INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Documentarians Once Again Missing the Point on My Debate with Sarah Silverman

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

On Sept. 30, PBS ran the latest “Makers” one-hour special on the contributions of women in various vocations (business, war, Hollywood, politics, etc.). In “Makers: Women in Comedy,” we learned of the struggles of female comics in being taken seriously in a largely white-male dominated field.

Starting in the ’60s, we heard many important points about how women had to ingratiate themselves to their audience by talking about safe, domestic subjects, putting themselves down, and not threatening the male power structure. Inevitably, as the program acknowledged some of the noteworthy comediennes who emerged chronologically, they got to my old “girlfriend” Sarah Silverman, whom I pummeled in a live debate on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in 2001 after she used “chinks” in a joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Once again, the documentarians voiced the tired assumption that the reason I went after her is because I didn’t get the joke. Can we set the record straight once and for all? I/MANAA got the joke. We just didn’t think it appropriate to use a hurtful Asian slur when she wouldn’t have gotten away with using the equivalent black slur (and she later proved that point by admitting an NBC executive, hearing that joke ahead of time, allowed the former slur but not the latter).

Guy Aoki and Sarah Silverman debated in a 2001 episode of Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect."

Guy Aoki and Sarah Silverman debated in a 2001 episode of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.”

They used a short (25-second) edited clip of that broadcast where I pointed out that calling someone a “chink” was like calling a black person “nigger.” She responded that it was inappropriate to demand an apology for her joke since I, like her, was illuminating racism. It ended with me saying with a slight smirk, “I think you’re giving yourself too much credit.”

Previous to that segment, Jane Lynch and Joan Rivers sang her praises. After it, Rivers said Silverman was doing what Lenny Bruce did in the ’60s by calling everyone by racial slurs, so what’s the big deal? Black comedian (and my vote for most irritating voice on the planet) Mo’Nique, asked, “How far is too far?” insinuating that comics should have no limits.

That’s one of the many points that should’ve been challenged, but no comic in this doc was criticized. It was all “Isn’t it great they can now make jokes about whatever they want?!” At least they didn’t give Silverman (who was interviewed) the chance to put her spin on — and probably lie as she always has about — the debate, because God knows, they didn’t ask me for my take on it. So at least they presented a balanced clip. However, they shied away from naming either yours truly or MANAA. Chickens.

If you want to check it out for yourself, the segment in question begins around the 41-minute mark: www.makers.com/documentary/womenincomedy

Thanks to longtime MANAA board member Tom Eng for keeping his eyes and ears open and telling me about this program.

Good News/Nervous News Department: This week, after four airings, CBS gave “Stalker,” starring Maggie Q, a full season. ABC ordered three more scripts (for a total of 16; 22 is a full season) of “Selfie,” co-starring John Cho, despite it being stuck at a low 1.1 18-49 rating opposite the more popular “CSI,” “The Voice,” and “Flash.”

They cancelled the sitcom that followed it — “Manhattan Love Story” — and beginning next Tuesday will air back-to-back new episodes of “Selfie.” Meaning the network had nothing else to run in its time slot and needed more time to promote whatever mid-season replacement they want to take the “MLS” slot. ABC may also just be burning off “Selfie” because they want to “get it over with” quicker. Hopefully its ratings will improve.

20th Century Fox TV has signed the Emmy-winning Archie Panjabi to a talent deal where they’ll create a starring vehicle for her, so she’ll be leaving “The Good Wife” at the end of the 2014-2015 season. The same studio has also signed Brenda Song to a likewise deal, not holding it against her that she was in the much-maligned “Dads” last season.

Sad Passings Department: I was shocked to hear of the death of actress/longtime activist Sumi Haru on Oct. 16 since she’d been a Facebook friend and very active there. I went back and checked, and the last time I could find her writing anything there was on Aug. 27. She must’ve gone into the rest home shortly thereafter when her emphysema took a turn for the worse.

Lately, she had been posting old pictures of her parents and herself in younger days. She must’ve known she didn’t have much time left and was looking back on her 75 years.

