Jimmy O. Yang Spent Years Getting Ready for Crazy Rich Asians

The actor worked in finance and at a strip club before committing to comedy.

Karl Moor / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Hong Kong, where the comedian Jimmy O. Yang was raised, is known for being a trade capital. Yang’s father was a businessman, and growing up, Yang wanted to be just like him. He moved to the United States when he was 13 and went on to major in economics at the University of California at San Diego. But after his first internship at the now-defunct Smith Barney—the financial-services company that went on to become Morgan Stanley—he realized that he didn’t want to work a 9-to-5 office job. He tried other paths, including working as a strip-club DJ, before committing himself to stand-up comedy. He plays Jian Yang in HBO’s Silicon Valley and will appear in Crazy Rich Asians, which premieres in August.

I spoke to Yang recently about business, the importance of preparation, and mentorship. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: What did you think as a child of your parents’ careers?

Jimmy O. Yang: My mom worked as a manager at a high-end fashion place, so she was always a pretty stylish woman. She sold clothes to rich people. And my dad was a businessman. He worked at Dow Chemical for a while, and then he eventually opened up his own business selling medical equipment.

I thought my dad had the coolest job. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing, but I just know I wanted to be a businessman. I was always pretty good with making deals. When I was in sixth grade, when Pokémon cards were hot, I might have started with, like, three or four cards, and then at the end of the year, through trading with my friends and everything, I ended up with the biggest card collection in my school.

Fadulu: Did your dad like his job?

Yang: I think he liked his job. But he’s old-school Chinese. Our thought process here in America is, do something that you love. Find a job that makes you happy. But my dad’s mentality is, your job doesn’t make you happy. You work hard, you make money, and then you use that money to go do something that makes you happy. I don’t think it mattered to him if he really liked his job or not. I think he was just happy he had a job. I think just having a job that pays decently was a dream to him.

Fadulu: How did your dad feel when you started doing stand-up comedy in college?

Yang: He thought I was crazy. He thought it was just a phase that I would hopefully snap out of. He didn’t understand stand-up. When we were growing up in Hong Kong, there wasn’t Def Comedy Jam or Comedy Central Presents, none of that. So he didn’t understand. He still calls it a talk show. He thought, “Jimmy went crazy for a little bit, but I’m going to just give him time to figure the shit out.”

Pursuing the arts is not a thing in our family. And my dad always told me when I was growing up, “Being an artist, that’s like being homeless. You want to be homeless, go get an art degree.”

Fadulu: How was your internship at Smith Barney in college?

Yang: It was just sitting at a desk, doing something I didn’t care about from 9 to 5. It just really bugged me. I was looking at my life, and I’m like, Holy crap. I’m going to be 60, 70 years old and doing this. It’s just from my home into a box that’s my car into a box that’s work for the next 40 years? That almost gave me a panic attack. That was scarier than not having anything. That was like a prison sentence, in my mind. The last week, I just couldn’t stand it. I almost didn’t show up. But I powered through it.

Fadulu: Was that internship your first job?

Yang: No, I had a few odd jobs before that. I worked at Big 5 Sporting Goods, selling shoes and stuff like that, for a couple of summers. I worked for another summer at a restaurant called Chop Suey—the most hackneyed Chinese name for a restaurant. And it was in Little Tokyo, ironically, in L.A. I really liked the Big 5 job. It was no pressure. You just could hang out, stocking shoes.

Fadulu: What attracted you to stand-up comedy?

Yang: When I was graduating college with an economics degree, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was kind of scared. So I was just trying everything.

At one point, I had three jobs. I was a used-car salesman during the day, and then in the evening I worked the door at the Comedy Palace, which is a comedy club in San Diego, and I’d do a set there, and then at night, I’d have a third job. I was a strip-club DJ, and that lasted for a while.

Fadulu: What was being a strip-club DJ like?

Yang: When you grow up watching music videos, Ludacris and all that stuff, you’re like, Oh my God, this is so cool, to work at a strip club with all these beautiful women.

But then when you actually work there, you’re like, Holy shit. Nobody there actually wants to work there. These are all ex-cons who have been in prison many times, who have drug, alcohol-abuse problems, and they ended up here because their life didn’t go the way they wanted.

But I was pretty good at the job. I was a good salesman. I was good on the microphone. So I was a very good strip-club DJ, but it became a little too gangster for me. I realized if I kept doing this, my life was going to go south real quick.

I was working on Christmas Day at a strip club. How sad is that? There was really nobody there, which was great. It would be sad if people actually came in droves during Christmas Day instead of hanging out with their family. We closed down early, and then there were these two drunk college kids outside yelling, “Hey, man! Fuck you guys! You guys said you’re open. What the fuck, man? Why is it closed?” They were just wasted. A couple of the bouncers just weren’t having it. I followed them outside. They just started beating on these two kids, and I just saw my life flash in front of me.

