Jul 13, 2021
Bowen Yang was voted “Most Likely to Be a Cast Member on ‘Saturday Night Live’” by his high school classmates. Still, there would be no straight line from his home in Colorado to 30 Rock. But nothing he does is all that straight anyway.
Born in Brisbane, Australia, where his parents emigrated from China so his father could get a doctorate in mining explosives, Yang grew up always feeling a little on the outside: He would move with his family to Canada and then the U.S. at 9. One story that he’s told in interviews recounts how his parents discovered their son was gay: by finding an AOL Instant Messenger chat window he left open on the family computer. Despite being scientists, his parents insisted he go to conversion therapy in megachurch-land Colorado. He gamely went along to make them happy, but it hardly took. Yang moved to New York after high school to attend NYU—arguably one of the least-straight schools in the Lower 48—to study pre-med. That didn’t take either.
At NYU, he started the comedy podcast “Las Culturistas,” with classmate Matt Rogers, which currently streams on Will Ferrell’s Big Money Players podcast network with iHeart Radio. In 2018, Yang was hired as a staff writer on “Saturday Night Live.” He had honed his chops with stints at Upright Citizens Brigade and on the improv team Dangerbox. He landed appearances in “Broad City” and ”High Maintenance,” while routinely going viral for his lip-sync videos in which he reenacts dramatic monologues like Sandra Oh’s pleading on “Grey’s Anatomy” and Meryl Streep channeling Anna Wintour in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
In 2019, he was promoted to featured cast member on “SNL,” making him one of the few openly gay men to ever star on the show, and its first Chinese-American star, period. He was an instant standout for performances as former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, then-presidential candidate Andrew Yang, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and, our favorite, the iceberg that sank the Titanic. And Yang famously co-wrote the uber-queer Sara Lee sketch in which he had to reprimand guest star Harry Styles for mixing up the company’s Instagram with his own account, posting comments like “wreck me, daddy” and “destroy me, king” on celeb accounts.
Yang—who is set to co-star in the Jane Austen-inspired comedy “Fire Island” with Joel Kim Booster—received plaudits for using the “SNL” platform last season to denounce the surge in violent attacks against Asian-Americans during a “Weekend Update” monologue. He told viewers to “fuel up” and do more for Asian-American allies: “I don’t know what’s helpful to say to everyone, but that’s what I say to myself: Fuel up, do more,” he said. “It’s the Year of the Metal Ox, which basically means a car. So everybody get in, buckle up, there’s no pee breaks—we ride at dawn, grandmas!”