For this week's episode, I sat down with my Code Switch teammate Gene Demby to dig into one of our favorite topics: rep sweats. It's the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.
When it comes to strong feelings and anxieties about representation on TV — especially when it comes to Asian-Americans — Jeff Yang has plenty of experience. He's a cultural critic who regularly contributes to CNN, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Quartz and, occasionally, Code Switch.
In 1994, Jeff was a TV critic for Village Voice. His editor told him to review the new ABC sitcom All-American Girl, starring the comedian Margaret Cho, who played a Korean-American teenage girl constantly butting heads with her immigrant family.
Jeff hesitated. All-American Girl was the first network sitcom featuring an Asian-American family ever, and a lot was riding on it. Jeff knew how hard it was for shows starring black and brown actors — let alone an Asian-American actress — to get made at all.
Then as now, the landscape of network TV shows featuring families of color was constantly changing and receding. Latino and black family sitcoms, like Viva Valdez or the short-lived That's My Mama, cropped up in spurts, then went away. And any impact they had in broadening diversity on TV was incremental at best, and stereotypical at worst.
Jeff knew all this, and he didn't want to hurt the show. To make matters worse, he knew Margaret Cho personally. But Jeff's editor presented him with a tough question: Are you more concerned with doing your job as a TV critic, or remaining loyal to your community?
Jeff sat down with me to talk about what happened next, and also the fact that his own son, Hudson Yang, now stars in Fresh Off The Boat, the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years since the cancellation of — you guessed it — All-American Girl. Knowing what he knows now, would Jeff have done anything differently two decades ago?
I also talked with Hudson about his role on Fresh, and he and Jeff walked me through how they fit into the tiny, ever-changing landscape of Asian-Americans on TV.
- A Timeline Of Network Sitcoms Featuring Families Of Color (Kat Chow, Code Switch)
- Remember When You Had To Flip To The Back Page Of 'Jet' To Find Black People On TV? (Gene Demby, Code Switch)
- Why It's So Hard For Us To Agree About Dong From 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' (Kat Chow, Code Switch)
- American Untouchable (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker)
- All-American Girl at 20: The Evolution of Asian Americans on TV (E. Alex Jung, The Los Angeles Review Of Books)
GENE DEMBY, HOST:
This is CODE SWITCH from NPR, race and identity remixed. I'm Gene Demby.
KAT CHOW, HOST:
And I'm Kat Chow.
DEMBY: And today, Kat, you and I, we're going to dig into something that we argue about a lot over our little cubicle wall that separates us. It's something you write about a lot.
CHOW: Rep sweats.
DEMBY: Yes, rep sweats. All right, so for anyone who doesn't know what that means, can you just break that down really quickly?
CHOW: So the comedian Jenny Yang, she came up with this idea last year. It means basically sweating over representation. So you're worried about the way people like you are portrayed on TV or in the movies.
CHOW: 'Cause we all know that when you're a person of color in America, you don't show up very often on the big or small screen.
DEMBY: Things have gotten a lot better in recent years for some people and for some groups. But for the most part, it's always been this really bleak, really desolate landscape when it comes to people of color in popular media, right?
CHOW: Yeah, so that means that whenever a show with black or brown characters does finally come around, there's so much excitement. But there can also be this weird anxiety. Like, what if the show ends up portraying my community in a way I don't like?
DEMBY: Or what if it's just trash? Like, I'm thinking of - specifically, I'm thinking of "Red Tails," a terrible movie that there was all this community pressure, a lot of pressure from a lot of folks to go up and support because it was a black movie.
CHOW: And what if no one watches the show and it gets canceled and then for a long, long time, there's not another show featuring people like you?
DEMBY: Right, so rep sweats is this feeling that a show with a black cast or Latino cast or an Asian cast, you can't judge it on its own merits. It has to stand in for so much more.
CHOW: And I think that a lot of Asian-Americans, they wrestle with this. You feel like you have a sort of duty to show up for a show. You feel like you have to say nice things about it even if you don't particularly want to, which is a super weird way to experience and watch TV.
DEMBY: So that, Kat and listeners, that's what we're going to dig into today. Where do rep sweats come from? What is your duty to a show that's for you - ostensibly, I'm doing for you in air quotes. You can't see me. But...
