Asian American Comedy in Unfunny Times

Cold Tofu Improv and (front row, third from right) director Jully Lee

Q+A with Cold Tofu artistic director Jully Lee

Founded by four women of color and now marking its 40th anniversary, Cold Tofu remains the nation’s first and longest running Asian American improv and sketch comedy troupe. The story of the group is recounted in an engaging short video, directed and narrated by Cold Tofu artistic director Jully Lee, on Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage. We caught up with Lee, who shares her thoughts about the company and where it’s going.

What impact has Cold Tofu had on Asian Americans in the entertainment industry?

We offer a safe space where entertainers can explore their creativity. Improv is a very physical sport, a kinesthetic art form, you feel the room, you feel the energy of your partner—even now, during the pandemic, we are still able to capture a lot of that through Zoom. A lot of our students are “closet” performers. Cold Tofu allows them to explore that creative side of themselves without necessarily committing on a career level. It’s also a toe in the water for those who do want to possibly pursue a career in entertainment.

What does Cold Tofu want non-Asian Americans to know about Asian Americans?

The reputation of Asians is that we are quiet and invisible. Many aspects of the different Asian cultures lean toward that perception, so I can see how that might be the impression. But we exist and have thoughts and opinions. We are funny, we can be articulate and entertaining. We are also diverse within our own varied cultures. Asian Americans are Americans—we share the same American values that all Americans have.

What role does Cold Tofu play in today’s supercharged political climate?

Five years ago, there was a concern that Cold Tofu would become obsolete—Asian Americans were getting opportunities at other entertainment venues that were honing in on diversity. Now, the climate has regressed. It’s really evolved to an ugly and scary place out there, and it is clear to see how valuable we still are. We are a source of respite amid all that anti-Asian bias. We make each other laugh. We remind ourselves of our humanity so that we’re not just perceived as invisible victims.

Photo by Michael C. Palma

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