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Atsuko Okatsuka Finds Light in Dire Situations and Her First Comedy Special: 'I Think Stand-up Comedy Is a Service'

Even if she puts the produce in the grocery cart or throws it away while it’s hot , Atsuko Okatsuka has the unique ability to maintain a slightly naive whimsy in everything she does. Her Primary Colors Comedy Special Edition, Atsuko Okatsuka: The Intruder , where Premiered in December at HBO Max, probably the sweetest ever spoken in the context of attending Magic Mike Live Family Stories in Las Vegas. The Intruder (directed by comic stand-up icon Tig Notaro) and her powerful social media presence, which became a worldwide viral sensation earlier this year #dropchallenge, started by Okatsuka inadvertently in January .

The comedian spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how she “Unconventional upbringing” helped shape her sense of humor and her drive to make people laugh.

I was impressed by your interaction with the audience in the special. How would you describe your relationship with your stand-up audience?

I see it – treating comedy as a job in the service industry. I wouldn’t have this job without them, and probably wouldn’t have had the gig for them without me. We are all in this together. The reason I got into comedy is because I love people and I want to elevate their experiences and feelings. I’m not afraid to live in the world of improv. I kind of thrive on chaos, “yeah”-ing it. The rest of my time – the jokes, the structure, the story I’m going to tell – is all written and rehearsed, but it’s really important to me to leave room for play so that even if you’re watching at home, Also hopefully you might feel like you’re in that room too.

I did a stand-up comedy in 2019 during the earthquake . It was an unexpected moment: this horrible thing, this natural phenomenon, 7.1 [magnitude], hit us all, everyone panicked but my instinct was to calm everyone down first, once I realized that every I’m fine, so I went straight to the joke, because it’s another service industry, and I have to think about the audience: Well, you still come here to watch comedies, I’m good at being funny. People were like, “How did you do that?” I did stand-up most of the week, I grew up with a schizophrenic mom, I hid in a garage for seven years undocumented – at a certain point, the earthquake is like nothing; the same goes for the audience interaction.

When certain experiences happen to you—especially those that might Stressful experiences like dealing with a home intruder or calming your mom – how much do you think in that moment, “Hmm, this could be physical?”

I am very focused on the energy of the moment, but there is also a part of my brain that [asks], “How do I let the situation Get easy?” My mom had a seizure. I remember as a kid sometimes when we were in public she would have a seizure and some stranger would come and help us. It’s a tragic thing at the moment and I want to make sure she’s ok but once she’s ok I try to make the situation interesting for example when she comes to life she’s in the arms of a very handsome man, striking person. I’m definitely like, “You, you! Can you be the one to hold my mom?” So when she wakes up, she giggles. I always strive for something like this in certain situations. But it never occurs to me now to think, “This would be good for stand-up.” I’d actually say that if someone does it, as part of the process they might seek help and therapy.

How did you develop your art and comedy versus having to deal with some odds in your life Is there a relationship between experiences described as genuinely difficult?

must. I keep thinking, oh my god, it must be more complicated than that, but sometimes it’s that simple: tragedy plus time is comedy. Of course, it takes the right perspective to get you there, and I feel lucky because some people get into depression. I’m thankful that even in hard times, I do have a very overprotective grandma, so I’m luckier than most. My grandmother made sure I had space to play. When we were undocumented, she applied to the visa lottery program every year, and in the seventh year, all of our names were drawn and we got green cards. She was the one who planned for us to stay in my uncle’s garage. She made all these arrangements and it felt like this woman was shady at the time. She made sure of these things behind my back so that, despite my unconventional upbringing, I was still able to laugh about them without feeling so hopeless.

Your grandma is loved by fans, yes An important part of your social media presence . How does she feel about all this?

