Actor Matthew Moy’s Han Lee in the hit CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls encapsulates many of the stereotypes Asian American males are most sensitive about — from his thick, foreign accent to his role as the perpetually emasculated punch line. Now that the show will return for a third season, will the criticism be addressed, or are we being too sensitive? Story by Ada Tseng.
As I’m waiting for Matthew Moy to arrive at Hollywood’s The Republic of Pie for our interview, I can’t help but eavesdrop on two young women (one Caucasian and one Asian) gabbing on the sofa next to me.
“I don’t know why, but I’m just not attracted to Asian guys,” the Caucasian girl says. She insists she’s not trying to be racist. In fact, she, of all people, definitely understands racism, because her ancestors were German Nazis in World War II (they still have some of the old uniforms), and her family’s all embarrassed about it now, but what’re you gonna do? Crazy, right?
As I’m processing the unexpected turn this conversation has taken, in walks Matthew Moy, all 5-foot-1-inch of him, all smiles. You can make a lot of assumptions about Moy, the Chinese American actor who’s been criticized for perpetuating the emasculated Asian male stereotype in one of CBS’ most successful sitcoms, but you can’t deny that he has a knack for comic timing.
In 2011, Moy, an actor previously known for his recurring role on Scrubs, successfully booked a television role that would catapult him into mainstream fame. 2 Broke Girls co-creator Michael Patrick King, the writer/producer best known for creating the Sex and the City franchise, partnered with comedian Whitney Cummings on the script. Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs were cast as, respectively, Max, a sardonic working-class brunette, and Caroline, a blonde heiress recently stripped of her riches, who are waitressing in a diner in Brooklyn, while trying to start up their own cupcake business.
The collaboration proved successful. When 2 Broke Girls debuted, the premiere was watched by 19.2 million viewers, making it the highest rating for a fall premiere of a comedy series since fall 2001. It won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy and was nominated for three Emmys.
But the supporting characters rubbed many viewers the wrong way — the perverted Ukranian cook Oleg, the pot-smoking African American cashier Earl, and especially Korean American immigrant Han, the diner’s boss who appeared to be a walking joke.
Phil Yu, who runs the popular Asian American blog Angry Asian Man, was one of the first to catch wind of the potential caricature. On February 24, 2011, he posted the pilot’s script, which included Max mocking Han’s inability to pronounce R’s, calling him “Rice,” and pointing out his “camel toe” from his pants being hiked up too high in the front. In comparison, the controversial version that made it on air seemed mild if unoriginal: a joke about a samurai sword, another about nicknaming himself Bryce Lee.
Asian Americans activists are often preaching to the minority choir when Hollywood does us wrong, but this time around, the mainstream media joined in on the criticism. The Hollywood Reporter’s headline was “The Sorry State Of ‘2 Broke Girls’: Racism and Lame Sex Jokes.” The New Yorker bemoaned the ensemble cast “conceived in terms so racist it is less offensive than baffling.”
At the time, Moy responded to press with the equivalent of a shoulder shrug, while Korean American TV writers traded jabs publicly: Danny Chun, writer of The Office, tweeted “Pretty subtle of 2 Broke Girls to have their Asian stereotype not wearing a coolie hat. Shows they respect their audience,” while 2 Broke Girls’ Sonny Lee responded, “Chillax. I’m an Asian writer on the show and find it stereotypical for fellow Asians to pull the Asian stereotype card.”
Partway through the first season, it was leaked that 2 Broke Girls was looking to cast “a hot Asian guy” who hooks up with Caroline, a move many assumed to be a direct reaction to the criticism. But for most critics, the one episode role in which the Asian American guy was a one-night stand was too little, too late. “I feel like a lot of people wanted it to be a big deal,” says actor Tim Chiou, who was cast for the part. “And honestly, I don’t think it was revolutionary, but at the same time, it was just cool to see something different.”
The collective anxiety all culminated in a January 2012 press conference, where co-creator King got snippy with reporters demanding a response to the racial stereotypes, and his un-finessed defensiveness (“But I’m gay! I’m putting in gay stereotypes every week. … I find it comic to take everyone down!”) only fueled the fire. Leading up to the second season, King wrote a guest column in Entertainment Weekly that explained that, while they liked to shock people with their humor, they relied on the studio audience to help them judge what’s funny versus what’s too far.
