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Atsuko Okatsuka Jokes Around

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Comedian Atsuko Okatsuka does everything. The touring comic, actress, writer, dancehall dancer and podcast host is everywhere and works tirelessly. She even famously performed a stand-up set in the middle of an earthquake — and got lots of laughs. Okatsuka also just made her late night debut on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” proving to a national audience that she is a rising star with her quick wit and off-kilter approach. Here she talks about what drives her to create and “nerds out” on how she writes jokes.

Atsuko Okatsuka: I’m Atsuko Okatsuka, and I am a comedian.

Joe Skinner: Atsuko is a comedian who embraces the many platforms of the digital age. She’s constantly riffing online, and in one of her favorite visual gags, she’ll collide cultures with her Grandma by twerking across from her during simple household chores. She has a game show called “Let’s Go Atsuko.” She has an indie kids show, for adults, called “Ohayo.” She teaches dancehall fitness. She has a podcast. Stand-up specials.

Atsuko Okatsuka (Standup): “You’re here. I’m here. You made it. I made it. I’m not just killing time too, ya know?

Atsuko Okatsuka: It’s good to constantly be creating stuff. Even if you’re unique in your standup, as a comedian, you have to be a multi-hyphenate in that you do it all. You have to be a jack of all trades.

Joe Skinner: For Atsuko, all these different platforms are just different ways to tell a joke. And they often inform one another.

Atsuko Okatsuka: How does me shaking my butt to my favorite dancehall songs translate to my standup comedy at all? Is that even the same me? you know? And honestly, doing zoom comedy shows has taught me that it is. You had to figure out how to tell jokes into this tiny little laptop microphone and your stage is suddenly smaller, but more intimate. And it made me better at facial expressions, maybe during my standup too. And I think that plays into like dance somehow too, it’s like very performative and you’re thinking about space.

Joe Skinner: Even with these different forms of telling jokes, the traditional standup routine is Atsuko’s bread and butter. And a stand-up appearance on the late-night circuit is still the crown jewel in a comedian’s career.

Clip from “Late Late Show with James Corden”: Please give her a warm welcome, the incredibly talented Atsuko Okatsuka everybody!

Joe Skinner: Just last week, Atsuko’s efforts as a multi-platform, multi-hyphenate artist culminated in her late-night television debut on “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”

Clip from “Late Late Show with James Corden”: Let me tell you. People think I’m mature. They do. People think I’m mature because I’m married. Yeah. But I would argue that getting married is the childlike thing to do. Because married people, what do they say? They say things like, “I found my best friend!” You know. That’s very childlike. “Everything we own, split it in half! That way it’s half and half! We get to do everything together, all the time!” That’s married people. It’s very childlike. It’s very childlike. Meanwhile, if you’re single and having to date around, that’s very adult. It is. Because when you’re single and having to date around you have to do things like get to places on time. You have to be interesting…

Joe Skinner: I’m Joe Skinner, and this is “American Masters: Creative Spark.” In each episode, we bring you the story of how artists bring their creative work to life. Today’s focus: Atsuko Okatsuka, on how to make a joke.

Sometimes the work of a comedian can feel very much like that of a magician – a hidden process we aren’t quite supposed to know the alchemy behind – we’re just supposed to laugh. It almost feels wrong to know the secret. But let’s try to get a small peek behind the curtain anyway.

Atsuko Okatsuka: Tell me when we’ve started and I’ll do that whole switch, you know, where my eyes glaze over and I turn into podcast mode.

Joe Skinner: You can now step into character.

Atsuko Okatsuka: Okay. Ready.

Theme music ends.

Atsuko Okatsuka: I think that writing jokes – it’s a muscle you have to work. Comedy makes me so happy. I almost nerd out about it. It truly does make me so happy to sit down and try to write out this joke, at least the premise of it. And then I’ll figure out what’s funny about it and I’ll practice talking out loud to trees, and if I giggle even hearing myself out loud, I know that it’s gonna work.

Joe Skinner: For Atsuko, the spark for a new joke hits in the course of her everyday life.

Atsuko Okatsuka: So my husband and I were FaceTiming with a friend, having drinks, and we were just laughing, but also talking about current events. And we just started talking about how scared people are of the slogan “defund the police.”

And I just started talking about how in Japan, the cops don’t even have weapons. In fact, they have cute royal blue uniforms with like white gloves. They look like Disneyland cast members, and all they do is stand in the streets and give directions to people.

I was like, yeah, what if we do defund the police? We make it sound less scary, you know, if there’s an actual crime, you send in the real cops. And I was like, do you think we can just pause really quick while I say this out loud into my voice recorder?

Joe Skinner: So Atsuko took out her voice recorder, walked outside on her porch, and told a joke – to the trees.

Note: Atsuko turns on her voice recorder.

Atsuko Okatsuka (On Tape): Okay. This is what I mean by defund the police. I mean, take weapons away from the cops, put them in the streets in the communities, and all they do is give directions like the cops do in Japan. And if [censored] gets crazy from then on, then people can call the real cops. And by real cops, I mean Zumba moms.

Atsuko Okatsuka: And it might turn you off at first because you’re like, “oh no, she’s going to talk politics,” but it gets crazier and crazier and crazier.

