Bowen Yang has arrived. After a year-long stint in the writer’s room, Yang was promoted to on-air talent for this, Saturday Night Live’s 45th season. Yang, an openly gay Asian man, was already part of a cohort (including fellow genius Julio Torres) of writers making the comedy institution at 30 Rock younger and gayer than ever before. Queerness, much like pornography, may be hard to define, but I know it when I see it. So even if I don’t watch Drag Race (I’m sorry!), I knew the moment Kate McKinnon lifted up her Elizabeth Warren wig and rose petals started pouring out of it, that we were witnessing history.
The truth is, Saturday Night Live hasn’t had an on-screen breakout like Yang since Kate McKinnon. And a recent male comparable is even harder to come by. You’d be hard-pressed to find a moment this season as meme-able as the instantly classic Sara Lee sketch or as star-making as Yang playing Chen Biao, Trade Daddy. In Yang’s hands, ringing laughs out of being the “celebrity couple” from the Heimlich Maneuver poster or auditioning to be a Soul Cycle or Barry’s instructor feels fresh, weird and, most importantly, very very funny.
It’s impossible to separate Bowen’s ascent on SNL and consideration for Emmys with the history behind it. His premiere as a cast member came on the heels of the firing of another recently announced cast member who had made racist comments on his “podcast”. The less said about that the better, because it conflates Yang’s absolute slay of a season to a narrative he never asked to be a part of. But the truth is, he’s only the third openly gay male SNL cast member and fourth Asian American. In 45 years. There’s no denying it, something about Bowen Yang on this particular show at this particular moment, feels revolutionary.
Yes, he would make history as the first Chinese-American man nominated for a Best Actor/Supporting Actor Emmy, and only the second Asian-American to ever be nominated (after Aziz Ansari for Master of None). That’s a moment that can’t be ignored, but is perhaps too much weight to put on one person’s well-defined shoulders. Bowen Yang has been funny in small TV and film roles, in stand-up and on his wildly entertaining, painfully funny podcast Las Culturistas for years; He is currently giving one of the funniest, most joyful performances on television. That should be rewarded.
(Side note: I did once put my hat in the ring for a live taping of Las Culturistas in Brooklyn to participate in their signature bit “I Don’t Think So Honey…” where the hosts, Yang and his BFF, comedian/writer/singer/actor/star Matt Rogers rail against something in pop culture for exactly one minute. My bit on weak-ass hair dryers in men’s locker rooms was, alas, not chosen.)
Then there’s the Emmys of it all. I want to say, unequivocally, ‘Emmy nominee Bowen Yang’ would be an absolute gag. Like a few of the other comedy categories, there is some wiggle room in Supporting Actor this year, thanks to the end of Veep and no Barry to hog up real estate. (Seriously, for as funny as it was, could you imagine watching Veep right now?). In addition to obvious incumbent Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and sure thing Dan Levy (Schitt’s Creek), the rest of the category is up for grabs. Alan Arkin – and the weird The Kominsky Method machine – shouldn’t be counted out, nor should Yang’s SNL co-star Kenan Thompson. Much of the rest of the category is going to depend on how much the Television Academy remains under Maisel’s spell (Kevin Pollak, Michael Zegen, Leroy McClain, Sterling K. Brown are all possibilities) and how much they fall for shiny new things Space Force (it is very bad, but it does have John Malkovich) and The Great (Nicholas Hoult and his butt!). There’s also Mahershala Ali in Ramy, James Marsden in Dead to Me and The Good Place boys all trying to get their first nominations in this category. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but, Emmys, if you want to get rid of toxic in the community, don’t sleep on Bowen Yang.