Nowadays, with 2 Broke Girls having finished two seasons and renewed for a third, Moy is more direct when it comes to defending his body of work.
“People were just stressing themselves out,” he says. “A lot of people were really judgmental at first, and it’s understandable. But we have years to let them know who this character is. We’re only a 21-minute show. Be patient, and all the layers will come out.
Once Moy was cast, the writers catered the Han character to him. They gave Han a ferret named Alvin, a nod to Moy, who used to work at a pet hospital and owns two chinchillas. In addition, the writers had a field day with Moy’s small stature.
“A lot of hate comes because of the way I look,” says Moy. “But I can’t help that. They want me to look like Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho and Sung Kang. I don’t look like those guys. They want someone with perfect bone structure. I have perfect bone structure, underneath my fat.”
“It’s funny because you see Asian jokes all the time on other shows,” says Chiou. “But for Han, all these facets of being small, cheap and awkward are all magically wrapped up into one guy. It just so happens that Matt is able to get a whole series of jokes from all angles because of who he is and this character he created.”
“All I have to say is that I’m trying my best, so if people want to hate on that, they can,” he continues. “But I try my best to make them laugh.”
The auditions for 2 Broke Girls took place the middle of the 2011 pilot season, and the casting directors saw Asian American male actors in all shapes and sizes to find their Han Lee, described as “33, Korean Born, Lovable, Thin Man; Thick Accent.”
Justin Chon (Twilight, 21 and Over) and James Kyson Lee (Heroes) were amongst the actors in the room, but in the final round, it came down to Moy and Eddie Shin, a Korean American actor who has been on shows such as Gilmore Girls, That ’80s Show, and BBC3’s award-winning Phoo Action.
Even though he didn’t end up getting the role, Shin remembers having a lot of discussions with family and friends when he found himself advancing to the final rounds of casting.
“Any time in my auditioning experience that a character comes in and has a thick accent, it’s potential red flag territory,” Shin explains. “But all I had to work with are five [audition] pages in the first episode of a series by a show creator with a very successful track record. And as an actor, you want to work, but on the other hand, you don’t want to be crying all the way to the bank. So that was the dilemma.”
Moy, who had trained in voiceover acting prior to pursuing on-camera work, came into his audition with strong acting choices. Not ethnically Korean himself, he based his Korean accent on Korean women restaurant owners he knew in Los Angeles. “I could have just done a [generic] Korean accent,” he explains, “but then there’s no character behind it. So I had to choose somebody I knew from my personal life, and the older Korean ladies were very much like the character [of Han], because they’re very positive, and they take care of people.”
“My take was different, more grounded,” Shin remembers. “Because as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I see nerdy portrayals of Asians, and it’s like, ‘Dude, I have friends just like that.’ And this character reminded me of people of my parents’ generation that I had known my whole life. So I tried to create a real portrayal of that, which may have been less funny.”
Moy can’t tell if most of the hate is coming from the Asian American community, but there’s one thing he will say. “I’ve never gotten any hate mail from short people,” he jokes. “I’ve gotten nothing but support from the short community. We’re united.”
“I think he has a really tough job,” Chiou says. “First of all, you have to understand how to highlight the joke. And even though it’s being made at his expense, he has to be a part of the joke, because that’s how he develops a relationship with the other characters. And then eventually you get the sense that they’re making the joke out of love, which is something that happens in all sitcoms.”
“If I made the acting choice for him to take it personally every time they make fun of him, that hurts [the audience],” says Moy. “They’d feel his pain. But he’s not in pain because he loves all those people in the diner, and [insults are] just the way they show each other they love each other.
“I always expected that people would react strongly to our show,” Moy continues. “We don’t just push comedy to the edge — we take two steps off the edge and then we pull it one step back. But I definitely wasn’t prepared for all that attention.”
Shin was less surprised by the backlash. “There’s an enormous sensitivity to every Asian American portrayal because the American media so drastically underrepresents us,” he says. “And when we are represented, it tends to be for very specific functions, so part of that sensitivity is rightfully there. But I’ve also learned that I can’t live my career for someone else. At the end of the day, I have to trust my voice. Why should Matthew care about opinions of people he’s never met in his life when it comes to his career? It’s hard enough being an actor in Hollywood, and to add that factor into your decision-making is ludicrous.”
