Atsuko Okatsuka Explains Why Stand-Up Comedy Is Evolving — IndieWire Honors

IndieWire Honors: The comedian told IndieWire why this year’s lineup of honorees excites her, and how she loves stand-up because it’s an art form that has the ability to evolve fastest.

On November 1, the 2018 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate seven filmmakers and actors for their achievement in creative independence. Los Angeles-based comedian Atsuko Okatsuka will host the ceremony.

Looking at the lineup of creators and actors being honored at this year’s IndieWire Honors event, host Atsuko Okatsuka is excited, because the accomplished actor, filmmaker, and comedian sees it as a sign of how things are different, when it comes to who’s getting to tell stories today.

“More and more, the gatekeepers are changing, and so it is becoming a little more democratic in that the mass audience is actually being heard,” she said, “and that’s why more unique and diverse voices have been able to write and direct.”

This is reflected in part by the honorees selected for this year’s awards, including “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, “Vox Lux” star Natalie Portman, and “Maniac” co-creator Cary Joji Fukunaga.

And it’s also represented in Okatsuka‘s ever-evolving career. The co-founder of all-Asian comedy tour Dis/orient/ed Comedy also has acting credits, including a role in the upcoming season of HBO’s “Room 104.” Recently, she’s been developing an original comedy series for Nerdist, consulted on the Adult Swim show “Soft Focus With Jena Friedman,” and regularly performing stand-up “on the nightly.”

For a sample of her work, check out her hour-long comedy special “They Call Me Stacey” on Hulu, which covers her family history (her parents met as contestants on a Japanese dating show) and some very energetic dancing, which she said is a relatively recent addition to her repertoire. “It’s a weird newfound discovery that I’m going through — maybe it’s also an existential crisis — this new found discovery that I’m really good at twerking,” she said. “I mean, it’s shocking. I don’t know how to process it, but it’s something that I also put on my socials.”

Dancing may have become a big part of her act, but she said that it isn’t limited to just the stage anymore. “A part of my process as a comedian, as a performer, is not only going on stage every night, or writing jokes during the day and then performing it at night, but also just the sort of character and persona that comes with my comedy,” she said.

Okatsuka believes that she doesn’t necessarily adapt her style of comedy too much for what’s happening today, but “what I talk about in persona — politics means a lot to me, social justice and social issues mean a lot to me, and so those are things that I naturally talk about. But I do have this sort of feel-good brand to my comedy.”

She’s conscious of having a persona on stage, but when it comes to the argument surrounding problematic performers like Louis C.K., whose indiscretions, many argue, should be separated from the art, she doesn’t buy it. “I think people should be more bummed about the artist that you didn’t get to hear from, because they were silenced by these people,” Okatsuka said. “Art is humanity, you know, and there were comedians that Louis C.K. did this to, and when they spoke up, their careers, they didn’t even get to see the light of day. Some of them don’t even do stand-up anymore. Think about that special you could have been watching, and how you’re missing out on that.”

While her creative passions are varied, she’s most excited about performing live. “Stand-up really excites me because you know that your set is going well through just one thing — literally just laughter,” she said. “But then, it’s more than that. You always walk away learning something new — not just one thing, but various things from a perspective that usually takes something tragic and spins it.”

And as the format has witnessed in recent months, with the game-changing debut of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” and new experiments like Hasan Minhaj’s comedy, “stand-up has the ability to evolve, maybe the fastest out of many art forms,” she said. “I think it’s the quickest way that you can interact with an audience, with stand-up and get feedback, too. There’s an immediate dialogue that happens with the audience, and I really love that.”

Atsuko Okatsuka will host the 2018 IndieWire Honors Awards on Thursday, November 1 in Los Angeles. 

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