My grandma finally let life take its course. She has been a janitor for most of her life. She still takes care of my mom most of the time. She is 28, she raised three children by herself. She lost her husband when she was 20 and then when I was my mom, she Having to raise I can’t. I started making silly videos to post online; it made people feel really good, which made me feel good. One day she said, “Can I do these dances with you?” It was the first time she had fun and let herself do the same. When I tell her things like “That video we made had 10,000 views,” all of this still sounds fictional to me. I don’t even know how many zeros I have in my head. I think anyone older has a hard time understanding what fame or exposure means. But when we were filming our special in New York and I got to drive her first class, I think she really saw it: “This is where comedy takes you. I’m going to lay flat. I’m eating beef and I’m going to have champagne ’” She saw all these people out there looking at my recordings, and the cameras. I think she really understood what it all meant when she was recording.

You, your grandma and your husband Ryan make up quite’s comedy trio . Tell me about the options that ended up getting them on stage.

There was a bit of a beginning we cut out, like a little sketch, that involved the two of them. I’ve always wanted to somehow get them on this special and put them in the spotlight, but it felt like [we should] start the special, so we canceled it. But when I used to tour, especially my Los Angeles show, I used to bring my grandmother on stage, and when my husband and I were on tour, the audience would always be like, “Oh my gosh, is your father’s sister !” People got excited and joked with him from the show they just watched. All of this is like, that’s why we’re in it: because we want to connect with our fans and our audience.

Your delivery style is so unique. Do you have any comic inspiration?

I grew up watching Scooby-doo . I think my expression is a bit like a cartoon character. I’m also a proud immigrant, I speak in a strange rhythm and my mouth makes strange noises. I grew up watching Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin. Since I don’t know English, it has to be physical humor. And then when I finally got the hang of the language, the first stand-up comedian I saw was Margaret Cho, which excited me [to realize] that all these things I’m watching are comedies, they’re more physical And cartoony-y, she was able to put it into words. I was like, “Oh wow, that’s its own art form.” That was a pivotal moment for me, when I realized that stand-up comedy was a job. Then Tig Notaro is another idol of mine.

Obviously we have to talk #dropchallenge and how it got really big. What was your own expectation of how popular it would become, and who can you not believe has made it?

I didn’t expect it to turn out like that. I was on the Tanzanian news. I saw a fisherman in Zimbabwe doing it while fishing in his boat or somewhere; nurses, doctors doing it; stone crushers. I’ve learned a lot about different jobs and careers by watching people’s remakes. That’s my favorite part. Sure, celebrities have done it, but it’s the civilians who really amaze me. It goes back to why I do comedy: because I want to see people enjoy themselves, see themselves in me. Even though I didn’t know Heidi Klum did it, I said, “Sure, Heidi, that’s cool, but that fisherman…” Some people said, “It’s spreading. People know you Started? You take credit!” I was like, “Ah! How do I do that?” But then you realize, who cares? It now belongs to the people. this is necessary.

Finally, I want to boast that I interviewed you back to 87, when you agree to join THR‘s Japanese-American women’s group and participate in Ghost in the Shell and then spoke for two hours. Since then, a lot has happened with Asian American entertainers in your career and in the industry as a whole. From your perspective, how has the business changed since Scarlett Johansson played Motoko Kusanagi?

Ooh look, now you’re doing full circle. It’s a callback moment, because you’re describing the moment we met, and what an amazing last question. There are lines like, “I’m the second Asian American female talk show to have a special on HBO, the first being Margaret Cho, and already 13 years, and now Margaret and I are friends.” The public’s growing awareness of stand-up comedy may not be the same as in the past All networks that have been producing more specials for years are concerned. And then you start seeing more different voices doing stand-up too, which helps too. But the internet also really helped: “Well, if the industry isn’t ready, I’m going to talk to my fans on my phone right away.” That’s how I was really able to get to a place where I said, “I’ve been For 20 years, I’m ready to go on tour.” I just don’t know I Whether there are numbers, I don’t know if I believe people will come to see me, once people start showing me that they will be online, that’s when I start my first tour. I went out on tour for the first time last year, and later that year, HBO came and saw it. For me, a lot has happened, even becoming HBO’s second Asian American female stand-up special: I have to believe in myself, the industry has to believe in us even more, and unfortunately Instagram has to exist because that’s what I’m doing There to show people my face and joke around all the time. So this is the culmination of those things. where is it going I wish I could make the HBO special more accessible to a third Asian American.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 7049899970761067823



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