Into the Next Stage by Guy Aoki
Behind the Scenes at "Politically Incorrect"
It was like preparing for an oral exam where you were gonna go in front of professors deciding whether or not you knew what you were talking about. Only this time, they'd challenge you if they disagreed and wouldn't feel obliged to let you finish your sentences. Oh, and it would be broadcast to millions of people across the country.
Well, Aoki, you always said you wanted to educate America to the Asian American perspective. Yeah, but with David Spade probably making wise-ass remarks in between your attempts to make serious points? With a host- Bill Maher- openly hostile to your cause? And against a comedian- Sarah Silverman- who hates your guts?
My upcoming taping of the "Politically Incorrect" show this past Tuesday consumed the past week and a half. To my pleasant surprise, the number of people wanting to attend the taping kept growing. First seven from Phil Shigekuni's JACL group. Then seven from the Rafu. Then three more from the Pacific Citizen. seven more from MANAA. Hell, we couldn't even get seven people to man the information booths at the Nisei Week festival! And the calls kept coming in from well wishes and advise-givers.
All in all, 23 Asian Americans (that I knew of) attended the taping. This was serious stuff. A producer I'd known previously from my place of work was apparently feeling the pressure from ABC to give me equal time. "I just want this to be over!," she told me the day before the "momentous event." She'd never had so many people coming because of one guest before. I was very humbled.
I'd taped episodes of the previous week's shows, timing out each segment. I figured it usually went eight to nine minutes, six minutes, then four minutes. The Sarah vs. Guy issue would have to be discussed first, so I'd have about eight minutes to make my points. Then we'd go on to another subject. I had imagined being introduced by host Bill Maher and sitting in those chairs (to get over the nervousness I'd feel the actual day). I tried to see if there was a table behind us so I could have water in case I choked from vocal cords that lost their salt.
I already had two pages of sound bites I'd had in my head for days. But I need to be flexible and in the moment to respond to whatever they throw at me. Can't be stiff. Have to smile whenever I can. Show I'm a reasonable guy so they can hear the message.
The "stars"- Spade and Silverman- have private green rooms and I never see them until five minutes before we go backstage to a holding area where we wait to be introduced onto the stage. I see Silverman in the hall and offer, "Hi, Sarah." She mumbles a hi but can't look at me. She already looks defensive.
Before leaving the green room, I'd reviewed the sound bites from my clipboard, but now, backstage, I'm having trouble remembering them. C'mon, dammit!, I think, what were those lines?! All right- "playing with fire". "stay away from satire". the hate crime in Laguna Hills. "wounded bird. multiply your pain by." OK. Got it.
Two minutes before the countdown, Maher finally appears backstage with us. He recognizes me, shakes my hand, says "good to have you here." Wow, he's really pale. Spade looks tired, like he doesn't wanna be there. Sarah keeps her physical distance from me. Anne-Marie Johnson's joking with the stage hand.
Show time! Bill asks Sarah to explain the joke again. There's silence indicating discomfort/disapproval of it followed by scattered applause. "Thank you," Sarah responds, "That's the joke. It's a joke that points-" Anne Marie interrupts: "Where IS the joke?" There's more applause.
After I point out that calling a Chinese person "chink" is like calling a black person "nigger," Maher interrupts me, speaking directly to the camera, asking the censors to please not bleep out any of these slurs because it's necessary to having an intelligent discussion on the topic (He later tells a reporter he'd never done that before).
I continue trying to make a point with Sarah and Anne-Marie interrupting. "If you don't know how to do satire correctly, you run the risk of making people think you really believe what you're saying. And until you know how to do satire correctly," I say looking at Sarah, "I'd stay away from it." Sound Bite 1. The audience applauds in approval. Success.
(For a full transcript of this show, go to the Politically Incorrect website)
Later, I say, "She comes on [this show] like a wounded bird, and she goes, 'You know, this Guy Aoki has cast my name with racism in thousands of periodicals across the country. And it hurts. I want an apology from him.' Well, think of the hurt that you felt and multiply that by the millions of people you offended by using that word. And I think you get a little bit of a sense of what WE feel."
The audience roars in agreement. Sound Bite 2 successfully completed. Sarah nods.
Immediately followed by: "You know, when you're playing with racial slurs, you're playing with fire. And if you're gonna play with fire, expect to get burned." More cheers. Check off Sound Bite 3. Sarah protests. "That is so jackass!"
Soon, I talk about the significance of racial slurs, how they've been used to oppress and dehumanize Asian people, rationalizing lynchings of Chinese men at the turn of the century and that by calling us Japs after Pearl Harbor, this country stood by and allowed 120,000 loyal Japanese Americans to be put in internment camps.
