Atsuko Okatsuka wants her grandmother to feel warmer

Photo: Oluwaseye Olusa/HBO

There is a deceptive simplicity to the huge neon waves that make up the background prying, Atsuko Okatsuka’s new hour-long HBO film directed by Tege Notaro. Just like Okatsuka herself, who often wears brightly colored outfits when she gets on stage, the cheerful orange, purple, and pink colors in the set’s design suggest childish whimsy. When Okatsuka debuts in monochromatic blue, swinging her hips and lowering them to a hip-hop beat, the beat changes, and then — just when the dancing starts to get really sexy — she grabs the mic and spins again. She smiles, finishes, and catches her breath as she greets the audience. The effect is at once disarming and relaxing. It’s like Okatsuka hosts a party for people who aren’t quite sure they like parties, and she’s always a thoughtful host, who does a great job of making everyone feel that hating parties is actually okay!

The hour is about an honorary trespasser who makes a series of unwelcome visits to the house Okatsuka shares with her husband during the pandemic. Weave jokes about her childhood as an undocumented immigrant and her current fears, as teens, into the narrative, slowly revealing that the title, prying, may also refer to the comedian herself. By constantly positioning herself as an outsider, Okatska carves out a delicate and complex role for herself: she must maintain the narrative authority of the storyteller while relentlessly reminding us of her own constant uncertainty.

Ultimately, this gracefully balanced show pulls off a punch and delivers a surprisingly triumphant story – and one of the best comedy specials of the year. It asks questions about home, belonging, and trauma without veering into darkness. Instead, framed by neon lights that capture its booming energy, it transforms uncertainty into an hour-long dance with the vacillating self-recovery as much as it is joyful. The comedian recently talked about not always feeling hot, her love of the ballroom, and discovering her superpowers.

There are some great jokes in Your Own Story about the dangers of gravity. What is your relationship to gravity? Do you know it’s hot?
I do! I wasn’t always – and that’s what’s hotter about it! The feeling of heat is Very pleasant.

Dancing makes me feel hot. Especially since the type of dance that I really love to watch and try to embody on stage — or even when I’m home cooking — is ballroom. Dancehall is just so sexy and so, like, your inner gut. It’s so powerful, there are no words – it’s just your body and you.

I feel like a lot of people became aware of my comedy through dancing because of you #DropChallenge Spread on Instagram. Is that accurate?
The people-hunting element comes in different waves. I once did a pose during an earthquake, and it went viral, so a lot of people found me through it.

It was a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. I was performing at the Ice House comedy club in Pasadena in 2019. In the video, you can see what was happening. The camera is shaking as I calm the audience down, make sure they’re okay, and then go straight to the jokes. So I decided to post it, and I got a bunch of followers from that. It’s funny, because you do stand-up for a while and it’s pretty good, but during an earthquake, you know, it’s out of this world, right?

Then I did another video before the pandemic with my grandmother, where she plays the drums and I dance to Shakira, but the drums are like potatoes. So that was another wave. Then there was the #DropChallenge. People find me in different ways. Then they go and dive in really deep, and they’re like, “Oh my God. She’s been doing stand-ups professionally for 13 years.”

I like that your beats gaining a following are emergency, dance, and dance. This is a nice capsule for your brand.
I think this has a lot to do with my childhood as well, how I grew up and how I find myself coping with limited situations. I started trying to make people laugh because I didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable, which is what happens with my family. So I thrive in an emergency, dance…everything is running away from shock, all of that.

You mentioned your grandmother growing up in your own life, and you joke that she held you back, but I’m curious if there are also ways in which she’s hindered you. Did it influence your perspective as a comedian?
My grandmother was very protective, so I had to live with my head in the clouds a lot. When there was trauma, she would try to protect her from me. Like lying to me about coming to live in the US – I thought it would be hard for me to handle, so she lied and said it would be two months off. And even my mother – I remember one time she fell on her forehead, and I ran to help her, but she was trying to shield her face away from me so that I wouldn’t see it. They still try to make a space for me to be a kid and be creative and dream, and because of that, I always try to find the mystery in things.

You talk openly about your mother’s schizophrenia, but you also don’t focus on it or make it a big deal. Was there a turning point when you felt like starting to talk about this part of your experience?
I was too afraid to talk about it, because I just wanted to be a funny comedian. I was very afraid that talking about certain things would alienate or annoy people.

I think of the audience first when I write. I see stand-up comedy like the service industry. I don’t think comedians should use it as a therapy. But when the pandemic hit, and we all started to look inward, I started doing that too, thinking about being really honest with yourself and being honest with yourself, asking Why am I even a comedian in the first place? It’s really a culmination of all the things — including my mom — that made me a comedian. So why don’t I talk about it?

I was really starting to challenge myself to write more about my mom during the pandemic and write jokes about her, but still, you know, I try to make it comedic first, with respect to mental illness. I want more than anything to be normalized rather than this thing that we laugh about or live in trauma with, you know? So it was about finding that happy medium.

Can we go back to gravity? Why didn’t you always feel hot? Then what changed your mind?
Why didn’t I feel hot? I mean, maybe for a lot of reasons not a lot of people feel hot. Whether you’re not fully immersed in your psychosomatic self, your mind is developing at a different rate than your body, environmental factors like high school, or the people around you are saying, “this not hot. this is Hot.” I’ve been insecure a lot of my life. I’ve been trying to be like someone else, sound like somebody else – even in comedy. When I first started, I was trying to sound like Tig Notaro, and I was doing a very deadpan way of speaking, trying Compatibility.

I don’t think it’s just an immigrant thing – I think some people are very confident. Some people know as young as five that they want to be comedians. But sometimes you don’t have that support or even the ability to be exposed to something that could have been your career, so there’s a lot of separation. I guess that made me feel like I’m not hot.

Then those things align for me, finally: feeling secure about my physical body after struggling with an eating disorder when I was in middle school, and finding things that made me happy, like stand-up comedy or the arts in general. Also, seeing other people talk about their insecurities and times they weren’t sure helped. While watching The Margaret Cho Stand – I saw her talk about her eating disorder and the stress of being on America’s first Asian American family sitcom. Seeing that she came out with not only okay but things that made you feel like an outsider, that’s your superpower. And seeing that when comedians perform, we may gather our own army of other people who’ve felt that way — that’s its own superpower. Because of that, I feel hot. And I use lotion now, you know?

Lotion is the answer. Of course.
Yes, I could have said “lotion”.

I feel like there was something else I wanted to ask you about your grandmother…
Oh, are you feeling hot?

Yes, let’s go there. Does your grandmother feel the heat?
I think she can feel the heat.

She’s starting to feel hot and able to have fun for the first time in her life, because she’s been taking care of most of it. People are getting to know her and people are telling her how much she’s changed their lives, and I think that makes her hot, too.

But then, there are times when she’s self-denying. I should be like, “Get that out of your head!” It’s like, “Oh, I’m just an old woman. They’re just seeing an old woman.” I’m like, “No, I swear. Just being out there touching people!” So ​​I try to be an encouragement to her.

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