Hollywood has never been kind to Asian Americans. Whether it’s depicting them with exaggerated, offensive accents, pigeonholing them into martial arts movies, or whitewashing their cultural stories, the industry has failed to represent a multitude of Asian experiences. Comedian and television showrunner Kulap Vilaysack has made it her mission to force Hollywood to reckon with its bigotry. After short stints on Parks and Recreation and the Hotwives of Orlando, Vilaysack turned her attention to creating diverse shows, like Bajillion Dollar Propertie$.
We chatted about combating Hollywood’s race problem, podcasting as a way to level the playing field for people of color, and becoming the “Asian Shonda Rhimes.”
I am really obsessed with shows like House Hunters and Flip or Flop. Were those house-centered shows the inspiration for Bajillion Dollar Propertie$?
Absolutely. People always say, “You must hate-watch these shows.” No, I watch these shows because I love them. I like open houses. When my husband and I couldn’t even afford a house, we would go to open houses. There’s something about seeing how people live and understanding the choices they make that’s interesting to me. I love House Hunters, House Hunters International, and Island Hunters. The one I came late to was Million Dollar Listing, which is really the main source material for Bajillion Dollar Propertie$.
How did that obsession become a television show? How did you create the sketches for these hilarious characters?
I’m standing on the shoulders of projects that came before us, like Reno 911!. They took the world of Cops and set their characters in it. It was less about parodying Cops, and more about having really funny sketches with a parade of guest stars. Similarly, [I was inspired by] Burning Love, a parody of the Bachelor series and Children’s Hospital, which is about all of the medical procedure dramas. So really, it was finding the world that I’m interested in that I could set as a backdrop for a show.
How much of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ is scripted?
We have an outline for each scene so everybody knows who they are to one another and what they want from each other. We include heightening beats and a possible ending so the actors have a road map and can just have fun. We also have sample dialogue for each beat to use or to ignore. That said, all that preparation means nothing without the right people. Our main cast is phenomenal and all of our guest stars come to play.
You’d never written for TV before creating Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. Was the transition from comedy to TV writing difficult for you?
No. In these improv communities, we’re constantly creating. We’re either creating as trained improvisers or as improv groups. During shows, we’re using those skills to write and perform sketches on stages like the Upright Citizens Brigade [UCB] theater in Los Angeles. We’re working together to write sketches for places like Funny or Die or CollegeHumor. A lot of people in my [comedy] community are about creating and working together, so it was a natural extension.
You’re a comedian’s comedian. Was comedy always something you were drawn to?
Oooh, I like that! Thank you. Yes, I had a tough upbringing, and my family used humor to survive. To me, humor is just a tension reliever. My parents are immigrants, and I grew up in the back of a restaurant, prepping meats and cutting vegetables while watching reruns of I Love Lucy and the Jeffersons. I also watched Cheers and Saturday Night Live. That was also my education as well.
When did you realize that comedy was something you could do professionally?
Right after high school, I moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles to start a merchandising program at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. I was on my own in Los Angeles, so I thought maybe I could do something aside from being in business. I took a couple of acting classes, and said, “Okay, that’s something.” I then saw I could take Second City classes in Los Angeles. I entered that program, started meeting people to collaborate with, and that grew to having my own show called “Garage Comedy” at the El Cid on Sunset Boulevard. Then I met Matt Walsh and Matt Besser of UCB right before they were going to open their theater with Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler. I started hanging out and working at the UCB theater. I started thinking about [making comedy a career] at Second City, but it really happened for me at UCB.
I read an interview you did with Fast Company where you said you want to be the “Asian Shonda Rhimes.” I love that line.
[Laughs] It’s sort of silly to say, and it makes me blush, but I mean it.
What prompted you to shift from being the talent to cultivating worlds for diverse characters?
I’m a creative person, and I wasn’t working enough to feel fulfilled. I had this desire to be on the other side of the desk, and to choose instead of just being chosen. By the way, on this side, you’re being chosen too. People have to decide if they want to work with you. In this stage of my career, I would feel more fulfilled and empowered on the other side [of the camera].
Is Hollywood resistant to becoming more inclusive?
