Bowen Yang (Chinese: 楊伯文; born 6 November 1990) is an Australian-born American actor, comedian, podcaster, and writer based in New York City. He co-hosts a comedy pop-culture podcast, Las Culturistas, with Matt Rogers. He also posts pop-culture lip-syncing videos on Twitter. Since September 2018, he has been on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Yang was promoted to on-air cast member for SNL’s 45th season as a featured player, in September 2019, becoming its first Chinese-American, third openly gay male, and fourth-ever cast member of Asian descent. He was promoted to the main cast before the 47th season.
Early Life and Career
Yang was born in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, to a family that had emigrated from China in the 1980s. His father, Ruilin, was raised in a rural part of the Inner Mongolia region of mainland China, growing up in a straw and mud hut. Ruilin’s parents were illiterate, but he read books for hours by candlelight and eventually got into university—a rarity so soon after the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), which effectively shut down universities. Yang’s mother is an obstetrician-gynaecologist. The couple moved to Brisbane so Ruilin could earn his doctorate in mining explosives.
Yang has an older sister, Yang Yang. The children spoke Mandarin in their home, and attended Chinese Sunday school. The family moved to Montreal, where Bowen first discovered Saturday Night Live (SNL). When he was nine, they moved again to Aurora, Colorado. As a child, he was drawn to late-night comedians and hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.
Yang’s high school calculus teacher, Adrian Holguin, was also his coach for Smoky Hill High School’s improvisational comedy group, Spontaneous Combustion. Yang graduated from high school in 2008 and was voted “Most Likely to Be a Cast Member on Saturday Night Live” in his yearbook.
When he was seventeen, Yang’s father found out his son was gay from an “open chat window” on the family’s computer. His parents were not receptive to the news, stating that such things did not happen in China. Yang’s father cried often over the revelation and, being non-religious but wanting to “solve problems”, arranged for him to attend eight sessions of gay conversion therapy. Bowen attended the conversion therapy to appease his parents, and recalls being immediately alarmed by the counselor’s mix of religion and use of pseudo-scientific reasoning to explain away positive homosexual manifestations. In an interview for The New York Times, Maureen Dowd questioned why his parents, both scientists, did not see the disconnection. Bowen said, “It was a cultural thing for them, this cultural value around masculinity, around keeping the family line going, keeping certain things holy and sacred,” he said “It was me wanting to meet them halfway but realizing it had to be pretty absolute. It was an either-or thing.”
Yang moved to New York in 2008 to attend New York University (NYU) like his older sister. His father assigned her to chaperone him during this period as Bowen tried “straightness on for size and failing miserably.” He came to accept being gay, incorporating it into his comedy, and hoped his parents would learn to accept that aspect of him. They have since found a truce and enjoy a “great relationship.”
Yang was inspired by Sandra Oh’s character Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy for her neurotic and relentless pursuits, and aspired to be a doctor. He went to pre-med classes and graduated from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Yang’s college major has been misreported as microbiology. After realizing he was actually inspired by Oh for her acting ability, he decided to pursue a career in comedy instead. At NYU, he met Matt Rogers, with whom he started Las Culturistas, a weekly comedy podcast where Yang “unapologetically expresses his personality, story and himself by sharing his experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community”.
Yang taught himself Adobe Photoshop, graphic design software, and designing graphics at One Kings Lane, a luxury interior and home design website, from 2013 to 2018. The company was woman-centered, and was flexible with Yang’s time-off needs for comedy. He was on the improv team Dangerbox. Yang has also performed improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
The podcast Yang co-hosts with Matt Rogers, Las Culturistas, is described by Vulture as both “delightfully screwy” and a “two-headed snark routine”. As of September 2019, the podcast has 170 episodes. Each one opens with an interview with a pop culture guest, then goes to one-minute rounds of “I Don’t Think So, Honey!” (IDTSH) where the hosts and guests each expound on pet peeves. IDTSH has also morphed into its own live show. Yang credits the Las Culturistas podcast with Rogers for building his fanbase. In 2018 it was nominated for a Shorty Award recognizing the best in social media. Yang appeared in shows such as Comedy Central’s Broad City, a Vimeo web series The Outs, and the HBO web comedy High Maintenance. He was a supporting cast member in the 2019 film Isn’t It Romantic. Yang performed stand-up on HBO’s 2 Dope Queens. He played fashion designer Alexander Wang in a sketch series on Comedy Central, Up Next.