CHOW: Yeah, you were.
DEMBY: (Laughter) But it's not really working for you. You are not really feeling it. And why does it matter that we show up in the first place?
CHOW: Yep, and we're going to do that all after a break.
DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. All right, Kat, we are talking about rep sweats, that feeling you get when if you're black or you're brown and you have to tune in and rep a show that you might not actually like all that much just because you feel that if that show does not get ratings, networks might not want to mess with another black or brown show for a long time.
And it makes sense, Kat, that you in particular have this set of anxieties. I remember you saying once that when you were growing up, there were so few Asian-Americans on TV that you and your sisters would point at the screen and yell, Asian...
DEMBY: ...Whenever there was an Asian person on the TV screen, even if it was just for a commercial.
CHOW: I can't believe you remember that. And, like, how depressing is that that you remember that? And then also...
DEMBY: It is depressing.
CHOW: Yeah, and then how depressing is that that we actually had to do that? And when I was growing up, there really weren't that many opportunities for me to be yelling, Asian, at the TV. And honestly, the one that I remember most was, like - what? - Lucy Liu in "Charlie's Angels" from 2000. But that was a movie and not even a TV show.
And I know that this isn't just an Asian-American thing.
DEMBY: Oh, definitely not. I mean, when I was younger, in the back of Jet Magazine - just really quickly as a side note, Jet Magazine was this, like, Reader's Digest sized magazine for black life and black pop culture. But anyway, on the very last page of Jet Magazine, there was this feature called Television.
And it was literally, literally just a rundown of every single black person who was going to be on primetime network TV that week...
DEMBY: ...Even if it was just a guest star, right?
CHOW: So that's like an organized guide to spotting a black person.
DEMBY: Basically the same idea, right? It's like Denzel Washington was on "St. Elsewhere," boom. You knew that's going to be a Wednesday at 10 o'clock on NBC. Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges were going to be on "Diff'rent Strokes." That was at Saturday at 8, right?
So the publisher of Jet Magazine, John H. Johnson, he said that black people would tape that schedule of black people on TV from the last page of Jet to the side of their TV sets because there were so few black people TV shows.
CHOW: Oh, wow.
DEMBY: So they knew when to tune in so they could watch.
CHOW: So did your family have that taped to your TV set?
DEMBY: It wasn't taped to the side of our TVs, but we definitely - like, we definitely checked in on it, yeah.
CHOW: Wow, and so I remember once you told me this story about how when you were in preschool, your teachers, they'd quiz you and they'd quiz the class to make sure everybody was watching "The Cosby Show" just so the show would be successful.
DEMBY: Right, we're like 4 or 5. And, like, every Friday morning, 'cause "The Cosby Show" came on on Thursday nights...
CHOW: Yeah, yeah.
DEMBY: ...They would ask us, you know, what happened on "The Cosby Show" last night?
DEMBY: And, you know, talking about it now, it's, like, a much more loaded conversation.
CHOW: Yeah, Bill Cosby as a role model now is a whole different thing.
DEMBY: Yeah, let's just leave that alone for right now. But the point is over the years, there's actually been times when there were at least enough black folks on TV to, like, make a short list of them and then tape them to the side of your TV set. But that's never really been the case for Asian-Americans, right?
So when you're talking about family sitcoms, which you could probably argue when it comes to representational on TV is one of the more important kinds of shows that you really want to see.
CHOW: Definitely, so there was a show - a show - in 1994. And it was an ABC family sitcom. And it starred the comedian Margaret Cho. And it was called "All-American Girl."
DEMBY: I remember that show.
CHOW: Yeah, and it was a really, really important moment for Asian-Americans on TV. And it was the only Asian-American sitcom back then.
DEMBY: Was it the first?
CHOW: Yeah, it was the first network sitcom featuring an Asian-American family.
CHOW: Yeah, I know. You have to be that specific. But Margaret, she played this Korean-American teenager who was trying to get along with her traditional Korean immigrant family. And she's basically this misfit. And I want to play you this clip. It's from one of the first episodes. Basically, Margaret shows up late to her family's dinner table.
She's wearing this denim jacket with these big, dangly earrings and...
DEMBY: That's super '90s.