Yeah [laughs]. Yeah, I do. I love that they’re being forced to change. I’m not going to pretend. There are negative aspects to social media, but there are a whole lot of positive things too, like shining light on things that need to be taken care of [in Hollywood]. Of course I think representation is important. Look at me. I’m just as valuable as a white man, and depending on the skill set, even more so. But I’m not as represented as he is. With great compassion toward white men—I’m married to one, he’s great—the tendency is to hire who you know and what you’re comfortable with.
But better stories would be told if more people are represented. When people say, “That woman character is really two dimensional.” You have to think who was in that room. Was there a woman? Was she given a voice? When you have Black characters, but there are no Black writers, what is that? It’s changing because it has to. As an Asian kid, it meant a lot to me that Margaret Cho was on TV. When I see big shows that don’t have diversity, there’s definitely a subtext there. Why are we not represented? What does that say about my importance is in society?
We’ve already disproven the lie that women and people of color don’t watch TV, or that women-directed films don’t make big money. So let’s move forward.
Have you found that being vocal about representation has led to pushback? How do you overcome that obstacle?
I haven’t, but there’s now more people talking. I have no problem calling out the absurdity of it. Here’s the other thing: I haven’t run a show on a network scale. I did four seasons of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, which I’m so proud of. But I also realize it was a very protected sandbox to play in. [NBC’s streaming network] Seeso gives a lot of onus and power to the creator, so I made it a point to hire a balance of ethnicities and genders, both in front and behind the camera. That was important to me. There’s very little money, but there’s a lot of control. We need to get to that place in network TV. Networks and streaming giants, like Netflix, have more money, so they have more control and say over who you hire and why you hire them. We need to raise up the talents of people from all backgrounds. We have to give them chances and opportunities instead of the one door that opens for them to be the quirky sidekick. We only see the Black or Asian friend who, apparently, only has white friends. [laughs] That’s not real—at all. I’m looking to get in a position where I can change that.
I think that podcasts have become a vehicle for people of color to be recognized. How did you get into the world of podcasts? Are you excited about where the podcast industry is going?
My husband is one of the founders of the Earwolf podcast network. My cohost Howard Kremer and I were the fourth podcast on the network, so we got in really early before really understanding what podcasting was going to be. It was just a cool thing I was doing that ensured I performed once a week. I am very excited [about where the industry is going]. Two years ago, I was this WNYC women in podcasting summit, and there was a whole workshop with men complaining about vocal fry. I didn’t even know what that was, but the sound of a woman’s voice was irritating these men on Reddit boards. I think we’re passed that.
There are so many great women in podcasts in all categories, like health, parenting, money, and overall number-one Apple podcasts charts. Podcasting has taught me that I can come in as I am and be accepted, even if I’m bloated that day. [Laughs] It didn’t matter if I could get an acting gig because I was still reaching people. That’s so exciting and empowering.
Origin Story is your forthcoming documentary about tracking down your biological father. It’s very personal, and seems very different from the work you’ve been doing. Was it difficult for you to turn your personal experience into a documentary?
Yes, and it will remain so. It may get better, but it’s very hard. I was showing my sister rough cuts recently, and I was still crying through it. I can’t watch a cut without crying, but it’s something I have to do. I’m going to freak out more as I get closer to showing it to audiences. I think that’s natural. I’m putting a lot out there, but that’s the point. If I’m not going to share the experience, why am I doing it? I question all the time why I’m doing this, but I know I have to.
How did you decide what to share publicly about your journey to finding your biological father and what to keep for yourself?
I think it’s having a bit of distance and deciding as a director what specific story I want to tell. What is the arc and what is the journey I want to share? Once that’s decided, I know what pieces will be shown. Everything, hopefully, applies to that story. The first rough cut I did was three hours long and very angry, but I think I selected the story that is the strongest and will be the mean.
Do you think you ever heal from learning that the man you were raised by isn’t your biological father? Did creating the documentary aid the healing process?
Yes, I do think I will heal from it. That’s what this documentary is for me. David Mack is one of my favorite comic-book artists. He makes the Kabuki series. In one of the comic books, The Alchemy, one character says to the other, “It’s all about turning your shit into gold.” Sometimes without knowing it, I have identified myself within that story [of not being raised by my biological father]. I need to free myself from that story so I can make space for a new one. This documentary is an act of catharsis and finding peace with it. The past can’t be changed. I like who I am now. And that’s all the good and all the bad that’s ever happened. I can’t cherry pick it.