Bobby Lee on Hollywood's lack of Asian roles, sobriety and an ambush from a naked fan
Bobby Lee is a comedian and actor who gained notoriety in San Diego comedy clubs before moving on to a featured role on Mad TV for eight seasons. Lately he's been known for his numerous Chelsea Lately appearances and landing parts in films like The Dictator and the Harold and Kumar go to White Castle series. Lee is in town to headline Denver's esteemed Comedy Works Larimer Square all weekend; in advance of that run, Westword caught up with Lee to discuss Hollywood's lack of roles for Asian actors, getting sober with comedians' support, and an ambush from a naked fan in his dressing room.
Westword: Have you been to Comedy Works before?
Bobby Lee: This is my first time. I've been trying to get in for years but just wasn't able to get in. I've played every club in America except this specific club. Because of the amount of big acts they bring in and since there are only a certain number of weeks in a year, there were never any openings. I'm happy that I got in. I'm pretty sure it's at the downtown club.
I kind of prefer the downtown club. It's more of a classic underground comedy club.
I did the Denver Improv when it first opened and it was like the worst human experience of my life. I felt like I was working at a sweatshop. It's out in the middle of nowhere.
I'm pretty sure they're under different management now, but yeah, it's still closer to the airport than where most people live.
I remember crying after every show. I really did. I was really sad. I'm so happy to come back to a different club this time.
Do you usually take a feature out on the road with you or do you tend to let the club furnish that?
I bring my own features everywhere. I don't trust other people. I've been in situations before when the club gave me a feature whose first ten minutes was about rape. That's not what I want to reflect on my show.
I also like to bring girls, so I'm bringing Jodi Miller, she's super fun. I'm very excited about her. Denver is a pretty liberal city, right?
In some ways. More culturally than politically. Social liberalism is the prevailing attitude among college-educated white people, who seem like the city's main demographic.
That's my favorite kind of white people. I'm actually a white guy. People think I'm Asian, but it's really just jaundice.
You started out with standup, but then took a long break to be on Mad TV. Did your notoriety make it easier or harder to get back out there and work out new material?
Well, after Mad TV ended, I was sort of forced into doing standup and because things had just dried up for me in L.A. No one was calling. I have bills and shit so I started doing standup and going out on the road. The first couple years, I didn't like it. I absolutely love it now. In many ways, I now I would rather do this than anything else.
You have more control over your own destiny.
That's what it is. In L.A. you have to wait in line and hear a lot of "no's." I know how funny I am. I'd rather kind of take the power back. Standups are lucky in that way. You hear nightmare stories about auditioning -- I was on a sitcom two years ago, it was on NBC and it got cancelled right away. I was in a couple of movies that didn't do well. You have no control over those things. People lie to you.
I think that standup has more integrity. Instead of some executive deciding what they think people will like, you have an audience that will either laugh or not laugh.
Business in general is brutal, so you might as well do a thing that you know you're good at, and you're entertaining the people who came out to the show. I can feel good about that.
Yeah, that's the silver lining of drudging through the ennui of building an act. In moments of doubt, you can at least be like, "Hey, they fucking laughed. I did something."
I love it. Plus, in Hollywood, there's like a one-Asian-per-year policy. For many years, I got to be the Asian guy. Then it was Ken Jeong. Ken and I are very good friends, and I'm happy for him, but I'm not going to wait in that line anymore, you know?
I was going to ask this later, but since you just brought it up, I'll ask now. As you mentioned, show business is ruthless, so I know you have to take nearly any role you can get, but are you frustrated by the dearth of roles for Asian American actors?
Well, I could look at my career --I did eight years on Mad, I was in The Dictator and two of the Harold & Kumar movies, I've done eighty Chelsea Lately episodes; I've done so many things. When I look back at my career as a whole, I've done way more than I thought I'd ever do. I did a movie in Bangkok with Michelle Yeoh. I'm not one of those ethnic guys who hate other ethnic people.
I wasn't implying that at all.
Yeah, I know.
I meant in terms of what roles are available and the one-size-fits all nature of some of those roles? For example, you've portrayed Chinese and Japanese characters before, have you ever felt like, "Come on, man, they fought a fucking war with my ancestors?"
