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Jiaoying Summers rarely prepares for her comedy routines. “I don’t go over my jokes before I go on stage.”
After going viral online with her humorous skits, Jiaoying Summers has become an award-winning comedian, performing at various venues including the Apollo in Manhattan.
As she gets ready to perform in Boston in December, Summers sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss her career and the challenges Asians face in the entertainment industry.
Summers’s rise in the world of comedy was an unlikely one. Only 11% of comedians are women, and only 5.4% are Asian. When she got started performing, Summers recalls seeing little representation at comedy shows and events. Today, she is headlining comedy shows across the country.
Summers grew up in the Chinese province of Henan, where she had aspirations of making it big in the entertainment industry. “I just remember, I wanted to become an actress, I wanted to perform, but in the traditional Chinese beauty standard, I was not a beautiful girl,” Summers said. “They want the light skin.”
Colorism didn’t just impact Summers as she sought to build her career, it also deeply affected her childhood. “I had to hide myself.” Reinforcement of these ideals also came from her own family. Summers recalls a time when her mother didn’t want her to wear a pink dress and said to her, “Your skin is too dark, you’re going to pollute pink.” Summers remembered wondering, “How can I pollute pink?”
Summers thought that she might be able to find more opportunities in the United States. “When I was 18 years old, I convinced my mother to send me to university in America,” she said. “I got my first offer from the University of Kentucky, so I went from China to Kentucky,” Summers said with a laugh.
Once in the U.S., Summers had to balance supporting herself and learning to live in a new country with her aspirations of becoming an actress. “I was doing 20 hours working on campus making pizza,” Summers said. She worked so intensely in the hopes of learning English faster, as she thought anyone would fire her if she couldn’t keep up.
After college, Summers moved to Los Angeles and spent many years struggling to break into the film industry. She realized there were new challenges in the United States. “I wasn’t getting a lot of roles I wanted because of my accent,” Summers said. Rejections piled on.
One day in 2016 while auditioning for the show “Rebel,” she got some advice from an actor who had made it — John Singleton. According to Summers, he showed her a video clip of a stand-up comedy show and encouraged her to enter the space.
Summers wasn’t convinced. “I was like, I can’t even make it memorizing a script. How can I make it writing everything, performing everything on stage by myself — in a second language?”
Before working up the courage to launch her standup career, Summers traveled to China for the Shanghai Film Festival in 2017. There, she met the man who would become her ex-husband and he convinced her to move back to China permanently. Upon trying to enter the Chinese film industry though, she was faced with impossible beauty standards. “The producer and directors would be like, first of all, you lose 30 pounds,” Summers remembers them saying. “Secondly, we need to do some Botox.”
She began bleaching her skin and losing weight and remembers how intensely it impacted her. “I just started vomiting.” Summers said. “I was just disgusted by myself and the environment.”
Having exhausted her options, she returned to the United States to follow Singleton’s advice and pursue the only pathway into the entertainment industry she had left: comedy.
“I don’t remember what happened, I just remember I wasn’t funny,” Summers said of her first open mic in Los Angeles. She remembered overhearing an audience member say, “She doesn’t even speak English, what’s wrong with this b*tch?”
After that, “I went to my car, sat in it, and started crying,” she said. It was in the aftermath of this failed attempt at startup that she began telling herself jokes about what had happened. Soon, it clicked: “The good jokes come from life.”
After starting to feel confident about pursuing standup professionally, Summers rented out space to open up her own comedy club on LA’s Melrose Avenue. She had to close the club shortly after due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but continued using the space to practice her routine. Furthermore, the pandemic forced her to turn her attention to social media. She would post different skits and see what worked and was able to gain an impressive following. “I started with zero followers to now, combined, over two million,” Summers said. “It takes years and years to find your voice.” Based on the social media response, Summers would incorporate the most popular jokes into her comedy routines.
Still, the path to success remained difficult, as discrimination is common in comedy. “On the open mic stage, you can see the true racism and sexism towards you,” Summers said. Summers recalls how vulnerable performing on stage made her feel. Unlike other art forms, there are no visual effects, props, or backing tracks to assist a comedian — it was just her. Summers said people would ask if she was a nurse, make fun of her accent, and ask inappropriate sexual questions.
Summers also explained that she felt that women of color had to do far more work than white men to reach the same level of success in comedy. “There’s five white guys, one diversity hire,” she said. “We actually fight for that same spot.”
When asked about the goals she has when performing, Summers said she wants to “humanzie Asian American women.” “We’re not perfect doctors or perfect massage therapists,” she said. “We are human. We have our flaws, our struggles.”
With routines that poke holes in offensive stereotypes and make light of life in general, Summers has been able to provide the visibility she set out to create. “We are educated and taught to not express our shortcomings,” she said. “I wanted to show my shortcomings, my failures, my weird point of view. To humanize us.”
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