On “Saturday Night Live,” host Awkwafina took a brief turn in her opening monologue to recall a true story that she said helped pave her way to become only the second Asian American woman to host the show in its 44-season run.
The year was 2000, she said. Her idol, actress Lucy Liu, was slated to become the first Asian American woman to host SNL. And Awkwafina, then an 11-year-old named Nora Lum from Queens, had traveled to Manhattan to wait outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza that night.
“I was a kid and I didn’t have a ticket, so I knew I wasn’t getting in,” Awkwafina said Saturday. “But I just wanted to be near the building. And I remember how important that episode was for me and how it totally changed what I thought was possible for an Asian American woman.”
The present-day audience cheered, acknowledging the significance of the moment for a visibly moved Awkwafina, who became one of the breakout stars of the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“Standing here tonight is a dream I never thought would come true,” Awkwafina continued. “So thank you, Lucy, for opening the door. I wasn’t able to make it into the building back then, but 18 years later, I’m hosting the show.”
Then Awkwafina shouted up to the rafters: “I love you, Lucy Liu! Be my friend!”
It’s worth revisiting Liu’s opening monologue from 2000 to realize just how far the idea of Asian representation has come in nearly two decades. Liu hosted SNL in December of that year, about two months after the release of the wildly popular “Charlie’s Angels” remake, in which she starred alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz.
She was, by any standard, a Hollywood star. Even then, however, Liu’s monologue contained one cringeworthy and outdated Asian stereotype after another.
“I just found out that I am the first Asian woman to ever host SNL,” Liu said then, to applause. “This is amazing and so cool and, believe me, Connie Chung is pissed. But seriously, Asians have had to deal with a lot of stereotypes, had to overcome a lot of stuff, and I wasn’t sure how sensitive everyone would be here, but ... ”
Liu then cut to a “video diary” of her week behind the scenes leading up to the episode. In one scene, while writers worked on the show’s script, Liu dressed in silk pajamas and walked on Tracy Morgan’s back to give him a massage.
“Keep it up, girl, we love you long time,” Morgan said.
In another, Liu pretended to help pick out a “Weekend Update” outfit for then-cast member Jimmy Fallon, who dismissed her as a dry-cleaning assistant. In arguably the most embarrassing scene of the fake video diary, Liu boasted that, for the show’s cast potluck dinner, she had “made her grandmother’s special recipe for cocker spaniel.”
A gong sounded to wrap up her monologue.
“Despite how it looked, they really made me feel at home,” Liu told the audience, preemptively brushing off complaints. “So save the calls, people.”
It’s difficult to gauge how much of the monologue was a product of SNL’s writing staff, which has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. (A representative for Liu did not immediately respond to an interview request Sunday morning.) But if Liu opened the door nearly two decades ago, then Awkwafina strode through it on her own terms Saturday night. She was there to represent herself — not anybody else’s outdated stereotypes.
She proclaimed that she was “just your average Asian trumpet player turned rapper turned actress, very stereotypical,” and proceeded to joke about other people’s assumptions of her — that had more to do with fame than race.
“I’m actually from New York. I grew up in Queens. My dad still lives there,” she said. “People assume my dad has an accent — and he does. He sounds like Donald Trump, because they’re both old guys from Queens.”
Her appearance earned her acclaim from many of her “Crazy Rich Asians” co-stars.
“Thank YOU, @awkwafina, for kicking that door wide open,” Ken Jeong tweeted.
Aside from Awkwafina and Liu, the show has had only three other Asian or Asian American hosts, including Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani and Jackie Chan, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
SNL has tried to address its lack of racial diversity in recent years with new hires, as The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi reported in 2017:
In 2013, the lack of a black female cast member led to executive producer Lorne [Michaels] holding special auditions to hire one. He ended up hiring Sasheer Zamata, as well as Leslie Jones (who was initially brought on as a writer).
Melissa Villaseñor joined SNL this year, becoming the show’s first Latina cast member. Nasim Pedrad, on SNL between 2009 and 2014, was the show’s first female Middle Eastern cast member.
An argument in favor of increased racial diversity in SNL’s cast is that it better positions the show to effectively comment on and satirize pop culture, politics and whatever else is in the zeitgeist at the moment. It can be fraught to mount a Michelle Obama impersonation or present the biting and viral “Black Jeopardy” sketches without nonwhite cast members.
One of the sketches Saturday, featuring Awkwafina as Sandra Oh and Kate McKinnon as an old-timer actress Debette Goldry, wryly called out Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash roles because of lack of representation.
“There were plenty of great roles for Asian women in the 1940s,” McKinnon’s character said. “And I should know — I played all of them.”
And Awkwafina herself has made clear in past interviews that she is more than willing to pass up parts if they represent outdated stereotypes.
“I’m not going to put on a ‘Fu Manchu accent’ for comedy,” she told NBC News in July in an interview about “Crazy Rich Asians.” “We’re not desperate for roles anymore. This movie is going to say we’re not sheep, and if a role sucks, then we’re not going to do it.”