Do some damn research, casting directors!
Yeah, when I was on that NBC show I played a Japanese character, and my dad was mad. He said, "They oppressed us for fifty years, and now you play one on TV?" I mean, what am I going to do, say no?
As a fan of movies and racial sensitivity, that's always been a real pet peeve of mine. I don't even like it when Brad Pitt pretends to be Irish.
Like I said, when it comes to just a general Asian role, you have to take it. It's not like I could play Malcolm X or Abraham Lincoln. Those roles are completely out for me. Trust me, I've tried.
"Korean Lincoln" actually sounds a bit like a rejected Mad TV sketch.
It's getting better for Asian-American actors, though. When I started in the '90s there was literally no one on TV who looked like me. At least when you turn on the TV -- and I'm friends with pretty much all the Asian actors -- you see Masi Oka, Sandra Oh, Steve Byrne, John Cho, Ken Jeong. You see it happening and feel encouraged. It could be better, but at least there's progress.
Speaking of Steve Byrne and Ken Jeong, have you guys thought about doing post-regime change Kims of Comedy tour?
Steve and I have talked about it, but our schedules are so fucked up that like it's extremely difficult. Ken doesn't do standup anymore. On top of that, we'd have to split the money, and Steve and I make much more on our own. Also, when we first did the Kims of Comedy, nobody really cared. We felt like it was a dead horse. Maybe it was too ahead of its time.
You've all risen in prominence since then. I had no idea Ken Jeong ever did standup.
He used to be my fucking doctor, dude. When I was detox-ing off of Vicodin -- because I got really addicted to Vicodin -- I called him every hour, just like, "I'm dying." Then he'd tell me I wasn't dying. Cut to seven years later and now he's way bigger than me.
You'll always be able to say he was there for you when you were sweating through a mattress.
I have eleven years sober now, but a lot of comics came to my defense back when I was sick. Duncan Trussell would come over and make me fish because I was so sick.
That's a gnarly detox, too. Pretty much just as bad as heroin.
Yeah, I was just a shit factory for a couple weeks.
As someone who's appeared in no less than three stoner movie classics, do people constantly offer you weed that you have to politely decline?
Yeah after shows a lot of people come up and hand me drugs. But when I do podcasts, or interviews, I really try to put it out there that I'm sober. It's not one of those things I'm embarrassed by. I'm stoked about it. When people hand me weed, it doesn't bother me, but I'll just say "thanks" and then hand it back.
They mean well.
They want me to be happy! If they were giving me razor blades, then I'd be like, "Okay, something's wrong here." It's a happy thing. But I can't do that. You know, I hang out in bars every night. If I were going to relapse, harder drugs are just a phone call away. Also, I have a girlfriend now and sometimes girls come up after the show, so now I pretty much just go straight to my hotel room after a show. One time, a few years ago when I was doing a show in Chicago, there was a fat naked girl just waiting in my dressing room. How did she sneak past everybody? She started saying, "I'm such a huge fan" and I backed away and said, "You need to get the fuck out of here." She was like a white Precious. I had a girlfriend, so I didn't do anything.
Oh man. It probably would have been a better story if you had, but yeah, I get it, not worth crumbling your life over.
What were we talking about before that?
Oh, just about if any Harold and Kumar fans offered you weed. This is Denver, though, so people are pretty likely to throw joints at your feet onstage like bouquets to a bullfighter. So, do you have anything else on the horizon before we wrap up?
I'm on a cartoon with Seth Meyers called The Awesomes, which is on Hulu. I do a voice on that. I did a pilot, but we don't know about that yet. Other than Chelsea Lately and the road.
Have you thought about working to put together a special?
I have so many offers, and people saying I should do it, so yeah, I think I'm going to do it. I had this paranoia that casting directors don't take comics seriously. Now I feel like it doesn't fucking matter, I've got so much material and people want me to do it, so I'm going to do it. I don't know exactly when, but this year some time.
Lee is headlining at Comedy Works from Thursday to Saturday, June 12 through June 14. For showtimes and to buy tickets, go to the Comedy Works website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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