Accents, Language and Laughter: Is it how I said it or what I said?

When people from Asian backgrounds are portrayed on television the viewers are programed to think that people of Asian descent can only be funny characters. Due to this there is a discourse behind the language and accents of Asian people that television networks like to play on for laughter. This discourse is that because of their language and accents, anything an Asian character says can be funny. Asian characters are either making the jokes, intentionally or unintentionally, or they are laughed at by the non-Asian characters. In this blog post I will discuss further how this discourse is constantly used by television networks when they create shows that display “Asian culture”.

Something that television networks seem to take for granted whenever making television shows that portray Asian Americans and even Asian immigrants is the language from the culture they represent. Just as much as learning about how people from other cultures live their lives in America, bringing their language to the screen is important. It allows us to see how people from another culture express themselves during different situations with their language. For this reason it is irresponsible and disrespectful to use the language of another culture as a background for comedy. We should not be programed to laugh whenever somebody speaks an Asian language in a show.

The television show All American Girl is a prime example of using a language and accent from an Asian country as a means to make a scene more comedic. In the pilot episode when Margaret Cho’s character is trying to get her mom to realize that all her children are American and asks her brother to back her up, he starts speaking Korean (2:07 – 2:24 in the video below). At this moment the people in the studio audience and even some of my classmates started to laugh. The laughter seemed to start right after the first Korean word was said and we are not able to hear what their conversation was. Even when people in the studio audience are quite while the characters speak Korean, the producers of the show do not use subtitles for us to understand what is being said. As a show that is meant to portray the life of an Asian American family, it is important that the audience also experiences the language from the culture that the family represents in a way that brings understanding rather than just laughter. Subtitling what the characters are saying when they speak a language other than English will give merit to what would otherwise be baseless laughter.

Another problem throughout the show is that the studio audience almost always laughs whenever Amy Hill, the grandmother, speaks. This could be because of what she says but most likely it is because of the accent she uses when she is saying her lines. One line in particular that would not seem as funny without the accent was when she said “You ever do hard time?” to Margaret’s boyfriend Kyle. If this line had been said by an Asian who had an American accent the line would probably not garner any laughter from the audience because it is a valid question to ask a person who is dating your grandchild. We see this same thing in other television shows like The Big Bang Theory with the Indian character Raj and 2 Broke Girls with the Chinese character Han. Although it may not be all the time, most of what these characters say is made to be funny solely based on the fact that they have an accent when they speak their lines.

This constant portrayal of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans as comedic because of their language and accent has caused television networks to only portray Asian American as people who are funny or made fun of by their non-Asian counterparts. Although, with Fresh Off the Boat they are getting a little closer to evoking real laughter from Asian and non-Asian American audiences alike. We are starting to see care put into what the characters say especially when Lucille Soong, the grandmother, speaks Mandarin. The audience is now getting subtitles, which is a crucial step in allowing American audiences to understand what is going on throughout the show rather than only when characters speak English. In a scene from episode 4 of Fresh Off the Boat, the grandmothers are talking in Mandarin just having a regular conversation (7:14 – 7:29 in the video below). We are no longer laughing just because the grandmother or anyone in the show for that matter is speaking another language. With this scene Mandarin is used solely as a language that is spoken rather than a device for laughter. Hopefully future shows about Asian American families can do the same and show that Asian languages should not be used just for the sake of laughs.

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