Yang also is known for his posts of “expertly-timed lip-sync videos of famous movie scenes”, where he “reproduces dialogue from diva scenes” to Twitter and well-known moments in popular culture, such as a monologue by Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, Tyra Banks yelling at contestant Tiffany Richardson on America’s Next Top Model, and a viral video of Cardi B talking about the 2019 government shutdown. Each garnered thousands of likes and retweets.
In January 2019, he was named to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 Hollywood & Entertainment list.
Yang plays Nora Lin’s (portrayed by Awkwafina) mobile app-developer cousin, both being raised by her dad (BD Wong) and grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn) in the Comedy Central sitcom Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, picked up in 2018, and premiered in January 2020; and renewed for a second season.
In 2018, Yang was hired as a staff writer on Saturday Night Live for the show’s 44th season. He said he “always loved SNL growing up, but had trouble imagining himself on the show, because he’d never seen people who looked like him associated with the series”. Yang has writing credits on twenty-one episodes of the show for the 2018–2019 season. His writing included: “GP Yass”, a play on a vehicle’s GPS navigation device that utilizes drag queens to deliver driving directions; and two sketches co-written with Julio Torres, which features Yang’s talent for infusing “drama, tension, and exquisite backstory” into an everyday activity like paying bills in “Cheques” with Sandra Oh, and an actress doing a cameo in a gay pornography film, “The Actress” with Emma Stone. “The Actress” was hailed by Out as the “gayest SNL sketch of all-time,” and featured Stone as an earnest method actress taking her role as a cheated-on housewife too seriously alongside real-life gay porn actor Ty Mitchell. The pre-tape—so-called as it is filmed days ahead rather than acted live—was championed by Stone to be included on air. SNL creator Lorne Michaels knew Yang would be an on-air talent but wanted him to be comfortable on their stage first. Yang made a cameo appearance during the Sandra Oh/Tame Impala episode as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un while Oh played his translator.
In September 2019, Yang was promoted to featured cast member for the 45th season, alongside improviser Chloe Fineman. Yang is the show’s first ever Chinese-American cast member, and third openly gay male cast member after Terry Sweeney and John Milhiser.
SNL has had “little representation from Asian actors, as cast members or hosts” over several decades. Up until Yang’s promotion there had been only three cast members, and six hosts who were of Asian descent. A 2016 study of SNL revealed: 90% of 1975–2016’s show hosts (826 total) were white, 6.8% were black, 1.2% were Hispanic, and 1.1% were labelled “other”. Similarly SNL has had comparatively low representation of LGBTQ on-air cast and guest hosts since the series started in 1975. Yang is the third openly gay male, and sixth LGBTQ cast member. News of the Chinese and openly gay Yang’s new job was reported internationally, but within hours was overshadowed by revelations that comedian Shane Gillis, who had been hired at the same time, aired homophobic and anti-Asian jokes. Gillis issued an apology, but within days was fired by SNL.
Yang’s first episode as a regular cast member was the season’s opening episode September 28, 2019, with host Woody Harrelson. Notably he was included in the show’s cold open playing Kim Jong-un giving advice to Trump on handling the Ukraine controversy including the whistleblower who helped trigger the 2019 impeachment hearings. In other sketches he portrayed Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in a parody town hall debate, and was an extra in a mock movie trailer for Downton Abbey. In October 2019, Yang made his debut on Weekend Update (WU), as Chinese trade representative Chen “Trade Daddy” Biao in a segment about Donald Trump’s trade war that was “brief, funny and took some clever satirical shots”. Yang’s Biao character returned to WU as the newly appointed health minister for the COVID-19 pandemic which he unconvincingly tries to assure China has in control. Perhaps his “filthiest” sketch, also co-written with friend Julio Torres, was for guest host Harry Styles as an incompetent Sara Lee Corporation social media manager who mixes up his own gay BDSM account on Instagram with the company’s “wholesome bread brand”. In 2021, Yang was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He is the first featured player to ever be nominated. He also played NBA hall-of-famer Yao Ming in January 2022.
In 2021, Yang was applauded for speaking out on the recent surge in violence against Asian-Americans during a Weekend Update segment. He told audiences to “fuel up” (using the Chinese cheer Jiayou) and do more for Asian Americans. Also in 2021, he appeared on the Time 100, Time’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Yang is a writer on the Apple TV+ musical comedy series Schmigadoon! which stars his SNL castmate Cecily Strong. In September 2021, he appeared as a guest on the NPR news quiz Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!.
Bowen Yang is currently single and not yet married.
Bowen Yang’s net worth as of 2022 is estimated at around $2.5 million – $10 million.
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