“The role could have easily gone to a lesser actor that could have created more of a caricature,” says Chiou. “But Matt’s really talented. Before, the writers were breaking up the lines [to convey the broken English], and Matt was able to say, ‘Look, I can do [the accent] without you having to write down the beats. Just write him as a real guy, and I can do the rest.’ And little by little, the writers are giving him more stuff to do.”
It’s April 3, and 2 Broke Girls is taping the second-to-last episode of the second season, and despite what the Internet haters say, on the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, Calif., Matthew Moy has become kind of a rock star. Sure, his adorkable character is dressed like he’s off to Little League, and he’s about to get hit in the groin with a baseball for a laugh, but the fans cheer wildly for him as soon as he comes on set.
His accent has been slightly lightened, and he delivers zings much more than he used to in the first season, but let’s be real, the small jokes at his expense are just as rampant as ever.
“My character has a little more bite now,” says Moy. “But Han is still a nice guy. And maybe he gets picked on the most because he can take it the most. I’ve been picked on a lot in my life, by both Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans. I can take it.”
An episode earlier, Shin made a guest appearance as Tom, a Law & Order producer who wants to shoot a scene in their diner. The role was written non-Asian, but once they cast Shin, the writers found an Asian angle to their story. One of the rewrites that was pitched on the spot during the live taping involved Han trying to strike up a brotherhood with Tom by speaking to him in Korean, and Tom responding, “Dude, I’m from Pasadena.”
Shin laughs at the memory. “I had to sit there and write out the Korean phonetically, and Matt’s like, ‘What do you mean I have to learn Korean in 30 seconds as a set up for your joke?!!”
The bit ended up making it into the episode, but there were other jokes that didn’t make it.
“There were times where Michael Patrick King would come over with Sonny Lee and say, ‘We’re thinking of pitching this joke. Is it in any way offensive?’” says Shin. “And there were some that were like, ‘Even if it gets a laugh, it’s not worth it because you’re going to get crucified, man!’
“But it’s complicated,” Shin explains. “Talk to anyone involved in comedy, and they’re the most censor-free people in the world. Once you’re hypersensitive about dissecting everything, it kills the whole world of comedy. I certainly don’t believe that the show’s humor is malicious. But Michael Patrick King is a very openly gay man with a certain comedic sensibility that can be very biting and edgy. And when he pitches a joke, it’s hilarious. But someone else could do a word-for-word delivery of the same joke, and you might be like, ‘Now it sounds a little weird.’”
But if the audience laughs, there’s a good chance it’ll make it on the air. While the racial jokes are still hit or miss, Han is now often the unexpected hero of the story. In one episode, he saves the girls when they’re held up at gunpoint in the diner. In another, he gives a generous cash Christmas gift to save the girls’ cupcake business from going under. Even in the episode in which Shin guest stars, what seems like Han’s stereotypical stinginess is revealed to be a ploy to make sure Max and Caroline aren’t being taken advantage of by the Law & Order producers.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting more from the TV that you watch,” says Chiou. “And it’s valid for us to voice our opinions whenever we see things that we perceive to be racist, insensitive or awkward. But we also have to celebrate these little victories.”
“Never in my life has something made sense to me as much as acting,” says Moy. “I didn’t even think that I could be on TV, but once I took the time to learn [the craft], I realized it’s not an impossible dream. I just had to work hard toward it, and it became realistic.”
After the show taping, Moy comes over to the stands to thank me for coming. Six Asian American college girls from the audience quickly gather behind me, excited that he’s approaching.
“Are those your friends?” he asks, genuinely caught off guard by his group of Asian fangirls. I shake my head.
“You’re so cute!” one of them says.
Moy smiles shyly, as if he’s not sure how to respond, waves at them, and then quickly rushes back to join his on-set family.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING 10 YEARS AGO?
“Ten years ago I had just learned how to drive a car. I was a hit with my carless roommates! Grocery store trips were luxurious.” — Matthew Moy
This story was originally published in our Summer 2013 issue. Get your copy here.