CHOW: I know. And also super '90s is as she's, like, walking into the scene and as it opens, she's talking into this enormous cell phone that has this giant antenna sticking out. And so anyway, here's the clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL-AMERICAN GIRL")
B D WONG: (As Stuart Kim) Why don't I go check on her?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Stuart, your sister knows what time we eat.
WONG: (As Stuart Kim) Of course she does. I'm sorry, everyone. I'm afraid I let my tummy take precedence over tradition.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Oh, geez.
MARGARET CHO: (As Margaret Kim) Well, we're probably going to see "Psycho Sluts From Hell" at the plex. No, I will not go to the Rialto. Well, for one thing, they don't carry the large-sized Good & Plenty. And for another, their floors are always sticky. And I don't even know why it's sticky - like tar or something. It's so - I've got to go.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Margaret, do you know why I encourage your brother to become a cardiologist?
CHO: (As Margaret Kim) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Because I always knew that one day, you'd give me a heart attack. What are you wearing?
DEMBY: ...Those comic hijinks. So basically, it was just another cheesy '90s show, right?
CHOW: Yeah, this was the first Asian-American show. It came under so much critique and criticism. Like, it was a total pile on. And I have to say, you know, if this was a so-so show from the '90s or even, like, a bad one about a white family, it really wouldn't have gotten anywhere near this level of scrutiny and vitriol. Like, people wouldn't care about it as much.
But because this was Margaret Cho and because this was an Asian-American cast, it was held up to this impossibly high standard, especially by other Asian-Americans.
DEMBY: All right, so what were people back then saying about it?
CHOW: Well, there was this very widely read review from a guy named Jeff Yang.
DEMBY: Jeff. I know Jeff.
CHOW: Yeah, so you might know Jeff Yang's writing from The Wall Street Journal or even for CODE SWITCH.
DEMBY: Yeah, he's written for us a few times. He's a pretty well-known culture critic. He writes a good deal about race on TV, as it turns out.
CHOW: Yeah, and so in 1994, he was just getting started as a writer for The Village Voice. And he ends up being the one to review "All-American Girl." And check out what he said. He wrote (reading) the writing is awful, loaded with stereotypes and dusty gags from "Full House's" cutting room floor.
DEMBY: Damn, Jeff. How do you really feel about that?
CHOW: Yeah, no, seriously. And "All-American Girl," it did end up getting just one season. And it was held up again and again and again as this monumental failure and in a way that most shows never had to answer for. And ultimately, no network would put out another Asian-American family sitcom for 20 years. And "All-American Girl" was constantly cited as a reason why.
Like, that's 20 years. That's two decades.
DEMBY: That's rough. That's ridiculous.
CHOW: Yeah, it was brutal. And I wondered how Jeff felt about all that. And from our conversation, I get the sense he was feeling those rep sweats that we talked about a lot. Here's Jeff.
JEFF YANG: You know, it did really take a long time for me to process just what a loss, in some ways, that opportunity was. And I think, you know, when I wrote that as a very young critic, it was one of the first feature reviews I'd done for The Village Voice and one of the first gigs I had in journalism as a cultural critic. I thought that at the time, there was a question about my integrity.
I'd been assigned this thing to review. You know, I had a lot of hopes for it, as all of us did as Asian-Americans. And when I watched it and was not a fan, I talked to my editor. And my editor said, look, you have to do what you feel is best or right. But at some point, you're going to have to decide whether or not you are more concerned with, you know, being friends with people in your community or a cultural critic and doing your job.
I did my job. And I think I did it in some ways with a little extra sort of sense of bite because I wanted to prove that I could be, you know, objective and authentic in my critical sensibilities. It wasn't a great show. But you know what? There are a lot of not good shows on TV.
DEMBY: That's real. That's real.
CHOW: Yeah. And the thing is he knew Margaret Cho personally.
DEMBY: Oh, no.
YANG: Literally the day after, Margaret called me up and said, you know, when they decide to cancel the show, this is going to be the review they're going to blame, they're going to use as an excuse because you are the only Asian-American critic out there with a regular TV beat. And they're going to say, even people from your community, even your people do not support it.
DEMBY: So "All-American Girl" gets canned. And then there's not another show like it.