I appreciated the fact that although she was a member of AAPAA (Association of Asian Pacific American Artists) when MANAA formed in 1992, she wasn’t threatened by us. When **The Hollywood Reporter’s** Dave Robb was considering doing a story we’d generated, he called her to vouch for our validity. “Oh yeah,” she told me she said to him, “they’re more [legit]than us!” Her attitude about another advocacy group emerging was “the more the merrier.”

She became one of the original members of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), which formed in the summer of 1999 and eventually began having annual meetings with the top four television networks, pushing for more Asian Americans in their programming.

After a while, she stopped being active, so I asked her back, telling her that because she’d been at this since the late ’60s, she could help prevent us from being fooled by approaches that hadn’t previously worked. For instance, if a network executive wanted to start a new program that had been tried before but failed, she could speak up and explain what happened.

For whatever reason, she didn’t say much in those meetings, nor did she display her notorious temper that I saw on at least three occasions where she’d go from joking with you to yelling obscenities at you seconds later. Then again, I’m not 4’10” nor a woman nor a Filipino who’d faced a lifetime of sexist and racist insults in my life and career. It must not have been easy back then to be in meetings with white executives who just didn’t care about Asian Americans, who made up an even smaller percentage of American society than we do now.

Annual CBS meeting, October 2012. From left: Daniel Mayeda (East West Players, now co-chair of APAMC), Tiffany Smith (VP of diversity, CBS), Priscilla Ouchida (JACL, now co-chair, APAMC), Fern Orenstein (VP of casting, CBS), Marilyn Tokuda (EWP), Sumi Haru, Guy Aoki (MANAA), Miriam Nakamura-Quan (MANAA), Shinae Yoon (Visual Communications).

Annual CBS meeting, October 2012. From left: Daniel Mayeda (East West Players, now co-chair of APAMC), Tiffany Smith (VP of diversity, CBS), Priscilla Ouchida (JACL, now co-chair, APAMC), Fern Orenstein (VP of casting, CBS), Marilyn Tokuda (EWP), Sumi Haru, Guy Aoki (MANAA), Miriam Nakamura-Quan (MANAA), Shinae Yoon (Visual Communications).

In October 2012 we were in another network meeting and I suggested to an executive that they fly in more Asian American actors than the preponderance of white actors they were using for a series. He said something to the effect of, “That’s fine, if you think we should fly in Asians rather than Americans.” We caught his Freudian slip and got on his case for it. If that gaffe wasn’t enough, he later said, “you people.” (He was fired a few months later.)

Later that month, the day before another network meeting — as co-chair of the APAMC — I asked Sumi to handle a certain section of the discussion. I guess that made her realize she honestly couldn’t stomach another meeting, so she sent the following to me and fellow co-chair Marilyn Tokuda (which she later published on her blog “Iron Lotus” and Facebook), announcing she was quitting the coalition:

“I have been involved in media advocacy since the late ’60s, and I find it terribly frustrating to sit in a room of television executives hearing them give the same excuses and reasons for the lack of balanced APA images as they have for 40 years. It’s even worse to hear a network executive to express the opinion that we are not Americans. I don’t want to beat my head against brick walls any more.

“It is important that APAMC continue to ride the networks. But I strongly believe that it is up to us to create our own productions of the stories of our lives. If I could start all over, I would choose not to be an actor but rather to be a writer-producer. Of course, when I started, the options for women to be behind the cameras were almost nil. A woman of color back in the early ’70s had no chance at all of becoming a mogul.

“I wish you all well in your battles with the networks. Go forward with passion.”

I can only hope Sumi knew of the high hopes we had for this 2014-2015 television season with shows featuring Asian American actors in prominent roles like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Stalker,” “The Mindy Project,” and “Selfie.” And that things had changed and the early work she did — which often led to that hitting of her head against the wall over ignorant movie and television executives — was finally paying off.

Thank you, Sumi. Rest in peace.

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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

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