INTO THE NEXT STAGE: More Asian Freaks on ‘American Idol’

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Feb. 9, 2012.)

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“She bangs! She bangs! Ooh baby, she moves! She moves!”

It’s been eight years since William Hung auditioned for television’s most-watched show and considerately provided an updated version of “16 Candles’” Long Duk Dong.

Only this time, it wasn’t a fictional character, it was worse — an actual person who was a walking Asian stereotype: An immigrant who spoke with an accent, had slanted eyes and buck teeth, and was cluelessly unaware that people were laughing at him. His prolonged presence probably sent many Asian American males into psychiatrists’ offices to deal with the trauma.

Although many talented Asian American singers have made it to Hollywood on “American Idol,” the producers have liked to focus on the racial oddities — we’ve seen their auditions far more than those who actually got their golden ticket to Hollywood.

I’ve watched every episode of “Idol” since the second season (2003) because, as a pop music lover, it’s fascinating to see who potentially emerges as hit recording artists. But I sometimes wonder if it’s worth having to cringe through the first few weeks where we see the freak shows — the wanna-bes who’re possibly mentally ill and/or sexually confused.

The Jan. 26 show was particularly hard to bear. At the Houston auditions, Phong Vu made a fool of himself. Though he said he was born and raised in the town, he came across as a mildly retarded immigrant who still hadn’t mastered the English language, understood proper words, nor mastered hard consonant sounds. On camera, he talked about being the next “American Idol” and began crying. “I will make you shock and wow and wooo!”

Phong Vu sings for the “American Idol” judges.

Yeah, he got me really excited too. “Being an American Idol is just so phenomenon [sic]!”

“Leave my screen,” I said. “NOW!” But he wouldn’t go away.  “God is on my side. I know it!”

He told the judges he especially excelled at singing songs done by female artists. Oh oh. “Especially Selena Dion.”

That’s Celine Dion, you imbecile! Let me cut my own throat now before he further embarrasses me! Vu proceeded to massacre Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart.” “Bring back those nights/When I held you besize [sic]me.”

What, she was a seamstress?

Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson turned him down, but he told the cameras, “America, you will see me next year. I promise you that.” No. Please. Not again.

Eventually, I forced myself to watch the Jan. 19 Pittsburgh auditions I’d taped (there were five hours of “Idol” in one week, and I was ready to throw things at the television). We were introduced to Heejun Han, a Korean immigrant now living in New York. He was another walking stereotype, wearing glasses, looking effeminate, and speaking with an accent. Worse, before going before the judges, he told host Ryan Seacrest that after seeing those around him, he was no longer sure he was that good.

Heejun Han reacts to praise from the judges.

Sign of another train wreck? I mean, what contestant with an accent’s made it through the first round? Then he performed a soulful version of Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.” Woah! Although his accent came out slightly toward the end, the guy was clearly a good singer. OK, all — well, not all — most was forgiven. Jackson, with wide eyes, exclaimed, “I am really impressed and shocked!”

Then Han covered his mouth like a Japanese schoolgirl, and I questioned if I really wanted to see him much longer. Still, he made it to Hollywood.

This week, we’ll find out how the contestants did after going to Los Angeles and having to perform in groups. Many fall apart because they’re distracted by being in the big city and stay up too late partying, don’t get along with their teammates, have conflicting ideas of how to perform their number, or just fall apart because of nerves.

We’ll see how Han does and hopefully meet some of the other Asian American contestants who made the grade. “American Idol” airs Wednesday and Thursday nights on Fox.

“Smash”? Department: It’s no secret NBC — despite having some great shows — has been in the ratings toilet for years. If that wasn’t enough, this season, viewership’s down 11% (not counting football games, their only saving grace) from the previous one, threatening to keep the Peacock Network in fourth place permanently.  NBC spent $25 million (if you believe reporters) or less than $10 million (if you believe the network) promoting “Smash,” which they hoped would turn around their fortunes as it would debut after the return of “The Voice,” NBC’s only real success story last year.

Raza Jaffrey and Katherine McPhee of “Smash.”

The alternative to “American Idol” got the choice post-Super Bowl slot on Sunday. The game actually became the most watched television show in history with 111.3 million tuning in. The singing competition held on to 30 million. Hoping to hold on to that momentum, the following night, it appeared in its regular Monday slot with 17.7 million viewers. “Smash,” which followed it, got 11.4 million. Not bad. It’s the fourth-highest debut for a new series this season. But from its first half hour to second, the ratings fell by 20%, meaning many didn’t like what they saw.

And unless it can hold on to that audience or build upon it, all of that promotion wouldn’t have bought it much.

Of interest to this column’s readers is that one of the regulars of “Smash” is half Asian Indian, a British actor named Raza Jaffrey, who plays star Katherine McPhee’s boyfriend Dev Sundaram. If not for his name, though, you might not know he’s Indian as he’s fair and doesn’t quite look Asian.

Monday’s a busy night for Asian regulars. At 8 is “House” which added Charlyne Yi (can’t stand her mousy, whiny voice!) to its cast this season. At 8:30 is “2 Broke Girls” with Matthew Moy. At 9, “Alcatraz” featuring “ER’s” Parminder Nagra. At 10, “Smash,” and “Hawaii Five-0” with Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park and (sometimes) Masi Oka.

Sign of the Apocalypse? Department: After the starring in the television series with the most unimaginative title in history, “The Sarah Silverman Program,” the comedian got a pilot deal with NBC. One of the (still-untitled) show’s potential regulars is Ken Leung, who played the cynical, wise-cracking Miles Straum on “Lost.” In the pilot, he’s a “shut-in” (ironically, something Silverman once said I’d become since our 2001 spat) who spends all his time watching television wrapped in a blanket. She plays someone adjusting to becoming single after the end of a decade-long relationship. And uh, as the Hollywood Reporter said, “she winds up sharing his blanket.”

Sarah Silverman sleeping with an Asian American man? Oh lord.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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3 Comments

  1. Another pitifully uninformative article about what Guy watched on TV and what Guy liked and didn’t like and what Guy remembered about stuff that happened to Guy a decade and a half ago that no one gives a phong vu about.

  2. Hmmm… but still, you read the article, huh?! Boy, I sure feel sorry for you! You wasted so much time! :))

  3. Duane Yamashiro on

    Hey, if that comment above is by the actual author of this article, aren’t you ashamed of making that sort of a comeback? Yeah, you put Grif in his place. Poor sap read the whole thing, guess that makes him the sucker. But shouldn’t you be spending your time coming up with better content instead of playing ha-ha games with your readers?

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