Atsuko Okatsuka (On Tape): Zumba moms who are like “this is my spot. I dance here every week.” That kind of person. The person that’ll be like, “don’t talk to me like that, do you know what you did wrong? Yeah. You hit a woman. You hit a woman. You want me to call your dad? I know your dad. He’s my Zumba instructor.” That kind of Zumba mom. Okay. They got strong thighs. They’re always on time. Okay. Zumba mamas, frontline of defense. And if that doesn’t work we send in our last line of defense: comedians with bits. I think that will at least distract the person for a little bit.

Joe Skinner: Atsuko describes the process of joke-writing as iterative. It may begin on her front porch after a chat with friends, but it evolves over time from voice memo to comedy club.

Atsuko Okatsuka: To refine a joke, you really have to do it in front of an audience. Sometimes you’ll improvise a better punchline too, and I’m still building on that Zumba moms joke: you got to bring in the slam poets, you got to bring in the kids that have been taking karate classes all these years. It’s literally a community effort to stop a person without having to use guns and cops.

The end goal for my jokes is laughs. Laughs, laughs, laughs. But also, I love an arc. I love people taking something away. So sometimes it is offering solutions that might sound stupid and silly, but at the end, you’ve hopefully made them think about something a little differently.

Joe Skinner: Atsuko Okatsuka has described her comedy, much like her Zumba joke, as a healthy mix of absurdism and optimism – a style she says is a reflection of her experience as an immigrant. When she was 10 years old, her family moved from Japan to West L.A., where they lived in her uncle’s garage and Atsuko taught herself English and attended a local elementary school. It was then that she first encountered comedy.

Atsuko Okatsuka: In the sixth grade for the first time a friend of mine slipped a Margaret Cho DVD to me during church. She whispered, “this is standup comedy.”

Margaret Cho (DVD Archival): I never saw Asian people on television or in movies.

Atsuko Okatsuka: I took it home and then I watched it.

Margaret Cho (DVD Archival): So my dreams were somewhat limited. I would dream, “maybe someday, I could be an extra on M.A.S.H.”

Atsuko Okatsuka: At that time I did not dare even dream to do something like that, but I was blown away. Some people have epic a-ha moments. Beautiful stories that are so cinematic. “I was looking out and saw a bird. It was a sign that’s when I needed to fly.” And this is the story of a pilot.

For me, I didn’t have an a-ha moment. I always knew that standup comedy was an art form I loved watching and I did always like making people laugh. So I think it was just a combination of those things. The a-ha moment was I did so poorly in school that I failed in a big way, which was dropping out of undergrad, going to open mic’s instead, and my family doesn’t know.

Joe Skinner: Although Atsuko now lives on her own, her family is still a really important part of her work. Her Grandma, Grandma Li, is deeply enmeshed in much of her online presence and comedy.

Atsuko Okatsuka: Even if it’s a 30-second video, I like a beginning, middle and end. It’ll start with my grandma drumming to the beat of the song with sweet potatoes in her kitchen.

Joe Skinner: And her grandma? She may just be the secret sauce for Atsuko’s comedy – she always serving as the deadpan straight-man for her bits.

Atsuko Okatsuka: Where she’d been drumming is a bowl – she turns it upside down. The bowl is now right-side up. And then in my shirt I’ve been hiding oranges. I drop a bunch of oranges into the bowl, right? And act three is her starting to peel an orange while I’m twerking right next to her face.

Atsuko Okatsuka (Social Media Post): Remember this video grandma? That one has 761,000 views. That one with me and you in it.

Grandma Li (Social Media Post): Oh. but no money.

Atsuko Okatsuka (Social Media Post): Yeah, no money.

Joe Skinner: Atsuko folds her Grandma and family life into her offline presence too – in her standup material.

Clip from “But I Control Me”: My grandma’s badass. My grandma’s badass, right? We immigrated here together. 

Joe Skinner: In 2020, Atsuko released her debut album, “But I Control Me,” with jokes that offer her distinct perspective and window into the personal.

Clip from “But I Control Me”: My grandma you know, it’s been hard for her but she has an attitude I respect, she’s like, “[censored] America. I’m gonna make it work for me.” And so Grandma’s from Taiwan, but she moved to a Taiwanese part of L.A., so anytime she runs into someone who doesn’t understand her, it’s their fault she doesn’t speak any English. And that’s badass you know what I mean? She’s like “Why don’t you speak Chinese? We’re in Arcadia.” I’m like, “damn that’s gangster. That’s badass.”

Atsuko Okatsuka: What drives me towards doing personal comedy, you know, it really is the only time I feel like I can be most myself in my art. Sometimes I wonder if I should talk about politics more or more observational things, you know? I did talk about “defund the police,” but it’s still very much an excuse for me to be silly.

I don’t feel comfortable unless I’m able to be myself. And honesty and letting people into my life is the best way that I can serve. You know, being a comedian, it’s a service job. You’re entertaining people at the cost of your stories – your perspective.

Joe Skinner: Thank you to Atsuko Okatsuka for her interview, and for letting us into her creative process and sharing the raw elements of her work. Join us next week for our next episode, as we continue to look into how artists make their work, and the creative spark that drives them.

“American Masters: Creative Spark” is a production of The WNET Group, media made possible by all of you. The show is produced by me, Joe Skinner. Our executive producer is Michael Kantor. Original music is composed by Hannis Brown. Funding for American Masters: Creative Spark was provided by the Anderson Family Charitable Fund and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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