CHOW: Until "Fresh Off The Boat," which, yeah, that premiered in 2015 on ABC, which also "All-American Girl" was on. And "Fresh Off The Boat" is a sitcom about the Huangs, a Taiwanese-American family who live in Orlando. And it's set in the early '90s, which is when "All-American Girl" was on also. And it's based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang.
And it's about his coming of age in an immigrant family.
DEMBY: So in a lot of ways, it's really similar in themes to "All-American Girl."
CHOW: Exactly, and just like "All-American Girl," there's been this huge wave of excitement and conversation about what it means that we have a show like this again. I want to play a scene for you from the first episode.
CHOW: It's where the main character, Eddie, he's talking to his mom about his first day of school. And the kids at school, they've teased him about the Chinese noodles his mom made him for lunch.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRESH OFF THE BOAT")
CONSTANCE WU: (As Jessica Huang) Hey, so how was your first day?
HUDSON YANG: (Eddie Huang) They said my lunch smelled.
WU: (As Jessica Huang) It smelled delicious.
HUDSON: (As Eddie Huang) No, they said it stank, Mom. I had to eat behind the gym where the janitor flies his kite.
WU: (As Jessica Huang) Well, those kids, they just don't know, that's all. It just take time to get used to something different.
HUDSON: (As Eddie Huang) I hate it here.
CHOW: So that kid right there in the clip who's playing the young Eddie Huang, that's Hudson Yang. That's Jeff Yang's 12-year-old kid.
DEMBY: OK, wow. OK, so if Jeff had anxieties about "All-American Girl," then he really, really has them now.
CHOW: Yeah, and so that's what I wanted to know. What's it like to be Jeff, who's a cultural critic and writes a lot about Asian-Americans on TV and all these issues of representation? What's it like now that it's his own son starring in a sitcom that has so much riding on it? How does Hudson see his role in all that also?
DEMBY: All right, so let's hear it.
CHOW: Hudson, you're 12. And, like, not too long ago, just a few years ago, you were just living your life in New York. And what's it like now being the star of a show that means a lot to a lot of Asian-Americans?
HUDSON: Being on the show, it doesn't only mean a lot to Asian-Americans because, I mean, really, it means a lot to a lot of people 'cause they can relate to it. And that's something really important about it, too. But, I mean, being on the show and starting a new thing for, like, people like me, Asian people, it's awesome because I can be a role model that my parents and a lot of my friends or friends' parents haven't had.
And then I can see the impact. I have people, like, talking to me about it and, like, taking a picture with me to prove it.
CHOW: Did you realize how big of a deal this was when you were auditioning?
HUDSON: I mean, no. I never thought I'd actually ever get to this point. I never thought I'd be here. I never thought I'd be in California. I never thought I'd be anywhere except for school at this point.
HUDSON: But once I started the show, I didn't really know what was going on 'cause I was new to the business...
HUDSON: ...And I'd never been in anything really big. So when I got this role, it kind of opened my eyes to a (singing) whole new world. No.
CHOW: But it did.
HUDSON: It did.
CHOW: Yeah. Jeff, I remember two and a half years ago, we were having dinner in D.C.
CHOW: And you were like, hold on. I'm expecting a call because my kid, Hudson, he's auditioning for this role. What was that like?
YANG: It was super weird. I mean, as you might guess, I have mostly been on the other side of this equation, you know, in the sense of that I've been writing about how impossible it is for Asian actors to get roles. I remember actually giving Hudson this lecture when he first said, oh, I want to try acting.
And basically, you know, told him that being an actor is incredibly frustrating. You get a hundred doors slammed in your face. You've got to get used to rejection, especially as an Asian young male actor. The number of roles that are available are going to be very few. The ones that are available are going to suck.
YANG: And so, you know, basically, just I wanted to make sure that he was aware of how tough the road was going to be. And then, of course, the, like, on his third audition or whatever...
HUDSON: With my luck...
HUDSON: ...I kind of, like, paved the road.
YANG: You know, you're either part of the road or part of the juggernaut. And Hudson's, I guess, more of a juggernaut. So, yes, he then rolls in and does this addition and gets this network TV gig, having acted for all of a few months.
CHOW: Yeah, that's kind of nuts.
