would be interesting no matter who they would be between, no matter who it involves.
I also appreciate that one of the catchphrases is “Let’s take some loads.” I’m Gen X, and at a certain level, we self-censor and we think, “We’re not allowed to say these things.” So I wonder, did you ever discuss, “Let’s make less gayer or make it more queer,” or, “Let’s make it go over the top” Because Alan has no inhibitions!
Alan, has no inhibitions! Adam is not one for bowing to respectability at all, in terms of, like, the politics of that. But there was never an explicit discussion about making it gay or queer. I was never given direction to tone anything down, which I think counts for something. Because I will always receive a note — not always, but, like, in any other setting, I would receive a note to, “Alright, maybe don’t make it quite as outwardly queer.” I mean, not in that explicit way, but there would be some coded way of getting a note to me about delivery. That never happened here. Is that what you’re asking?
I was thinking about it because I read where you said that, even with SNL, like with the Iceberg bit during “Weekend Update,” that you thought it was going to be cut. You’ve been queering that program so well, but are you always worried that they’re going to say, “No.” That they’re going to cut it or they’re going to say, “You went too far?”
It’s not to say that, like, my sensibility is being sort of policed in any way. It’s just I am trained at SNL to think about the general audience. That’s a unique aspect of SNL — that everyone has an opinion on it from every generation. So [Hot White Heist] is something where I felt liberated to not have to think in those terms, to not have to explain to the audience what the shorthand was.
Would you put any parental guidelines on it for anybody in your family? Like, “I don’t really want you to watch or listen to this Audible thing.”
I don’t know. I mean, besides besides the fact that there’s, you know, male ejaculate or sperm involved, I don’t think there’s anything too pearl-clutchy about it. Besides the fact that it’s cum, you know. That’s it! I mean, everything else is just, like, it’s just — it’s pure, pure family fun! No, I don’t know….
So the guideline for potential listeners is: “If you are OK with cum, then you are OK with this podcast.”
Yes! And as Judy says: “Everyone is just cum with legs. We all were cum at one point.” So, I mean, you have to be able to self-identify. You have to be able to relate in some sense to cum — like we all used to be cum. I stand by that.
Exactly. OK, this is going to sound dumb, and I’m already embarrassed that I’m going to ask it, but do you think Judy’s a blouse?
Yeah, I think he’s a blouse.
So, a feminine top.
Well, I was going to say that I think he is also a skilled bottom. And so I think he’s also a blouse and a flowery, billowy skirt!
So speaking of Harry Styles…
I was just talking to one of our senior writers, Brittany Spanos, about the “Sara Lee” sketch from when he hosted SNL that went viral in a crazy way. I don’t follow the fandom, but she does, and apparently it’s been very hotly debated among the Harrys. And I just wondered if you had any stories about that.
I wasn’t aware that there was a debate!
I think they just all have opinions about it. It’s very much a part of the myth of Harry…
Well, the myth is just that he came in and, at that time, Julio Torres and I —
Who is amazing…
Yes, incredible. Julio was always the mastermind behind the ideas. The time that we overlapped was very short, but, in that time, I think we were so easily able to write things that were just very, very, very queer, but not be concerned about it. He really taught me — and I internalized this idea — that you don’t really have to explain to the audience what this means. And that’s such a valuable lesson! But, in that time, we wrote some things together, and one of them was “Sara Lee,” and when it was announced that Harry was hosting, I was in the room to pitch it and show him pages. And the moment that I think is so important is that… Harry is just quietly flipping through it, the sketch, in my office and laughing. And I was like, “OK, I think he got it; I think he’s on board.” From there, I think it was all up to him. And he very wonderfully fought for it to go in the show, and he was just so good, and he took the note that Julio had for him: “You should not be indignant; you should be like a little embarrassed and ‘sad puppy’ about it.” And he took that note so well! I mean, that’s the myth; the myth behind it is just that he was great and he enjoyed it. So hopefully they like that…
Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything negative about it.
But hopefully Harrys, the fans, understand that he was having a good time.
Going back to what you were saying earlier about the podcast format: You mentioned recently on your podcast, Las Culturistas, that you hated seeing yourself in Girls5Eva. I rewatched it and was wondering why you hated it? Is it that you don’t like to think that anybody’s looking at you?
Well, I mean, that’s sort of at the core of it … I’m not able to perceive myself moving through space on a TV screen. Like, “This doesn’t make any sense!” So for Hot White Heist, it was very different. But also, I had the same concern that I had when I talked about being in Girls5Eva: That I was like, “Are the swings too big? Are the choices too extreme or binary?”
I had that fear going into listening to the final product, but then Adam sent me the episodes, and I was like, “Oh, well, how did I do that?“ That’s just a testament to Alan — for both directing in a way that was organic and allowing for the full range of, like… it’s just really sort of a performer’s dream meal, because I got to be the straight man in contact with some character that got to be the odd person. So, to be in every sort of permutation of that, it was a blessing. So I’m very happy with how it turned out [as far as] my own vanity.
We are having such a Bowen year. You’re doing so much. Are you saying yes to everything that comes your way or…
I don’t think I’m saying yes to everything. I think it’s just, like, timelines are synchronized in a fortuitous way. It was never the plan to be, like, plugging a couple of things at one time. I remember when D’Arcy Carden had this season where The Good Place was popping off and Barry came out and she was still in Broad City and she’s doing great … And then we were at dinner talking and saying, like: “Oh my God, it’s so cool that it’s all happening!” But she’s like: “This wasn’t the plan. It just it all happened to converge at the same time.” I think I’m just a beneficiary of good timing.
Which, of course, is funny to say during a pandemic.
But I did wonder whether, because we’ve had some of our time freed up by not having obligations to go out and socialize and do things, that also lets you just focus.
Right. Exactly. And any time I’m like, “I’m trying to be a little more intentional about what I do,” I tend to adjust everything in relation to SNL being so demanding and all-consuming. You’re catching me at a great time, where I’m only just coming back from the recovery period, just getting out of the [Saturday Night Live] season.
I was really moved by the “Weekend Update” segment in which you addressed anti-Asian violence. It felt like we were getting this raw moment. But as a celebrity, are you always asked now to have an opinion about something or to fix everything with your opinion? I wondered how you’re feeling about that, especially during Pride month, with people talking about policing and LGBTQ Pride parades and all this kind of stuff. You don’t have to have an opinion about everything — though you do have a podcast about having an opinion about everything.
Yeah, I painted myself into a terrible corner. [Laughs.] I find the expectation that a public figure — who is known for something besides, like, having a political thought, someone who puts on wigs for a living — would have something complex to say about any number of things, to be so aligned with a certain value system, is a little bit flawed. It’s like, why would you think that?
What we wrote for “Weekend Update” was very challenging, but the thing that put it all together was something that my co-writer, Celeste Yim, said. They were like, “OK, what do you want to say? Your only job is to not lie. It’s to tell the truth.” And then it’s like, “OK, great.” So that’s just what it is: Opinions are not facts; opinions are not the truth. And so I’m trying to only have some input when I’m stating something that is undeniable or indisputably true. And I think that’s a decent blanket rubric in terms of my own way of expressing things publicly: Tell the truth.