On Saturday, February 20, at 8 pm, NYC’s premiere Asian American sketch comedy team, Model Majority, founded by Veronica Dang in 2018, presents a night of laughs and more to celebrate the Lunar New Year, the end of the awful Year of the Rat, and what we hope will be a better Year of the Bovine (be it ox, buffalo, or cow, depending on your country). The hilarious troupe promises that, although they’re sad that we can’t be together in person for this annual tradition, Model Majority’s Lunar New Year Comedy Spectacular “will be epic – and that’s no bull!”
Team members Dang, Carol Lee, Kevin Chew, Viet Vo, Julie Tran, Non Kuramoto, Monica Villa, Rob Chen, Ariel Estrada, Alex Chester, and Inam Quazi – known for their appearances on Broadway, on such comedy favorites as Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central, Tracy Morgan’s The Last OG, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, with UCB Comedy, and at top NYC comedy clubs – create brand new sketches for each performance of their sold-out shows, all starring, written, and directed by the company. And they also support significant social causes; this week’s free New Year’s celebration is being presented as a fundraiser, with viewers’ voluntary donations designated to benefit Feeding America, the largest hunger relief charity in the US. The current request for support comes with the reminder that “Helping others and fighting hunger is good luck for the New Year!”
During preparations for the upcoming online Spectacular, I had a chance to Zoom with Ariel (a stage and screen actor, Founder and Producing Artistic Director for the nonprofit creative studio Leviathan Lab, and advocate for Asian American equity in the performing arts) and Monica (an actress, singer, and comedy sketch performer who enjoys “a dual citizenship between New York and New Jersey” and is clearly committed to increasing Asian representation in comedy!) about the fun-filled show, their love of laughter, and their serious mission.
How and when did you become a part of the Model Majority?
Monica: I joined in September of 2019. I met Viet Vo, working together with the National Asian Artists Project (NAAP). Then I went to a Model Majority show and met Veronica. They were going to do a parody of Grease and they needed singers, so she invited me to be in it.
Ariel: I met Veronica at The Tank, when I was on staff and Moral Majority did two of their earlier shows there. She asked me to be in a show at The Magnet in the summer of 2019, and I’ve been doing shows with them ever since. I thought it was fantastic to have an Asian American sketch team and Asian representation in comedy. When I started working with Model Majority, yellowface occurrences on the professional stage, and the calling out of them, occurred on a frustratingly regular basis, and The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) came out with their annual report about how dismal Asian representation is both on and off Broadway. It was more than 20 years since Margaret Cho’s comedy series All-American Girl was on TV, and other examples of Asians in comedy since then are few and far between (we need to bring back Fresh Off the Boat asap!), so Veronica came up with the idea to start an Asian American comedy team – and it was high time!
At what age did you first realize that you had the ability to make people laugh, and how does it make you feel?
Monica: I got most of my sense of humor from my family. I watched a lot of slapstick with my grandparents, like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. I was an only child, so all day, I was a one-woman show! I was naturally shy in school, and when I was studying theater, I didn’t really like doing heavy drama; my heart always went to performing comedy.
Ariel: I was a serious sourpuss growing up; my brother was the joker. When I moved to New York, I wasn’t usually cast in comedies – I was young and pretty, so I got the male ingenue roles. As I got older, I guess I got funnier – or I didn’t have the ingenue look anymore! I was always into physical theater and I trained in opera; then I took a clowning course, and that completely changed my work. With comedy, it’s all about the timing, but in that respect, it’s also a combination of dance, improv, clowning, and especially music. You could be off one second in comedy and then it’s not funny – just like you have to stay on the beat in music. I always loved that challenge and that aspect of comedy. When asked if there’s anything more scary than dying, the actor Edmund Gwenn said, “Comedy.”
Monica: Yes, there’s so much risk if it lands wrong. Steve Martin once said the worst place to do comedy is on a cruise ship – you’re stuck, there’s no escape!
Can you give us an idea of what to expect in the Lunar New Year special?
Ariel: Oh boy, without any spoilers . . .
Monica: It’s a modern humorous take on some traditional Chinese legends and a bit of an Asian twist on pop culture for the Year of the Ox.
Ariel: It’s funny, and everybody can get into it, but it’s definitely Asian comedy – some people don’t have a clue what Lunar New Year is. We’re both Filipino, so we never really celebrated it, but in NYC they close off the streets for the day. So a lot of the sketches are Asian, but you don’t have to be Asian to get it. We skewer things that are universal.
Aside from all the laughs, is there a serious message that you want to deliver with this show and from the company in general?
Monica: There’s been a lot of xenophobia going on since the coronavirus and not much media coverage of all of the attacks on Asians. We’re still viewed as foreigners, even if our families have been here for generations. So we start from a place of our Asian heritage, but with universal human messages that non-Asians also get. That’s one way to break barriers and to change perceptions.
Ariel: Especially now, in terms of the pandemic attacks on Asians, we are pretty invisible in the media. We’re told that “we don’t have the air time,” meaning that we’re not of enough interest, though Asians are the “fastest growing racial consumer group” according to Nielsen, and this is a capitalist culture. I don’t get the reluctance of those gatekeepers. And it’s very, very limited in the media as to how we’re portrayed. At Model Majority, WE decide how we’re seen and what we really are.
Monica: Our response is to be in-your-face funny any time we can do that, and not rely on someone else to create for us. That’s what I admire most about Veronica
What’s your #1 wish for the New Year?
Ariel: That I’m able to schedule my second COVID shot, and our next Model Majority show will be live and in person.
Monica: That health will be restored to the people, and that we stay inspired, maintain our artistic spirit, and keep on creating art.
Ariel: Also that we learn from this time and incorporate the good lessons: calling out the need for equal representation in the industry; and recognizing the benefits of virtual theater to expand live on-stage performances – not to replace it, but to enlarge it with advances like OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), creating illusions with layers that feel live. Streaming opens us up to the entire country and the whole world
Many thanks, Ariel and Monica, for the chat and a sneak peek at the show. All best wishes for a Happy New Year!
Model Majority’s Lunar New Year Comedy Spectacular streams on Saturday, February 20, at 8 pm, on the company’s YouTube channel. Viewing is free, but donations are requested to support Feeding America. For tickets, go online; a link will be sent the day before the show.