And, Anne-Marie adds, there's that recent hate crime against that student in California. No! That was my next sound bite! Don't take it away from me! Maher dismisses it. "We're talking about a lone nut." and goes to commercial.
Damn! It's over! I didn't make the point or the sound bite and now Maher's gonna go to another topic! During the break, I ask him to allow me to finish the point. "Look," he says, talking characteristically, bouncing his head from left to right, "You wanted equal time. You got it. But you DO NOT control the agenda of this show!"
Do I walk over the Johnson and ask her to help me revive the topic? No, too obvious; we're not supposed to be partners although we already know we agree with each other. I stay in my seat. I apologize to Spade, who surprised us by not saying one word the whole time. "Hey, look," he says, "I'm a comedian, but this is serious stuff. This is way out of my league!" In the second segment, he's given the chance to talk about something and although he comes down on Sarah's side, he's very respectful, acknowledging he doesn't know what it's like to be in our shoes. I appreciate it.
I find a way to return to my agenda: I mention that in her last "PI" appearance, Silverman said she didn't think I was really offended by the slur and that I was just trying to get attention for myself. Then I bring up the hate crime in Laguna Hills- how poor 17 year old Kenneth Chiu was stabbed to death and someone wrote on the back of his car, "chink." Here comes the sound bite to put Silverman away. It was the one everyone I'd "previewed" it for nodded their head and agreed it would just nail her. But Maher starts talking over me and I can barely be heard: "But I bet you would say that his family should take comfort in knowing that the term didn't really hurt him."
No applause. Dammit! Blew the big one!
Sarah begins getting weird: "There are only two Asian Americans I know that I hate. One is you..." "Oh!," I say, mockingly, "I'm hurt! I want an apology from you!"
"...Yeah, and the other is my friend Steve who actually went pee pee in my Coke." The audience moans like "oh, no, this is a new low." Maher goes to commercial.
Third segment: Maher calls it a "cheap political trick"-linking a horrific crime to a word. And he asks how examples of turn of the century hate crimes still really impacts our lives. Thank you! Johnson talks about how she, as an African American woman, faces discrimination every day. I take the opportunity to point out that people of color, on top of all the concerns whites have, also have to worry about how their ethnic visage affects everything else including jobs. "I'm a fourth generation Asian American. Meaning my great grandparents came from Japan in the 1890's. But you look at me, and you're gonna think, 'Gee, he speaks pretty good English!' I mean, we get that ALL THE TIME!"
I feel the crowd's behind me, so I play to them, turning and asking, "Am I right?! Asian Ameicans?! We get that all the time!" They cheer.
Sarah soon adds, "That's true. Racism is so. exists, you know! And it's not gonna go away." People giggle. "It does?!," I ask incredulously, laughing along with Johnson. But Silverman has a different point: "It's not gonna go away through censorship. Especially censorship with comics."
"So we should just keep repeating bad jokes that offend people over and over again?"
She loses it. "You're a douche bag, man!" Half the audience laughs; but the other half is vocally upset, protesting her. I can't believe it, but laugh, putting my hand to my mouth in mock horror. They continue laughing. I just won the debate.
Soon as the show wraps, Maher asks us to pose for still photos. When I come near the crowd, a lot of people applaud; when Sarah approaches them, she's booed! She poses for a picture than begins walking away. Wait, I tell her, there's someone else who needs to get his shot- Sam Chu Lin. She looks at him, turns away, smirks, "yeah, right!" (like I''m gonna help out YOUR people!") and walks off. Can you say racial profiling, boys and girls?
I was surprised at how unprepared and unsophisticated Silverman was. She had no game plan nor sound bites prepared. I'd had several (12, actually).
Thought my eyes looked too small from afar and that my laughs were too internal than outward. But apparently, from all the excited calls and emails, I did well. Said one friend in an email to a group of people: "Maher tried to interrupt Guy a few times and Guy, by holding up his hand and continuing politely but forcefully- 'Excuse me, sir. Excuse me, sir (let me finish my point)'- maintained control of the discussion. The image of an APA man asserting himself and prevailing over a white man -- host Maher no less -- spoke volumes and perhaps was an even more powerful message in itself than anything being said."
The producers loved the show. Maher told me I'll be back.
People are so pumped up now. We got heard. We began a discussion on race rarely heard on network television that needs to continue. Even if it had to be started by a "douche bag:" like me.
I'll wear that as a badge of honor.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki's column appears bi-weekly in the Japanese American newspaper, Rafu Shimpo. For more information, call (213) 629-2231.