My mentor at the comedy club was telling me, “You’ve got to get out of that place and move to L.A. and really give the stand-up thing a shot.”

Fadulu: Can you tell me a little bit more about your mentor?

Yang: I knew this older guy named Sean Kelly at the comedy club, and he booked some of the shows. He took me under his wing and it was really nice, and he was a businessman. When everybody was chopping it up, talking about masturbation jokes or whatever, Sean was really thinking about business plans: how to make this comedy club better, how to get more stage time, how to go to L.A. and make it, how to make money. Being from Hong Kong and being that I’ve always wanted to be a businessman, I just thought this dude was so cool. I listened to every word he said, and I learned a lot from him.

Fadulu: What would you say was the most useful piece of advice he gave you?

Yang: Be ready. One day your chance is going to come, where you sign with a bigger agency, or a producer is interested in you, or somebody saw you doing stand-up and they want to make a TV show about you, or something like that, so just be prepared. Always be working. Even if you don’t have auditions, take acting classes. Just get on stage as much as you can. Just be prepared.

Fadulu: You were driving for Uber while you were doing Silicon Valley.

Yang: Yeah, that is true. When I quit the strip club, I also left the used-car-salesman job and my job at the Comedy Palace. I just moved back to L.A. where my family is. I had no job, nothing on the horizon. I went on about a hundred auditions, and I booked one or two things here and there that paid me a couple thousand dollars. Then, eventually, Silicon Valley came along, and that was a pretty small part when I got the job. It was a guest-star part and when you’re a no-name, you get paid $900 a day, the [Screen Actors Guild] minimum. I worked three days the first season, so I made $2,700 for that whole first season of Silicon Valley. I thought that was good money for me. I used that money as a down payment for a 2006 used Prius with 100,000 miles on it, and then I used that to drive Uber. I drove Uber between the first and second seasons of Silicon Valley.

Fadulu: How was that?

Yang: I enjoyed it. You’re on your own schedule. There were some stupid drunk people every now and then but, for the most part, people were very nice, and I’m a people person. In a way, I was just kind of running my stand-up material on some of these people, just chatting them up. If you want to really make a decent paycheck, you’ve got to work a lot, and it’s exhausting. I definitely feel the pain of fellow Uber drivers out there who are still driving Uber. They keep dropping the rates. They keep trying to make Uber cheaper. The driver used to be able to make some money and now it’s really hard.

Fadulu: When you got started in stand-up comedy, did you see other people who looked like you?

Yang: Actually, I was just shooting a movie yesterday with Ken Jeong, who is a good friend of mine. I was telling him, “Dude, I saw you when I was like 15, 16 years old, when I was in high school.” He did a set on Showtime at the Apollo, and I remember he just killed it. That was the first time I saw an Asian comedian on TV, and that’s meant a lot to me. I was like, “Holy shit! This dude’s funny. We can be funny. We can do this.” Of course, around that same time, Bobby Lee was on MADtv.

I remember every Saturday, my father and I didn’t watch SNL, we watched MADtv. We loved Bobby Lee because that was a big deal—any Asian person in anything back then, that was a big deal! Yao Ming and the NBA, that was a huge deal! We watched every single Houston Rockets game.

Fadulu: Have you been in an environment similar to the stand-up comedy environment in terms of racial diversity?

Yang: No, not really. In a way, it was cool and very liberating because it’s people of all sizes, shapes, forms, gender, ethnicity. It didn’t matter. As long as you’re funny, you’re funny. I found that very liberating because I’ve always felt like an outsider. Being able to use that outsider point of view for the first time to my advantage, that was very cool and eye-opening.

That’s why I think I really gravitated toward stand-up in the beginning, even when I was doing open mics, when I wasn’t getting paid. I had to pay $5 to get five minutes of a mic. That was how bad it was. It didn’t matter to me, because I was having fun, and I was making friends, and I felt like what I had to say finally kind of mattered.

Fadulu: What do you want people to walk away thinking about after seeing Crazy Rich Asians?

Yang: In this movie, we have the really funny Asians, the really model-looking, beautiful Asians, the extremely talented Asians, big, small, tall, short Asians, Chinese from Singapore, Malaysia, America, England, and Australia, but we are just family. It was so liberating in a way that I wasn’t just the only Asian person on that screen.

Maybe our parents didn’t understand the arts or didn’t want us to get into the arts, but here we are. We pushed through, so we all became really close. There was some kind of magic on set where everybody just loved each other, and we knew we were doing something that’s liberating for us, but also bigger than ourselves. At the end of the day, if the audience can just come away feeling what we felt just a little bit, that little bit of magic, I think the movie’s going to be a success. At the end of the day, it’s a very good, fun movie that everybody can enjoy. You don’t have to be Asian to watch it.