Bowen Yang is a comedian, actor and podcaster who is the first Chinese-American cast member of ‘Saturday Night Live.’
Who Is Bowen Yang?
Bowen Yang was born in Australia in 1990 and grew up in Canada and Colorado. He is the first Chinese-American cast member of Saturday Night Live, as well as the first gay man to be part of the show for more than one season. Yang brought a new perspective to SNL, often performing in and/or writing scenes in which queerness is incorporated into characters without being used as a punchline. Yang is also known for his work on the podcast Las Culturistas and has appeared on several television shows, including a regular role on Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.
Early Life and Family
Bowen Yang was born in 1990 in Brisbane, Australia. Yang’s family left China for Australia so his father could pursue a doctorate in mining engineering. Because Yang has an older sister, he’s noted, “I wouldn’t have been born if my parents had stayed in China,” due to the one-child policy in effect at the time.
Yang’s mother was a gynecologist in China. Yang grew up speaking Mandarin at home and going to Chinese Sunday school with his sister.
When he was young, Yang relocated with his family from Australia to Canada, where they lived outside Montreal. The family moved to the Denver suburb of Aurora when Yang was 9. There, he became a devoted fan of Saturday Night Live.
Yang attended Smoky Hill High School and was part of an improv troupe known as Spontaneous Combustion. Before graduating high school in 2008, he was voted “Most Likely to Be a Cast Member on Saturday Night Live.”
Conversion Therapy and Aftermath
When Yang was 17, he left a chat window open on a shared family computer that alerted his parents to the fact their son was gay. Yang told The New York Times what happened next: “They just sat me down and yelled at me and said, ‘We don’t understand this. Where we come from, this doesn’t happen.'”
“I had never seen my dad cry before up until that point,” Yang shared with GQ. “And I was coming home from school every day to him sobbing.” Yang’s parents set up conversion therapy sessions in Colorado Springs, a two-hour drive away, and he agreed to go. He said of the experience, “It was just crazy. Explain the gay away with pseudoscience.”
After completing the course of conversion therapy, Yang was allowed to attend New York University, where his sister was already a student and could keep an eye on him. During college, Yang again came out to his family. Though their initial reaction was once more unsupportive, he waited until his parents began to accept, or at least live with, his sexuality. “My dad every now and then will toe that line and be like, You could try women!” Yang admitted in 2020. “And I’m like…Don’t. It’s almost an endearing kind of homophobia, if such a thing exists.”
Today, Yang maintains a strong relationship with his family. They have vacationed together, and his parents are proud of his success on Saturday Night Live. “They know that that job has been hard won for me, and that it means a lot, and it means a lot to them too,” Yang said in 2021. “They think, ‘Wow, he pulled it off.’ And my mom said to me recently, she was like, ‘Bowen you’re very lucky to be doing this.’ And I was like, ‘I know, mom.'”
College and Early Comedy Career
Yang was a pre-med chemistry major at New York University, inspired in part by the TV drama Grey’s Anatomy. However, he continued to do comedy while in school.
Instead of heading to medical school after graduating, Yang became a graphic designer and pursued his comedy career via auditions and shows.
‘Saturday Night Live’
In 2018, Yang started as a writer for season 44 of Saturday Night Live. That season he also stepped in front of the camera to appear as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In 2019, Yang’s work on SNL resulted in an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for A Variety Series.
Yang became a featured player for the following season of SNL, making him the first Chinese-American cast member in the show’s history. The characters he portrayed included politician Andrew Yang and a Chinese trade representative known as Trade Daddy. Yang also co-wrote and appeared in a sketch that starred Harry Styles as a social media manager struggling to separate work posts about Sara Lee from his personal desire for Nick Jonas and troubles with threesomes.
Yang remained a featured player in the 2020-21 season. He contributed to memorable sketches such as “Pride Month Song,” about the tribulations members of the LGBTQ+ community can face in June. In March 2021, he spoke out against violence against Asian Americans on Weekend Update.
In July 2021, Yang became the first featured cast member of SNL — as opposed to the show’s more established repertory players — to receive an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series. The episode he submitted for awards consideration was from April 2021, in which he portrayed the iceberg that sank the Titanic, who was promoting an EDM fantasia album.
At the start of Saturday Night Live‘s 2021-22 season, Yang was elevated from featured to repertory cast member. He’s said of his time on the show, “I thought going in that I had to have this very broad, very palatable sensibility that works for everybody, but then the stuff that I’m the most proud of, and probably even got the most success from, was outwardly an expression of queerness or gayness. That’s been a nice surprise.”
Instead of focusing on his own success in breaking barriers on SNL, Yang said in an interview with NPR in 2021, “I kind of don’t really care about how my tenure on the show is perceived in any particular way, other than…I want this to facilitate something better for the next person.”
TV and Video
Yang portrays Awkwafina’s cousin on her TV series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. He has guest starred on shows like High Maintenance, Broad City and Girls5eva. In 2016, he appeared on the second season of the web series The Outs.
Yang was known for sharing lip-sync videos on social media. His subjects have ranged from Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model to Sandra Oh’s work as Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy.
Yang began making the podcast Las Culturistas, which delves into pop culture, with his friend and co-host Matt Rogers in 2016.
In 2021, Yang joined an impressive roster of queer performers, including Cynthia Nixon, Jane Lynch, Margaret Cho and Tony Kushner, in the scripted podcast Hot White Heist. He starred as a gay man who partners with a lesbian cult to break into a top-secret sperm bank.