YANG: It was kind of nuts (laughter), very much.
HUDSON: Like, you were like, be careful. And I was like, I got this.
HUDSON: And then me being me helped me become me.
CHOW: What has it done, do you think, to the landscape? Like, the very small landscape of Asian Americans on TV.
YANG: The small but growing landscape. I think that there has been a transformation in some ways in the pipeline, you know, which has been blocked up for so long. It's not that there haven't been stories that we can tell. It's not even that there haven't been pitches or pilots made featuring Asian-Americans and Asian-American families in particular. But until there was some sort of proof in Hollywood that this could not fail, not even so much succeed, but not fail, all those things were being held up. I remember actually being at the wrap party after the first season and talking to a, shall we say, seasoned executive from a studio who shared with me that he was really excited about the show because there were so many shows, so many ideas that, you know, he'd been talking to people about. And if this show succeeds, we can actually make them. And my response was, why don't you just make them, you know?
HUDSON: As I said, they need that road to help them succeed 'cause then they can just go down the smooth road instead of going the bumpy road and the risky road. And, like, a lot of the shows have been popping up, as I said before, like "Dr. Ken," our show. And there used to be "Selfie."
YANG: Well, "Selfie," yeah.
CHOW: Oh, "Selfie." That was very short-lived.
YANG: It was.
HUDSON: Yeah, it was very short-lived. It was sad. I liked the show a lot.
HUDSON: I was watching it.
YANG: And the fact is these shows are - although they all feature Asian-Americans, you know, "Master Of None" is another one. You've got programs that aren't squarely about Asian-Americans but feature prominent Americans like "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," right?
HUDSON: And there's also "Into The Badlands."
YANG: "Into The Badlands," yeah, which is...
YANG: But they're all very different looks, right? The - what they show aren't necessarily just that Asian Americans can succeed on TV but that we can succeed in a diversity of ways. There isn't a single experience or a single story or single context or protagonist type that we can represent. That's, I think, what's really powerful.
CHOW: Yeah, so how does it feel, Jeff, kind of being in this Asian-American image-making business? I mean, you're not in it, exactly. Hudson is.
CHOW: But I'm sure you have to do a lot of, like, the chauffeuring and...
YANG: Yeah, I feel like that's 75 percent of my job now (laughter) basically being stage Dad, bringer of McDonald's Happy Meals...
HUDSON: Yep, that's it.
YANG: ...(Laughter) and chauffeur. But the fact is I spent 29 years waiting for this moment to happen, hoping for this moment to happen. And for it to be happening with the...
HUDSON: In such a spectacular way with, like, you know such a spectacular person.
CHOW: With your son. I mean, like, did you ever imagine that?
YANG: No, I would never have imagined it. I mean, how could I? You know, no one could. But the fact that it's happened is incredible. And frankly, it's a great gift to be able to see firsthand this I can't call it anything less than revolution, in some ways, on television.
CHOW: So now that Hudson is on "Fresh Off The Boat," how has that kind of changed how you see your own work and your writing?
YANG: I am clearly a cheerleader for the show. I mean, I am the cheerleader for the show in some ways. I'm somebody with this incredibly privileged position to see this thing being brought to life on a regular basis, sitting in the dark watching my son and the other incredibly talented people associated with it. But the thing is I'm doing this from the vantage point of talking about that particular position.
I know that I'm compromised. I'm subjective. And yet, there's something really fascinating about having that 20-year history of watching the vacuum, essentially, in Asian-American stories on television, only to all of a sudden, have this vacuum filled and filled with the shape of my son, you know?
So I've written about that. And I've also written more broadly about how that has changed the temperature in the room for Asian-Americans on TV broadly. And I think that that is maybe the bigger story, in some ways - not the first show that succeeds but the second, the third...
YANG: ...The fifth, the tenth.
DEMBY: So, Kat, like Jeff, you write about race and television. And you're in this tough spot too - right? - 'cause...
DEMBY: ...You're writing about these shows. But you're also someone who wants more Asians on TV, not just as a critic but also just as a person.
DEMBY: I know you feel some anxiety about supporting "Fresh Off The Boat". I remember once you saying that you watched it and watched it, and you didn't like it at first. But you watched it until it got...
