Atsuko Okatsuka on Finding Levity in Scary Situations and Her First Comedy Special: “I See Stand-Up as a Service”

Even when she’s twerking produce into a grocery cart or dropping it like it’s hot, Atsuko Okatsuka has the unique ability to maintain a somewhat innocent sense of whimsy in everything she does. Her primary-colored comedy special, Atsuko Okatsuka: The Intruder, which premiered Dec. 10 on HBO Max, features perhaps the most heartwarming story of family bonding ever told in context of attending Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas.

Okatsuka’s family members — most notably her grandmother and her husband, actor Ryan Harper Gray — figure prominently not just in The Intruder (directed by one of the comic’s stand-up idols, Tig Notaro) but also in her robust social media presence, which spawned a worldwide viral sensation earlier this year with #dropchallenge, inadvertently started in January by Okatsuka.

The comedian spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how her “unconventional upbringing” helped shape her sense of humor as well as her motivations behind making people laugh.

During the special, your audience interaction really stood out to me. How would you describe your relationship to a stand-up audience?

I see stand-up comedy as a service industry job. I don’t have this job without them and without me, there’s maybe not a show for them. We’re all in it together. The reason I got into comedy is because I love people and I want to uplift their experience and their feelings. I’m not scared of living in the improv world. I kinda thrive in chaos, “yes and”-ing it. The rest of my hour — the jokes, the structure, the stories that I’m going to tell — that’s written and rehearsed, but for me, leaving room for play is really important so that even while you’re watching at home, hopefully you could maybe feel like you were in that room too.

I did a stand-up set during an earthquake in 2019. That’s a moment that was unexpected: This scary thing, this natural phenomenon, 7.1 [magnitude], hits all of us, everyone’s in a panic but my instinct was to first calm everyone down, and once I realized everyone was OK, go straight into jokes, because again, it’s a service industry where I want to consider the audience: Well, you’re still here for a comedy show, I’m good at being funny. People were like, “How were you able to do that?” I do stand-up comedy most nights out of the week, I grew up with a mom with schizophrenia, I was undocumented for seven years hiding in a garage — at a certain point, an earthquake is like nothing; so is audience interaction.

When certain experiences happen to you — especially ones that could potentially be stressful, like dealing with a home invader or calming down your mom — how much are you thinking in that moment, “Hmm, this could be material?”

I’m very present in the present energy, but there’s also a part of my brain [asking], “How do I bring levity to the situation right away?” My mom gets seizures. I remember as a kid sometimes she would have a seizure while we were in public, and some strangers would come and help us. In the moment it’s this tragic thing and I want to make sure she’s OK, but once she’s OK, I would immediately try to make the situation funny so that when she came to, for example, she’s being held in the arms of a really handsome, striking man. I would make sure to be like, “You, you! Can you be the one holding my mom?” So when she comes to, she would giggle. Stuff like that I always strive for in situations. But I’m never in the moment being like, “This would be good for stand-up.” I would actually say that if anybody does that as part of their process to maybe seek help and therapy.

Is there a relationship between how you developed your art and comedy and having had to deal with experiences in your life that some might characterize as real hardships?

For sure. I always think, God, it’s gotta be more complex than that, but sometimes it is as simple as that: Tragedy plus time is comedy. Of course, it takes the right perspective to be able to take you there, and I feel very blessed because some people fall into depression. I’m very thankful that even in the hard times, I did have a very overly protective grandma, and so I’m luckier than most. My grandma made sure that I had room to play. While we were undocumented, she was applying for the visa lottery program every year, and on the seventh year all of our names got drawn and we got green cards. She was the one that planned for us to stay in my uncle’s garage. She made all these arrangements that at the time felt like, this woman is shady. She made sure of these things behind my back so that, for as much as the unconventional upbringing that I had, I was able to still laugh about things without feeling so hopeless.

Your grandma is so beloved by your fans and is a big part of your social media presence. What does she make of all of this?

