Way back in the day, when I was starting my acting career in Chicago (I’m talking waaaaay back, in the Dark Ages of pagers and dot matrix printers) I got sent out on one of my first commercial auditions, for Ace Hardware. You know, the place with the helpful hardware man? They were looking for Japanese businessmen. You had to go dressed in a dark suit. No particular age, no particular type; if you were Asian, you got called in. There wasn’t that big a pool of Asian talent in Chicago, back then. They’d take the mailman, if he were Asian.
A bunch of us were herded into a photographer’s studio. We were to pretend to be in an Ace Hardware store, gawking and pointing at the spectacular inventory! Each of us got a little prop: a camera, a camcorder, a calculator, big black round Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s eyeglasses. Ruh roh…
Mickey, Mickey, that’s not fine…
The props weren’t the most offensive thing. That honor went to the ad copy. It was, at first, undecipherable. I recall it went something like this:
Japanese Businessman 1
Rook ovel thele! Ovel thele!
Japanese Businessman 2
These plices ale unberievabre!
Japanese Businessman 3
This stole has evelything!
It took me a few reads before I decrypted the copy. To give it that funny Japanese flava, the writer had taken all “l’s” and replaced them with “r’s” and all “r’s” and replaced them with “l’s.” The spot ends with the awed businessmen happily clustering together and singing:
Ace is the prace fol the herpfur haldwale man!
I mean, seriously, WTF? Putting aside how incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed it was, the writing just MADE NO SENSE at all. Not even phonetically. The copywriters couldn’t even be bothered with figuring out how the dialect sounded; they just remembered that those kooky Japanese folk had trouble with “r’s” and “l’s,” and switched ‘em all around. They should have just written “To be spoken in the manner of Mickey Rooney.”
Did I go through with the audition? Yes, of course I did. It was hard enough for an Asian guy to get any commercial auditions in Chicago, let alone a national one. I was just out of school and didn’t want to make waves, so I sucked it up and gaped and guffawed, joined the black-suited chorus singing mangled hosannas to the men in red. But it rankled, and set off a hair-trigger defensiveness in me for any audition that had an accent in it, which, for a while, was pretty much every on-camera audition I got. It was bad enough to play the Chinese waiters or delivery boys, but to put on the ching-chong… oy.
It wasn’t until I got to Los Angeles, in a more racially sensitive atmosphere, where there was a more visible (and vocal) Asian presence, that my views on Asian accents changed. For one thing, the roles I was getting were better. I learned the delicate, melodic tonality of Tibetan-accented English for a monk in “Family Law” and began to see that accents, if done correctly, could actually be inspiring, rather than demeaning. That to put on an effective Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese accent required as much skill as an East London or Mississippi dialect. Granted, most producers/directors didn’t care what accent it was as long as it sounded vaguely Asian, but I could take the ching-chong they wanted and imbue it with finesse.
Of course, now, as a voiceover actor, accents are my stock in trade— all kinds, but predominately Asian ones. And with a few notable exceptions, I’ve felt very comfortable with all the voices I’ve done. Hong Kong, Singapore, Lao, Indian, Buddhist cows and Eurotrash dragons… It seems most producers are very careful not to go overboard with the accents (“just a hair of an accent,” they tell me, and “dial it back to just a flavor,”); most of my Asian cartoon characters haven’t even had accents at all (to which you might ask, “why do they have to hire an Asian actor if the character doesn’t even sound Asian, and I would answer “Shut up, why you wanna be taking food out of my baby’s mouth?”). Even when the accents were part of the humor, like on the late, great “King of the Hill,” it was written with a fair amount of cultural sensitivity and, more importantly, specificity.
All is fine in this post-racial world.
Or… maybe not.
Last week I went into my agents to read for a very popular primetime cartoon series. Primetime! Score! Then I saw the copy. I knew there was trouble ahead when I read the title of the episode. It was called… uh… well, let’s just say it was the name of the show, but with a “r” replacing an “l”. Ruh roh…
I was auditioning for the voice of an Asian dry cleaning man. It goes downhill from there. The humor was all about how funny the guy spoke, his fractured English and his loud, strident, tirades. This lasts for for two scenes. There were jokes about eating dogs, penis size and putting “pee pee in your Coke.” I was shocked, not at the content, but that these tired tropes were still being peddled TODAY. The show is known for being edgy, defiantly un-PC, and these are the best jokes it could come up with? It wasn’t witty, it wasn’t clever. The humor was derived entirely from trying to be post-post-racial. “Look at us! We’re naughty ‘cause we’re getting away with trotting out all the old offensive stereotypes!” It was like racist nostalgia. Reading those lines pushed on all my well-worn buttons of outrage, but I could only summon up a kind of weary sadness. Aren’t we beyond this? Are we still in the Dark Ages?
But unlike back then, this time I said no. I tried to working on it by myself, tried to find some irony, inject some spin, some finesse, but in the end I kept thinking of my son Benjamin, and how he might one day see this episode, and hear my voice coming out of that character, and… I couldn’t. So I turned in the copy and took a pass. I suppose there’s a place for this kind of television, and I wouldn’t deny anyone the right to watch it, but it doesn’t mean I have to participate.
My agents were completely sympathetic. To save it from being a completely wasted trip, they had me read instead for a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Two dim-witted crows and a flying monkey. No accent required. Excellent.