OPINION: How NOT to interview Atsuko Okatsuka

Atsuko Okatsuka speaks to audience with a microphone
(Esha Champsi • The Student Life)

On Thursday, Sept. 21, I scurried into Garrison Theater and planted my butt on a seat mere minutes before the lights dimmed to see TikTok famous Atsuko Okatsuka’s stand up performance, sponsored by Scripps Presents.

Okatsuko’s material was dynamite, with enough stage presence to fill the theater and accomplish just the type of comedic timing I wheeze at. She joked about tandem bikes, vasectomies and making friends as an adult, and made us very aware of how her audience was full of “weirdos.” The mood was bright as she made silly observations that made me actually guffaw.

After Okatsuko’s bow and (with a quick set change) the Q&A portion of the show began, a Scripps Events interviewer joined her onstage. Their first question? “How has living as an undocumented immigrant affected your life in the United States?”

There was a short pause before the audience bursted into chuckles from the mood whiplash. Okatsuka handled the question well, joking about the abruptly serious change in tone before discussing how she overstayed her visa after her grandmother lied about going to the United States for a “vacation.” She earned a few laughs as she went.

The interviewer took in her answer and followed up with another question: “How has your mother’s mental illness affected your mental health?” I burst into astonished laughter with the rest of the audience as I looked at my friends in utter confusion. Why were these the only questions coming up?

The Q&A left a bad taste in my mouth. Okatsuka was put on the spot with questions that didn’t inquire about who she was or what she’s done but more of what she’d survived. Crafting questions like these can create a narrative about how we value guest speakers at Scripps College: that all they are is a victim of oppression who has overcome immense hardship to be where they are today.

This isn’t to say those narratives aren’t true, but it is reductive and almost disrespectful to frame most of the questions asked of a woman of color around trauma without considering other layers of her identity. Yes, Atsuko Okatsuka is an Asian American woman who has encountered adversity, like her undocumented past and history of mental illness in her family, but she is also a comedian that has been slowly making a name for herself in the industry for the past decade.

She’s gained a TikTok following, has been a guest on multiple podcasts and even created her own, produced a web series, appeared on numerous talk shows and debuted her first stand-up special on HBO last year. Her style of comedy is unique in its child-like, eccentric, but smart and witty interpretation of the world.

This kind of targeted questioning not only creates a stereotypical narrative of Okatsuka’s life, but is also unfair to guests of color and gives them greater responsibility of speaking on topics like racism and immigration. It’s reminiscent of a certain SNL sketch that points out this double standard.

While Okatsuka has spoken about her struggles against white supremacy in her comedy, she doesn’t highlight it as her primary material, but rather as another layer of her multifaceted perspective. In fact, during her performance at Scripps, she didn’t even mention these struggles.

I doubt most of the audience knew her mother had a history of mental illness until the interviewer brought it up, nor were they privy to Okatsuka’s undocumented status. This isn’t to say we should avoid difficult topics, but we should first consider what a guest wants to speak on. If Scripps Events had hosted another stand-up comedian like Hasan Minhaj with his performance of “Homecoming King,”  inquiries about his feelings on being part of an immigrant family could absolutely be asked, as he addressed them in the performance itself.

But there are a million and one questions to inquire about Okatsuka’s life, especially in regard to her new performance material — why start with “how has being undocumented affected you?” without even contextualizing how the topic was brought up in her previous work?

One of the better questions asked of Okatsuka during the Q&A was from an audience member, when a student near the front of the auditorium asked what advice she would give a comedian at the start of their career. Okatsuka answered by advising the student to pin down what their thesis as a comedian would be, something that all your jokes derive from. She cited Margaret Cho, another Asian American woman comedian that inspired her, as an influence on her own thesis: “I don’t wanna be here, but I am.” All of Cho’s jokes and material operate under that thesis, forming a certain style of comedy that makes her stand out. This thesis idea is what creates every comedian’s distinct style.

Okatsuka’s insight about comedy is something I would’ve loved to hear more of. Formulating questions for a guest that revolve around their work and not just their identity creates more interesting and respectful conversations that can bring up excellent ideas and create better learning opportunities. Okatsuka deserved a more fulfilling conversation, and so did the Scripps audience.

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