My grandma is going with the flow finally in life. She’s been a caretaker most of her life; she still takes care of my mom most of the time. She’s 87, and she raised three kids on her own. She lost her husband when she was 28, and then she had to raise me when my mom couldn’t. I started making silly videos to post online; it would make people feel really good, and that made me feel good. One day she was like, “Can I join you in one of these dances?” It’s her having fun for the first time and allowing herself to play too. When I tell her things like, “That video we did has 20 million views,” all of that to me still sounds made up. I don’t even know how many zeros that is off the top of my head. I think any older person already has a hard time grasping what fame or exposure means. But when we taped our special in New York, and I got to fly her first class, I think she really saw: “This is where comedy has taken you. I get to lay down flat. I’m eating beef. I get champagne.” She saw the taping where all these people were there to see me, and the cameras were there. I feel like she really figured out during the taping what it all meant.

You, your grandma and your husband, Ryan, make quite the comedy trio. Tell me about the choice to bring them onstage at the end.

There was a beginning bit that we cut, like a little sketch, that involved the two of them. I had always wanted to involve them somehow in this special and give them the limelight but it felt like [we should] just start the special, so we cut that. But I’ve brought my grandma up onstage before when I tour, especially in my L.A. shows, and when my husband tours with me, the audience is always like, “Oh my gosh, it’s your father-sister!” People get excited and do inside jokes with him from the show they just watched. All of that was like, this is why we’re in this: Because we want to connect with our fans and the audience.

You have such a unique style of delivery. Do you have any comic inspirations?

I grew up watching Scooby-Doo. I feel like I’m sort of a cartoon character in the way that I express. I’m also a proud immigrant, I speak in weird cadences, I make weird noises with my mouth. I grew up watching Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin. Because I didn’t know English, it had to be physical humor. And then when I finally got to know the language, the first person I saw stand-up was Margaret Cho, and that was mind-blowing to [realize] all of these things I was watching as comedy, which were more physical and cartoon-y, she’s able to express in just 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. And then Tig Notaro was my other idol, too.

Obviously we have to talk about #dropchallenge and how that became really massive. What were your own expectations of how viral it would become, and who is one person you can’t believe did it?

I had no idea it would turn out like that. I was on the Tanzanian news. I saw a fisherman in Zimbabwe or somewhere do it on his boat while fishing; nurses, doctors were doing it; rock splitters. I was learning about so many different jobs and occupations watching people’s remakes. That was my favorite part. Sure, celebrities have done it, but it’s really civilians that have done it that I’m in awe of watching. It goes back to why I do comedy: because I want to see people enjoying themselves, seeing themselves in me. Even when, I don’t know, Heidi Klum did it, I was like, “Sure, sure Heidi, that’s cool, but that fisherman tho…” Some people were like, “It’s going viral. Do people know you started it? You need to take credit!” I was like, “Aahhh! How do I do that?” But then you realize, who cares? It belongs to the people now. That’s what it should be.

Finally, I have to brag on the fact that I interviewed you way back in 2017, when you agreed to be part of THR’s Japanese American women panel and sit through Ghost in the Shell and then talk about it for two hours. Since then, a lot has happened in your career as well as throughout the industry when it comes to Asian American entertainers. From your perspective, how has the business changed since Scarlett Johansson played Motoko Kusanagi?

Ooh see, now you’re doing the full circle. This is the callback moment, because you’re describing the moment we met, and what an amazing last question. There’s things like, “I’m the second Asian American female stand-up to have a special on HBO, the first being Margaret Cho, and it’s been 22 years, and I’m friends with Margaret now.” The general public [becoming] more aware of stand-up comedy probably has to do with all of the networks producing more specials over the last few years. Then you start seeing more different voices doing stand-up too, and that’s also helped. But also the Internet has really helped: “Well, if the industry is not ready yet, I’ll just talk to my fans immediately from my phone.” That’s really how I was able to get to a place where I was saying, “I’ve been doing stand-up for 13 years, I’m ready to tour.” I just didn’t know if I had the numbers, I didn’t know if I believed that people would show up to see me, and once people started showing me that they would online, that’s when I launched my first tour. I went out on my first tour just last year and it was during the second half of that year that HBO came and saw it. So many things had to happen for me to be even the second Asian American female stand-up on HBO with a special: I had to believe in myself, the industry had to believe in us a little more and unfortunately Instagram had to exist because that’s where I showed my face to people and kept doing jokes on there. So it was the culmination of those things. Where it’s headed? I hope that I do make it easier for the third Asian American to get a special on HBO.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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