Warning: watching Steven He’s comedy sketches on YouTube may lead to “emotional damage” as well as gut-busting laughs. The classically-trained actor has been lighting up YouTube with short routines on the foibles of Asian-American family life that draw tens of millions of views worldwide. Now he’s spearheading a collaboration dropping today between seven top Asian comedy content creators: Jeenie Weenie and Johnny Ong, Nigel Ng (“Uncle Roger”), TwoSetViolin, Nathan Doan and Joma Tech, who together account for nearly 50 million followers and half a billion monthly views across their different social platforms. It’s part of a growing trend of user-created content giving voice – and a nice revenue stream – to a new generation of global creators.
He, 25, pursued his acting ambitions the old-fashioned way at first, obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in acting that he decries as “worse than useless” before graduating from the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse conservatory. But after auditioning for thousands of acting jobs with only spotty results, and seeing whatever traction he’d gained dissipated by the pandemic, He picked up his cell phone, donned a red t-shirt and blazer, and began creating homemade short-form videos for TikTok.
He drew on his unusual background for material. After spending his first 8 years in China, He’s family emigrated to Limerick, Ireland, and he spent his teen years going back and forth between two different worlds. Eventually he settled in the United States and became immersed in the vibrant first-generation Asian-American culture of hard working traditional parents setting impossibly high expectations for their Westernized kids, while clamoring for status in their new society.
Eventually, he developed his breakthrough character, “Asian Dad,” a self-important, hilariously pragmatic Chinese father specializing in “failure management” – that is, humiliating his perpetually disappointing teenage son (also played by He, who does most of his videos solo). Asian Dad is relatable because, despite being specifically Asian, he’s a universal type that anyone with immigrant roots, or an ancestral memory of immigrant roots, or parents, can identify with.
He’s dead-on parody of the staccato Chinese-English accent is also a source of humor, albeit a controversial one in these politically-sensitive times. He intends it in the grand “funny accent” tradition of Monty Python’s exaggerated Britishisms or Eddie Murphy’s African prince: a knowing, cultural-insider piss take on a familiar trait, rather than a derogatory stereotype. He says he has never received negative comments from fellow Asians; only occasional objections from white audiences uncomfortable about “laughing down” at marginalized groups.
He’s success came slowly, then all at once. He posted dozens of videos, carefully observing the kind of material that broke through to audiences and lit up the metrics of opaque platform algorithms. “After studying hundreds of videos and collecting hundreds of channels worth of data, I figured out a few things,” He said. “But it still took me 220 videos before I got significant views.”
After crossing a million views on TikTok, He migrated to YouTube where he says the opportunities to grow and monetize an audience around longer form content are much richer and better developed. In February, 2021, He broke through with a skit called Asian Parents Going Through Your Room. “That just blew the whole channel up, and for the first time, I started to think of YouTube as a full time career.”
He then hit the content-creator jackpot: he became a meme. Asian Dad’s angular exclamation “E-MO-shun-al DAMM-age!” tickled the funny bone of audiences worldwide, anchoring his lexicon of catch phrases (“Failure!” “What the HAIL,” “Beijing Corn” and “I will send you to Jesus!” among them) and driving He’s channel into upper echelons of YouTube with 4.7 million subscribers (10.4 million across all platforms) and billions of total views of his content. He’s continued to grow and monetize, despite weathering a few of YouTube’s arbitrary “Ad-pocalypses,” where the algorithm’s incentive structure changes suddenly, driving views, engagements and creator revenue down as much as 90%.
Around this time, He had an epiphany about his acting ambitions. “I took a step back and I looked at what’s important to me, why I’m an actor in the first place,” he said. “I’ve really loved making people’s day, even as far back as when I was 13 and was in a student play featuring famous animated characters in China. I was just playing a sheep with a silly big head, but afterwards a little five year old boy came backstage and just burst out ‘I love you! You’re my favorite sheep!’ And from that second on, I was an actor and there was not a thing anyone could do about it!”
He says he realized YouTube could provide a bigger audience and more control that traditional opportunities in stage or screen. “I’m quite satisfied to bring laughter to 100 million people and actually make a living do it. That means a lot to me. Of course I will always love acting, being on film set, but I have not had a lot of fun doing endless auditions. This way, I’m taking things into my own hands and producing my own material.”
He’s success is part of a larger wave of Asian-oriented sketch comedy that’s breaking big on YouTube and other video platforms. Anglo-Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng roasts European attempts at Asian cuisine in his persona of Uncle Roger (14.5M followers across various platforms), former flight attendant Sandra Kwon ascended into the stratosphere as Jeenie Weenie (12.9M). Taiwanese-Australian duo TwoSetViolin makes humorous musically-themed reaction videos (6.7M), Vietnamese-American Nathan Doan has been posting general sketch comedy since 2016 (3 M), while Canadian Jonathan Ma mines the rich vein of technology-oriented humor as “Silicon Valley’s least eligible bachelor” Joma Tech (2.1M).
After a couple of 1-on-1 collaborations, He decided to organize a “summit meeting” featuring all these content creators playing their signature characters, that took place last month. “There are three videos – one improv parody of Shark Tank that we shot live with 7 cameras, and two other scripted sketches.”
He said the goal is to build the combined audience to a critical mass that will help everyone and open more opportunities for monetization and expression. “This first one is an experiment, but I’m hoping it will be successful enough that we can make it a tradition, maybe once or twice a month.”
Even prior to the official release of the videos today, He says previews posted on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have racked up more than 20 million views. He hopes that surge of interest is part of a long-term, sustainable trend for Asian creators worldwide. “I’ve often been approached by Asian fans telling me they used to open Youtube and never see an Asian face,” he said. “Now they are so proud to see us on the front pages, the trending boards. It’s a true honor.”
As for his own future, He is thinking small. He wants to get back to the run-and-gun, DIY ethos of his earlier videos and expand beyond the Asian Dad character. But job one is pleasing the fans, he says, so he will listen to his community. “At the end of the day, it’s more important to me what the audience wants to see than what I want to make. I’m not here to express, I’m here to deliver.”