A/PIA ‘weird, queer’ comedian shares their take on inclusive comedy

Sunday, April 19, 2020 - 2:57pm

Jes Tom, a New York-based comedian, spoke on their experiences in the entertainment industry to a group of about 30 students on Friday night.

Jes Tom, a New York-based comedian, spoke on their experiences in the entertainment industry to a group of about 30 students on Friday night. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Cheryn Hong

More than 30 viewers tuned into a Zoom call with Jes Tom, a New York-based actor, writer and self-described “weird queer” stand-up comic, as they shared their experience in the entertainment industry in honor of Asian/Pacific Islander American heritage month on Friday. 

Tom said they were involved in theatre growing up and always wanted to act. However, they said they doubted it would be possible due to their appearance since they have been openly gay and gender non-conforming for a long time.

“At the time that was true: There was nobody on TV who looked anything like how I look right now or how I looked at the time,” Tom said. “Which is why I got into improv comedy in college, and realized I was good at stand-up when a friend recommended I join a club for it at their school. The rest is history.” 

Tom prepared dinner during the event while answering questions and sharing their journey as a comedian. They decided to cook during the event because they believe cooking is something everyone has in common right now, especially for Asian Americans. 

“As far as the literal pandemic moment we’re in, recent events have come back to the idea that Chinese people eat weird food,” Tom said. “I’m from San Francisco originally. I’m half Japanese, half Chinese and I’m a fifth-generation American on my Japanese American side, so a lot of my legacy comes from eating at restaurants I like and figuring out recipes, rather than receiving the knowledge from my family.”

Tom said they find it disheartening to see the media associating COVID-19 with Chinese faces, as they said images of Asians in masks dehumanizes them to a pair of eyes. However, they wanted to establish the fact that they do not refer to themselves as an activist. 

“I’m a stand-up comic and I make comedy, and I think many people want people who identify as marginalized to make content and be activists, but I believe that it leads to disappointment,” Tom said. “Because you might be a Hollywood actor, and you truly aren’t an activist, so inevitably if they do something problematic, then people get disappointed because they expected something different.” 

Engineering junior Anu Tuladhar was excited to hear Tom discuss their career and journey. Tuladhar said she appreciated Tom’s cooking while speaking, as it normalized queer Asians by showing them doing everyday things such as eating tofu and onions. 

Tuladhar said what especially stood out for her was Tom’s aversion to being labeled as an activist, which Tuladhar said altered her perspective on the role of celebrities as activists. 

“They made me realize that those in the spotlight are not obligated at all to be activists,” Tuladhar said. “In the past I’ve been frustrated at celebrities and others in the media who didn’t use their platform to speak for change. I realized they’re not responsible for this, and it’s okay.” 

Public Health sophomore Victoria Minka said Tom’s decision to not identify as an activist showed her that regardless of what title people proclaim, there is always room to be caring and compassionate. 

“I think Jes is a testament to how it’s important that we don’t all have to be activists to be caring or knowledgeable people about the world,” Minka said. “We all still need to care about world issues and wider A/PIA issues even if we don’t necessarily identify as activists.”

Tom said racially problematic content is littered throughout the entertainment industry. However, they said enjoying that content does not mean the viewers themselves are racist or problematic as well. 

“If (Game of Thrones) is racist, and I love it, it’s not like I’m giving it a pass, it’s that I recognize what’s happening there,” Tom said. “I recognize who created it and where it came from, and what sort of worlds it inhabits and I recognize that’s not the part I love, but there are other parts I do love, and that doesn’t make that illegitimate, it doesn’t make me wrong. The show is still racist, ultimately we have to just acknowledge that, but things don’t have to be inherently good or bad.” 

In terms of Asian American representation in entertainment, Tom emphasized the need for a diversity of content regarding Asian American experiences. They said because of a general lack of representation, people in the A/PIA community may want the few things which seem to represent them in the media, such as movies with all Asian casts, to be perfect. 

“Like, Crazy Rich Asians is a capitalist fantasy about what it would be like to accidentally marry into a billionaire Singaporean’s family, but I’m like a queer trans person (so) none of this relates to me,” Tom said. “I felt ashamed at first when I didn’t like the movie, but then I realized I don’t even watch straight romantic comedies, and the only reason why I watched this one was because Asian people were doing it, and that made me feel like it was for me.”  

To create content unique to them, Tom said they started out performing in places in Long Island City, as they were convenient location-wise. However, they were doing comedy in very traditional settings with straight white male audiences, which Tom said made them feel like they stood out and led them to feel lonely. 

Tom said they realized they deserved better than audiences who didn’t make them feel unwelcome. 

“I lived with queer people of color and I already had a safe space, and I didn’t think I needed that in comedy,” Tom said. “I thought I could survive in a shitty situation with all the shitty people. But my biggest mistake was how I mistook my settling as adapting and now I don’t go into those spaces anymore because I don’t think they’re worth my time or effort, and I’d rather go to where my friends are and go to those shows.” 

Having this experience with unaccepting audiences, Tom said their goal in their comedy is to reach all audiences but especially those who identify with them. They want folks who have identities in common with them to get a higher level of the joke while everyone else can still sort of get it. 

Overall, Tom said they want their comedy to appeal to mainstream crowds but still be their own truthful content. 

“In this world, the mainstream crowd means white, straight, cis people, but I still want to make my comedy not solely for the Asian community,” Tom said. “My comedy isn’t for (the Asian community), it’s just that they get it and that’s good, that means I’m doing my job, because that’s what jokes are. If people don’t understand your jokes, it’s not a joke.” 

LSA sophomore Johnathon Huynh said he appreciates Tom’s approach to comedy.

“Jes really brought to light the power of comedy for marginalized people,” Huynh said. “Their method is to tell jokes that Asian or queer people can relate to, but they are also funny for a broader audience. I now see comedy can get people to learn about identities in a naturally accepting and barrier-free environment.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Cheryn Hong can be reached at cherynh@umich.edu