Brenda Song’s controversial sitcom Dads premiered this week and mass audiences got their first chance to judge for themselves the nature and quality of this particular work.
Did she make a bad decision accepting the role knowing what she would have to do in the pilot script? Was she wrong defending her bosses who could be generously described as culturally tone def? Is she really poking fun at stereotypes or perpetuating them?
The answer depends on your time frame.
I wrote my first play sometime around 1988. It was a comedy about a couple who adopts a child only to find out she’s the biological daughter of the husband’s best friend. I wrote it using Apple Writer and printed it out on a dot matrix printer. The funniest line in the script was, “If Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, we’d all have to take the bus to work.” At the staged reading, nobody laughed.
Based on that experience, your advice to me in 1988 would probably have been, “Wait until you’ve experienced life before you decide to write.” In fact, I was advised by some well meaning people to focus my energy in the interim on working with computers.
In 1991, I was getting ready to graduate from NYU with a BFA in Drama. By that time, I knew that acting opportunities for Asian American actors were few and far between. Most of the actors of color I knew had gravitated toward experimental theater. At that time experimental theater involved a lot of frenetic dance, non-linear storytelling and occasional nudity. Doing Western classics was generally closed off to us because Eugene O’Neill, William Shakespeare, and Bertolt Brecht didn’t require actors of color. Well, they did, but how often was someone going to mount a production of The Emperor Jones, Othello or In the Jungle of Cities?
I was advised by one of my teachers to avoid “ethnic” theater because that’s not where any “serious” work is done. That if I worked there, I would get pigeon-holed as an ethnic performer. I was advised by a different teacher that I had to seek out Asian American theater companies because they would be the only ones who could hire me.
Based on that experience, your advice to me in 1991 would probably have been, “Art is for other people, not people like you.” In fact, I was advised by some well meaning people that theater was made and consumed by an elite level of society that I would never be a part of because I wasn’t raised to appreciate it properly. I should concentrate on something more practical, like computers.
By 1997, I had won a grant to write and produce Along for the Ride, an original play about the disillusionment of the American dream faced by a group of friends several years after graduating college, whose lives are intersected by a lost time traveler. Despite the production winning a Best Play award from the SF Weekly, many people viewed the production as a failure. The production lost money while some people asserted Along for the Ride wasn’t Asian American enough to be considered an Asian American play.
Based on that experience, your reaction to me in 1997 would probably have been, “You did your best and your best wasn’t good enough.” In fact, I was advised by some well meaning people that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome was a sign of insanity. Computers was where the real money was.
And yet I continued to write.
I think you know where this story is going.
In 2004 I was accepted into the MFA Screenwriting program at UCLA. Since graduating, one screenplay I wrote has been produced. Since graduating I’ve written four novels. I’m not a household name like Aaron Sorkin but I wrote what I believed and have a few accomplishments to show for my troubles.
They say writing a novel is like driving your car across the country at night with your headlights on. You’re traveling thousands of miles but can only see a few dozen feet of road in front of you at any one time.
No one back in 1988 could have predicted the journey I was to take that would ultimately lead me to becoming a screenwriter and author living in Los Angeles. The journey was a crooked path fraught with poor judgment, bad decisions, a few culs-de-sac, and some very bleak moments.
What seemed like a bad idea twenty five years ago may turn out to be a crucial first step but only in hindsight. What seemed like a foolish choice fifteen years ago may turn out to be the failed experiment that smoothed the way for the next project. Likewise, what seemed like a life and death choice 10 years ago might barely be a memory today. My epiphany was realizing that I got to choose the timeframe through which to judge my life and I choose to use the entire continuum. Which means I will reserve judging my decisions until my life is done — which, hopefully, isn’t any time soon.
That’s why I have some pity for young people who believe their entire future hinges on one decision or one choice. Which college should I apply to? Which person should I date? Should I move to another city? More often than not, the actual decision isn’t important but the fact that you made one is.
There will always be people in your life who are ready to tell you that you’ve just made the worst mistake humanly possible. The truth is they don’t know… and neither will you… and neither will Brenda Song… for at least another twenty five years.