Emerging comedians win Second City fellowship, celebrate AAPI heritage in 'Youth In Asia' show

Ten emerging comedians have won a four-month fellowship to study at Chicago’s famed The Second City.

The winners are already playing to packed houses.

Comedy is hard, but for Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), becoming a comedian is even tougher. Parents typically hope their children will pursue degrees in science or medicine.

Ateeq Rehman, a working comedian who studied neuroscience in college, surprised his mother with his career aspirations.

"When I told my mom, she said, 'Comedy? You've never made me laugh.'"

Becca Nix Tham's parents reacted similarly.

"That was the same with my dad, who is Chinese Singaporean. He said, 'Why are you wasting your time in comedy? You should do other things.'"

The generation gap is universal and plays out in a sketch they wrote and performed, where a dutiful son tells his mother he is going to the library to study math. However, she hears something very different. In the scene, she believes he said, "Meth, I'm going to be doing meth. And I'm going to make meth because the stuff on the streets isn't strong enough for me."

The comedians say there is a secret to making people laugh. Rehman says it's empathy.

"Being able to connect with the audience, knowing what they're feeling, then you can say this next joke. To modulate yourself to where they are requires empathy."

Nix Tham initially avoided using her Asian culture in stand-up but later incorporated personal information to become more authentic.

"Being Asian, Jewish, queer, all these things are intertwined. There are reasons my life has weird, quirky things that happen because of these things."

Second City Director Evan Mills told the comedians it was up to them whether to include their heritage in comedy.

"I was one of the first Filipinos on the mainstage. That felt like a wonderful responsibility. I had never seen someone like me on that stage, and I got to be that person."

Mills helped select the ten winners of the Victor Wong Fellowship. They spent four months learning the Second City style. Mills said he looked for certain qualities.

"Just seeing who had that spark, who made me laugh, who had that energy with that stage presence."

Their original show ran at Second City during AAPI Month. They titled it "Youth In Asia," a play on words: tragedy and comedy.

The fellows had a reputation to live up to. Second City launched the careers of numerous stars. This generation could become the next Margaret Cho, Ali Wong, or Hasan Minhaj.

Rehman is on tour and says he would like to write comedy professionally.

"I'd love to write for Late Night or Stephen Colbert, who went through Second City."

Nix Tham is a part-time comedian hoping to expand her experience.

"I would love to tour, do stand-up, the Daily Show, write for my own sketch show."

In the math versus meth scene from "Youth In Asia," the mother realizes she has to trust her son to allow him to grow. In art and in life, the parents and children reconcile, learning that ambition and genius can exist in the craft of comedy.

This is the second year the Victor Wong Fellowship has been offered at The Second City, attracting twice as many applicants as last year.