DEMBY: Until it got good because you wanted it to do well, right? So...
DEMBY: ...Do you still feel those anxieties?
CHOW: I'm still trying to flesh out my feelings on this. As a journalist, I feel like I should just be able to write about it, you know? And to just criticize it as I would any other show. But I feel so much anxiety? And I really, really want it to win. As I'm writing about it, though, it's weird to feel this true feeling, like, I don't want to say anything bad about it.
It's like that saying where if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. But instead of that, it's like, just say something nice just trying to help it get more shows on the air. Like, in the interview that we just heard, Jeff mentions that conversation with the studio executive where the studio executive is like, yeah, if "Fresh Off The Boat" well, there might be more.
And Jeff is like, why don't you guys just make more?
CHOW: I would love to just say, why don't you guys just make more? But the reality of the situation is that they're not going to make more unless there's, like, positive press about it. I don't know. So I feel super conflicted.
DEMBY: OK, so you said that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, which is I'm assuming why you never say anything about "Dr. Ken," which is another Asian-American...
DEMBY: ...Sitcom - a sitcom about an Asian-American family that is on TV right now. And you don't really feel the same obligations to "Dr. Ken." Is it just because there's more than one now?
CHOW: "Dr. Ken," I just don't think it's funny. That's my personal choice, though. And I feel like I should be allowed to have personal choices and just to not have something register on my radar. "Fresh Off The Boat" was the first Asian-American family sitcom in a long time, 20 years.
I felt like I had to watch it because if I didn't watch it, there would be this immense fear of missing out on all the stuff on Twitter that people were talking about.
DEMBY: Sure, part of the reason that I was watching "Scandal" so much when I was watching "Scandal" so much was because every Thursday, my Twitter timeline would be taken over by this conversation about "Scandal."
CHOW: Yeah, that's actually why I started watching "Scandal."
DEMBY: And so I would have people over my house. And we'd order a bunch of food. And people would roll through. And we'd just watch "Scandal." And we would Tweet about it. And I felt like if I wanted to be part of this conversation that was happening, this cultural conversation that was happening with the not insignificant number of black folks, then I also had to be literate in this thing, regardless of whether I liked it or not at first.
CHOW: Yeah, that happens.
DEMBY: Now we have "Empire," "Fresh Off The Boat."
DEMBY: We have "Jane The Virgin."
CHOW: Which is such a good show.
DEMBY: Team Rafael, prohibitively 'cause I'm not caught up.
CHOW: Yeah, which you need to do and then we can talk about it.
DEMBY: Yeah, "Master Of None" on Netflix. We've got a bunch of shows featuring black and brown characters, black and brown families. And so I know a lot of people would be tempted to be like, oh, we're good. We're straight. We don't have to worry anymore.
CHOW: There have been other waves on TV where you had lots of black and brown shows. And it seemed like the landscape had really shifted. But then it all changed very quickly and you had these long dry spells.
CHOW: A while back, for CODE SWITCH's blog, I made this timeline featuring families of color on network TV. And I broke out and color coded all of these TV shows by race. So if it was a black show, it'd be in blue. And if it was a Latino show, it would be in yellow. And Asian shows would be in orange.
And if you looked at it in the '80s and '90s, you would see these splotches of blue lines for the black shows, which was, like, "The Cosby Show" and other things like that. And then in the '90s, you would see maybe five little patches of yellow for Latino shows. And then finally in the '90s, you saw one line for an Asian-American show.
And that was "All-American Girl" in 1994. And that's a 50-year span.
DEMBY: I did some reporting on my own about black shows and black sitcoms in the '90s in particular when there was one of those brief explosions you were just talking about of activity. And in the early '90s through the mid-'90s, especially when Fox was trying to get some traction, The WB and UPN, when those were going concerns, they were actively courting black audiences.
And so they were putting on black shows. But, of course, once they did find traction, they stopped. Those shows went away really quickly.
CHOW: Yeah, and that's kind of scary. So Emily Nussbaum, she's the TV critic at The New Yorker. She had a really great piece about this last year that I think about all the time. And she wrote a lot about how, you know, these landscapes, they fall away. They come back. And right now, it might seem like we're in this time where we look at network TV and we see these diverse casts, not just in sitcoms but all over it.
