Upon entering last Friday’s stand-up performance by Jenny Yang ’00 — late, I might add — and finding her personifying her bare stomach, I couldn’t help but be taken aback, and immediately excited, for the next hour. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that the Los Angeles-based actress and comedian’s work has been featured on a variety of media outlets.
Yang performed at Swarthmore as a sponsored guest of the Swarthmore Asian Organization. Her talk was focused on storytelling, and its potency in self-discovery, as well as its utility in leading and interacting with the world. Yang filled “Storytelling For Social Action” with interesting anecdotes from her time at Swarthmore, touching personal stories, and hilarious displays of her comedic talent and public speaking skills. It was clear that Yang has had a tremendous amount of professional comedy experience, but she says her training began more informally in her hometown of Torrance, Calif.
“I was always kind of obnoxious. Since I was a good student and kind of extroverted I could get away with talking back to the teacher and being funny … comedy-wise I was always performing,” Yang said.
It wasn’t until Yang matriculated to Swarthmore, however, that she integrated performance with her passion for social justice and reform. An active voice for SAO in her own right, Yang was a very political student during her time on campus.
“People used to not want to talk to me because they were afraid they were going to say something wrong,” said Yang. She discovered the importance of storytelling by combining her activism with her love of the arts.
“When I came to Swat I performed a lot of poetry with other students because that’s when I realized that you don’t just write this in your own little book, you can actually say it out loud and share it. That was an essential part of my experience here at Swarthmore,” she said.
Despite her comedic talents, Yang followed a different path after graduation. She briefly worked at a non-profit in New York City before moving back to Los Angeles to be close to her family. There, she pursued a master’s in urban planning at UCLA and worked at Service Employees International Union as a labor union activist. While Yang was working in politics, she felt there was something missing in what she called her “yuppie” lifestyle.
“I was working in the labor movement. It was great, but I didn’t feel like I had the creative expression that I wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t able to talk about the issues like I wanted to … what I’m able to do now is a kind of legacy of what I used to do [at Swarthmore], when I was very active on campus in trying to create a fuss,”.
“Creating a fuss,” for Yang, involves a variety of things. She has appeared in multiple Buzzfeed videos (her hit segment “If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say” has 8 million views), been featured on NBC, BBC, and NPR, assisted on the set of Key and Peele and, to top it all off, founded the first ever, mostly female, Asian-American comedy group Dis/orient/ed Comedy. The overriding theme in her disparate ventures, however, is a focus on introspection and storytelling.
Yang emphasized the importance of storytelling for both interpersonal connection and leadership development.
“In the real world I know your intellect is going to get you very far but … honestly what’s going to end up mattering is also the soft skills — your people skills, your ability to move people, your ability to persuade people, to enlist them into your cause,” she said. Storytelling, Yang believes, requires great self-knowledge.
“People respond to people who know themselves, who are authentic, who can communicate their emotions and who they are, that’s how we connect,” she said. “For you as a Swat student who cares about the world, being able to persuade people by telling your story and how you’re connected with others is essential.”
While there is an understandable excitement about Yang as an actor in the entertainment world, she wants to continue on her current path. That means doing more of what she does now — meeting people, hoing workshops, doing stand-up, and hopefully visiting her alma mater at every chance she gets.