Growing up, Karen Chee looked up to Sandra Oh as “often the only Asian person” she could see on screen. Fast forward to 2019, and the 23-year-old Korean-American comedian got to write jokes for co-hosts Oh and Andy Samberg at the Golden Globe Awards.
Chee, who has written for the New Yorker and the upcoming Reductress pilot on Comedy Central went through the typical channels to score the gig, but also tweeted at Oh to make her appeal public (while wearing a t-shirt bearing Oh’s “It’s an honor just to be Asian” line from the Emmys).
The tweet got support from fellow comics including Ronny Chieng of “The Daily Show,” as well as “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” writer Ariel Dumas, who chimed in and vouched for her talent. Chee tells Variety this moment is not lost on her in terms of what it means for increased public demand for diverse representation in the media.
“She was so often the only Asian person that I saw, and the only smart Asian woman character that I saw on TV,” Chee says. “Then I posted that and a lot of people were rooting for me, it felt very encouraging and validating that, even if I don’t get this job, it’s sort of a change happening and a lot of people wanted that change to happen of more Asian people on screen and more Asian people writing.”
Chee says there were about 17 Globes writers from various shows, ranging from Bowen Yang of “Saturday Night Live” to “Late Night with Seth Meyers'” Amber Ruffin. Although the awards ceremony was light on politics, she says there wasn’t much deliberate conversation about avoiding Trump in the writers’ room; Oh had already been interviewed saying she didn’t want to talk politics, and the writers simply adhered to that, Chee says.
Instead, Chee says there were more opportunities to tie Oh’s Korean heritage to Asian-specific jokes that wouldn’t have worked for another host, such as calling out “Aloha” for whitewashing an Asian character, or mentioning that Pepcid AC would help with “Asian flush.”
“An avenue of jokes opened because Sandra was an Asian-Canadian person,” Chee says. “Things like the ‘Aloha,’ ‘Ghost in the Shell’ joke, and the Pepcid AC joke, and the Asian moms joke would be so weird and off-color if a white person said them.”
And when Oh won for best actress in a drama for “Killing Eve,” Chee says the entire writers’ room “erupted into screams” and jumped up in excitement. For Chee, this history-making moment (Oh is the first Asian woman to win multiple Globes) meant a lot on a personal level. When Oh got on stage to accept her award and thanked her parents in Korean and bowed to them in the crowd, Chee says, “I was sitting in the corner and I was crying.”
“To be in a room full of white people — it’s majority still white people — and be that actively and intentionally Korean, and to be unabashedly Korean, I felt so seen and I felt so validated and proud of my own identity,” Chee says.
And at the after party following the awards, Chee had an intimate moment with Oh where they bonded over their Korean identities.
“I mentioned that I have never see someone that actively, intentionally Korean on screen before and I feel like I was lit on fire. I ruined all my eye makeup and it was worth it,” she says. “After I told her, she hugged me again and I felt like, ‘Oh my god, the woman is so kind and warm.’ Only meet your heroes if it’s Sandra Oh.”
One of the most talked about moments of the night was Oh’s heartfelt recognition of increased representation, where she said, ” I wanted to be here to look out into this audience and witness this moment of change … I see you. And I see you, all these faces of change, and now, so will everyone else.”
Oh had planned to make these remarks since the first day, Chee says, and told the writers, “I really wanted to discuss this and I want a moment of sincerity.”
And for Chee, as a female writer of color, she said she “100%” resonated with Oh’s words that no matter what happens next year, the accomplishments in diversity from 2018 can’t be taken away.
“When she said, ‘I see you,’ I got shivers through my whole body,” she says. “Her on stage saying that ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Black Panther’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ you could not take that away, you could not spin that any way other than what it was.”