Comedian Bowen Yang Made His Name as a Cheeky Outsider. What Happens Now That He's on the Inside?

Bowen Yang wears a shirt and shoes by Ami Paris, tank top by Cos, pants by Edward Cuming, necklace by Title of Work, and watch by Cartier. All artwork from the collection of Nacho Polo and Robert Onuska of STUDIOTWENTYSEVEN. Mymoon Mirror by Dounia & Yasmine Lahlou for STUDIOTWENTYSEVEN.

"Bowen Yang giving his real opinions about movies on this podcast—I regret to inform you that you are too famous now, sir.”

Tina Fey offered this nugget of wisdom to the New York-based actor and writer during a recent appearance on Las Culturistas, the pop-culture podcast Yang began co-hosting with comedian Matt Rogers in 2016, six years after they met as students at New York University. “Authenticity,” Fey concluded, “is dangerous and expensive.”

The clip, shared widely online, was more than just a wry rant about working in Hollywood. It also captured the unique position Yang occupies in culture right now. While he gained a loyal following for his cheeky commentary (Rogers and Yang have alternately referred to their Las Culturistas devotees as readers, publicists, Kayteighs, and finalists), he is no longer an outsider looking in. In 2019, Yang became a cast member on Saturday Night Live; two years later, he was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people. After a buzzy turn in the 2022 indie queer romance Fire Island, he will reach triple-threat status alongside Ariana Grande in the forthcoming film version of the smash-hit musical Wicked. (Yang plays Pfannee, a college friend of Galinda the Good Witch.)

Bowen wears a suit by Bode, shirt by Moschino, sunglasses by Le Specs, and earring by Cartier. Katherine Bernhardt, Dt. Teeth + Doritos, 2021.

At 33, Yang recognizes this crossroads as an inevitable aspect of his intertwined creative pursuits. Las Culturistas has played the role of the deliberately unserious counter weight in the actor’s increasingly A-list-approved career. “There is certainly a tension—it would be dishonest to say there wasn’t,” Yang tells me. “But there is power in omission. We’ve had to negotiate this as years go by. Also, we’re not critics—the podcast is frivolous by design.”

While Las Culturistas may be a site of frivolity for frivolity’s sake, Yang harnesses his comedy as a means to disarm when commenting on social and political structures. Unlike musicians, comedians cannot simply play the hits over and over and expect to please the crowd. “You can do a recurring character, but there is a diminishing returns aspect to it,” he says. On SNL, Yang must constantly think about how to keep his performance surprising and responsive to the news.

Bowen wears a shirt and shoes by Ami Paris, tank top by Cos, pants by Edward Cuming, necklace by Title of Work, and watch by Cartier.

His fusion of high camp with incisive political critique has made him one of our freshest satirists. Consider his bit as Jafar from the movie Aladdin, dressing down Florida governor Ron DeSantis amid the state’s legal fight with Disney (“The look is giving baby mayor”), or his parody of George Santos after his expulsion from Congress (“This entire country has been bullying me just because I’m a proud gay thief... America hates to see a Latina queen winning”).

Here, of course, is another tension: Yang uses his platform on SNL to parody public figures that many of us might find nefarious or plain ridiculous, yet he sometimes has to share the stage with the same individuals. Yang admits that he is operating within a “labor structure where you aren’t necessarily working with people who align with you in every possible way,” and notes that “the show tries to layer in different political perspectives, and has done so since its inception.”

Bowen wears a full look by Gucci and necklace by Title of Work. Paola Pivi, That's What I Do for Fun, 2020.

SNL has long been a forum to lampoon the absurdity of America’s political system, and all eyes will be on the show ahead of the Biden and Trump rematch scheduled for November. “I think what the show has done well in its satirical take on politics is taking the piss out of politicians,” he says. “To make a politician seem cool and aspirational is sort of pathetic to me. I think the show has had to rise to the challenge of making what already seems like an absurd, surreal circumstance feel absurd and surreal.” The best role for SNL to occupy in our fraught matrix of pop culture and politics, then, is to deconstruct the pedestal on which representatives of the two worlds stand.

The political landscape isn’t the only thing in flux these days. Yang has been working on a semi-autobiographical television show about two friends hosting a late-night show, but he’s finding that “it’s been tricky to sell post-strike. The bubble has burst, streamers and studios are paring back, and we’re all adjusting. I can’t extrapolate too far into the future right now.”

Bowen wears a shirt and shoes by Ami Paris, tank top by Cos, pants by Edward Cuming, necklace by Title of Work, and watch by Cartier. Genesis Belanger, I Don't Believe in Ghosts, 2022.

What Yang does envision for his career, though, is moving away from the thorny exercise of accruing fame. He’s frank about this. Of working on a big Hollywood blockbuster like Wicked, he says, “When you’re in something that—hopefully—is successful, and has a lot of investment behind it ... I would be lying if I said I didn’t take the job because it was going to afford me some kind of status.”

Yang loved working on the musical, but at the moment he’s most interested in focusing on smaller films and independent projects that are less tailored toward broad acclaim and bigger audiences—like Fire Island, the queer riff on Pride and Prejudice he starred in alongside Joel Kim Booster and Margaret Cho. “It was this beautiful, generative thing I hadn’t been able to do before,” he says, expressing a desire for projects that promise more “artistic freedom.”

With an array of audience-approved talents at his fingertips, the sheer number of directions and projects Yang could pursue might seem stifling. But Yang is breathing easy. “If you take an idea that is already an itch in your brain and choose to scratch it," he says, "I think there will always be a satisfying outcome."

Styling Assistance by Brodie Reardon and Molly Macintosh
Grooming by Melissa Dezarate