Like, she mentions "Jane The Virgin." She mentions "The Mindy Project." And what she writes is basically, quote, "it's also a phenomenon that could easily recede, as it has many times before after periods of progress."
DEMBY: So we can't put away our, you know, our rep sweat pompoms.
DEMBY: We still have to ride for - you know, we still have to ride for these shows, even if we're not really feeling them. Is that what you're saying?
CHOW: Yeah, I mean, I guess so. This is something that I've been thinking about. And I really wanted to point that question to Jeff - to Jeff Yang. I was wondering how Jeff feels about this now, knowing what Margaret said about how if "All-American Girl" got canceled, his review would be held up as a justification for that and knowing that there would be this 20-year dry spell before another show like it would come around.
And then it was a show that his son would be on.
DEMBY: Right, right.
CHOW: I wondered if he had, like, any regrets about being so hard on it or if he'd do anything differently today.
YANG: That is a very, very challenging question to be presented with, not least of which is because I actually have an answer. It's something that I've struggled with and, in many ways, was actually tormented by for months and years afterwards.
And in many ways, I would say that the outcome of that incident of my writing a review, which ultimately played some role - it's not clear how big a role, but clearly a non-insignificant role in the end of that first Asian-American television series is something that helped lead me away from being a reviewer.
I realized that I did not want to be in a situation where I was the judge of whether or not content, stories, perspectives from our community, our embattled community that has so few chances to do so, should or should not be seen.
CHOW: So do you regret, though?
YANG: Well, I regret what happened. And I regret the impact of my writing and my words. But I think more than anything else, it really reframed what my priorities are as a cultural contributor, as somebody who is part of this larger conversation.
CHOW: Twenty years ago, you were way different. You were just starting off at The Village Voice is what you were telling me in our last conversation. Knowing what you know now, what do you think you would do if your editor came to you and said you need to write something about this?
YANG: The good thing is that if that conversation were happening today, there are literally dozens, maybe even hundreds of clear, strong voices who are Asian-American who are writing about culture. And some of them are critics. Some of them are reviewers. Some of them are feature writers. You know, there's just a wide array of individuals who are in that space, including yourself, Kat Chow.
And, you know, honestly, that makes a huge difference. I think that in an environment where you have many voices, you can have dissent. You can - not just dissent, but you can have critical perspectives that are nuanced and that are part of a back and forth in a tug of war. And I think we saw that with "Fresh Off The Boat."
I don't think that we had that for "All-American Girl" because it was A, the first, and B, there were so little infrastructure around it, critical infrastructure, creative infrastructure, promotional, marketing infrastructure and ultimately, community infrastructure. You know, in a way, that context is so important in thinking about how these things work.
CHOW: I think that all of us who care about representation on TV, whether it's something you write about or if you actually work on these TV shows or movies or you're a fan or you want to be a fan, I think what we all really deserve and want is to have more choices so that it's not, like, one show is forced to be the be all, end all of Asian-Americans on TV or any group.
Shows, they need time and they need space to breathe and develop. And when they have this super laser focus 'cause they're the only ones, it's just this impossible position to be in.
CHOW: Yeah, so I would say I really look forward to that day when there are a whole bunch of TV shows about Asian-Americans that I have, like, no interest at all in watching...
DEMBY: (Laughter) Right.
CHOW: ...And that I feel totally fine about that 'cause there are a couple that I think are really, really great.
DEMBY: All right, so this seems like a pretty good place to wrap this up. Thank you for digging into this stuff with me again, Kat.
CHOW: Yeah, thank you.
DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors are Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. You can find us on Twitter, @NPRCodeSwitch. That's N-P-R-C-O-D-E-S-W-I-T-C-H. You should definitely, definitely subscribe to our podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found. We are just getting this show off the ground. And we want to hear from you. Holler at us at email@example.com. Be easy.
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DEMBY: If you like what we do on CODE SWITCH, you should take a listen to Latino USA. Host Maria Hinojosa brings you interviews and stories with a fresh perspective. You'll hear from Latino rock 'n' roll icons, understand the consequences for marijuana legalization on communities of color and profiles of Latinas who run the world. Find Latino USA now on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.