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Wild Card: Bowen Yang

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As a cast member on "Saturday Night Live," Bowen Yang has had a bunch of memorable roles, including the iceberg that sank the Titanic doing PR damage control.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

BOWEN YANG: (As character) Well, everyone's talking about me. No one's talking about the water. What did the autopsy say, they iceberg-did (ph?) No. They drowned, [expletive]. That's not me. That's water.

DETROW: Not too bad for a guy who thought "SNL" wouldn't cast him when he originally sent in his audition tape.

YANG: I was like, yeah, I'll do it on a lark because there's no way they're ever going to hire for camera this effeminate Asian man. And I was just throwing everything against the wall, being like, I - this is for me. This is not for them. I don't think this will be seen.

DETROW: He obviously got the job. And now Bowen Yang's fame extends beyond "SNL." He started the movie "Fire Island" and will be in the "Wicked" musical adaptation out later this year. And the question of how he grapples with that level of success is one of the subjects that came up when he joined my colleague Rachel Martin for a game of Wild Card. That's NPR's new show where guests choose questions at random from a deck of cards, questions that get to the heart of how they make sense of the world. Here's Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RACHEL MARTIN: Round 1 - memories. In this round, we're looking back at things that have shaped you - people, experiences. OK?

YANG: OK.

MARTIN: So I have three cards in front of me. You pick one, two or three.

YANG: I'm going to go with three.

MARTIN: What was a moment when you felt proud of yourself as a kid?

YANG: Oh, wow. I remember in the first grade - or year one, as we called it in Canada. I was in Montreal at the time. There was just a class one day in school where we drew. It was just, like, unstructured, like, drawing time, right? First grade classic, classic stuff. I drew a clown with blue hair, a flower in his shirt, standing outside the circus. And then there was a speech bubble on the clown, and he was saying, allo, your French Quebecois greeting, allo.

Pretty simple stuff, right? But apparently, the teacher at the time thought it was so sophisticated that she, like, submitted it to this art contest. And then I won a full 20 Canadian dollars. And it was the first - I think it was a pretty vital moment of, like, creative validation for me growing up.

MARTIN: Yes. Totally.

YANG: Yeah. And my parents were very excited. And I got 20 bucks.

MARTIN: Did your parents think you were going to be an artist or you just moved on from that?

YANG: No, they really pushed that. And for some reason, art was, like, acceptable creative outlets for an Asian child of immigrants.

MARTIN: It was the high arts, the high arts. Yes.

YANG: It was the high arts.

MARTIN: Right.

YANG: And so I think they were very confused when I pivoted years later to improv comedy and, like, telling jokes on stage because they were like, this is completely crude.

MARTIN: Yeah. I think it was a good fit.

YANG: Thanks.

MARTIN: I'm just saying, I think it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We are now in Round 2. OK.

YANG: Great.

MARTIN: In this round, we're focused on insights, what you're learning. Three new cards. One, two, three.

YANG: Let's go with three.

MARTIN: What have you learned to be careful about?

YANG: This is, like, really something that I've dwelled on for the past, oh, two, three months. Tina Fey came on my podcast, and she, in a very playful, so brilliant way, was railing against me for sharing my real opinions on movies on the podcast. But basically, what Tina was saying was, this is something, this is a permanent record. It's like that thing of like the internet is written in permanent marker. And the phrase that kind of, like, went a little viral from that was her saying authenticity is dangerous and expensive.

And I really am still reckoning with that idea where I'm like, I've always been an open book. I've always shared my thoughts pretty extemporaneously on things and haven't really regretted them too much. But now I think I'm reevaluating what it means or, like, how worth it it is to, like, be honest about everything. But then at the same time, like, if you kind of start to self-censor a bit, then, like, what does that do to your idea of yourself?

MARTIN: It's hard. I mean, it's not like woe is you, your life is over.

YANG: No, no, not at all.

MARTIN: But being in the public spotlight, it forces you to figure that out. I think that's what Tina Fey was saying, right? Like, you might want to work with these people someday.

YANG: Sure. But I think I'm applying that to everything. It's about, like, my own - the way I mull things over just out loud and how...

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

YANG: Yeah. And how, like, the idea that people are listening or watching is so overwhelming if I think about it for too long.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, and also, Bowen, you have to keep things. You have to keep some things for yourself.

YANG: Totally.

MARTIN: Not everybody, including me, is entitled to all your things.

YANG: There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Round 3.

YANG: OK.

MARTIN: Beliefs. OK. Three new cards. One, two three.

YANG: Let's go with two.

MARTIN: Two. Do you think there's more to reality than we can see or touch?

YANG: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I am generally a skeptic with things. I read too many Carl Sagan books in college. But I feel like there is this meta reality or something that exists that people can tap into because, like - I know the question is not necessarily implying anything supernatural, but we had on a medium for the podcast.

MARTIN: Tell me. Tell me. We can go supernatural all day long.

YANG: Great, amazing. This guy was pretty good, Tyler Henry. He's also known to some people as the Hollywood Medium. And, again, like, it invites skepticism because you're like like, how much did he know beforehand and...

MARTIN: Right.

YANG: He said things to me that really were, like, really conceptual and not necessarily, oh, this person is in this other dimension, and they're trying to communicate this to you. For me, it was just like, oh, what I'm picking up from you is that, like, you have this legacy of people who were not able to, like, share their lives or, like, the legacy is a little bit blurred. My dad grew up in a rural part of China where most of his relatives are not really documented. He just - there was just no family tree or history to sort of go off of. And no one could read. And no one went to school. And he was the first in his family to even go to college.

And so what Tyler Henry was basically saying was like, you are able to sort of like end this cycle of, one, shame, and two, record in a weird way. Like, you get to sort of, like, through being yourself and being, like, a citizen of this world now where people are, like, constantly tracking things and things are easily recorded for posterity. Like, that gets to sort of be, like, one of your sort of, like, motivating forces in life.

And that's something that, like, I kind of loved hearing. Like, it was very meaningful to hear because it was borrowed from this, like, metaphysical space. But at the same time, it applies to something that I can do now, and it is from a reality that is unobservable, which I kind of love. Yeah.

DETROW: That's "Saturday Night Live" cast member Bowen Yang talking to Rachel Martin. You can hear more from that conversation on the Wild Card podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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