Eugene Lee Yang: “That Asian Guy” On Buzzfeed

We sat Eugene Lee Yang, one of Buzzfeed’s Try Guys, down with Mike Bow, a rising content creator and actor on the digital platform known for his hosting with ISAtv and his own MikeBowShow, inside Siren Studios in Hollywood with one instruction: Talk about what you guys do. What resulted is a conversation about what comes with being an Asian male in the entertainment industry, film school rivalry (USC v. Tisch), why just relying on hard work won’t get you anywhere and, perhaps most importantly, Eugene’s impending Korean jungle juice party.

Mike Bow: I am from Queens, New York.

Eugene Lee Yang: Oh, you’re a New Yorker?

M: Yeah. How about you?

E: That’s awesome! I’m from Texas.

M: Oh nice! Where in Texas?

E: I know, everyone is like, what? (laughs) Austin area.

(Jack Blizzard)(Photo Jack Blizzard)

M: What, why do they say ‘What?’

E: Well, because you know because people have an idea of Texas — which is usually accurate — but I’m from the cool part of Texas. But, I’m also not really from the cool part of Texas. Because Austin is really awesome, but I’m from a small town north of there so … yeah, my upbringing was very conservative.

M: Okay.

E: Yeah, very, very, very, but it’s all good now.

M: It’s funny because everyone that I’ve ever met from Texas does not have that Texas accent you think they have. All my Texas friends have no accents.

E: I had a crazy accent as a kid though.

M: Oh did you?

E: Yeah, but my older sister beat it out of me in middle school because she said, “How you gonna expect to get into an Ivy League school if you sound like a back country hilly?” And this is coming out of a — think of a small Korean girl saying this. And then she got into Yale.

M: With her accent?

E: Without her accent! Because she was that kid who was pretty much like, “I am going to speak properly.” She sounded like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka.

M: Yeah.

E: “Daddy, I want the golden goose!” That was my sister. … But I lost my accent because she hit me a lot.

M: Was she older?

E: Yeah, she’s older. I had very violent sisters.

E: Oh yeah so you went to film school?

M: Oh yeah.

E: Where did you go?

M: I went to NYU.

E: Oh sweet! I went to USC, nice. Okay. … When did you graduate?

M: 2012.

E: 2012. And then how did you get into doing YouTube videos and online videos?

M: I’m an actor too, so I always wanted to see videos, watch other Asian YouTubers, and everything. … I think what finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back was [when] I worked on a Wong Fu video. It was weird seeing them do it. And I was like, you just got to do it.

E: Yeah.

M: Opposed to, I was like, “I’ve got to make sure it’s perfect and I don’t want to put anything out there until I’ve looked everything over.” You just to do it. And then that happened my last year of college and it’s so different than acting. It’s another way to creatively express yourself and also connect with people, too. So I kind of did them both at the same time. Did you do YouTube first or BuzzFeed first?

E: I was actually doing freelance music video and commercial directing and writing way before BuzzFeed. After I graduated college, I was doing that for like five years. And then I joined BuzzFeed on a whim when it was kind of in its infant stages as a production company for video. And then I was just there at the right time because right after I joined, we started getting that huge wave of recognition and all our videos were getting way more viral. It wasn’t necessarily because of me, but we had a lot of great people coming in at the same time. And that was before it was people thinking of us. Now people see us and think, oh, we are this production company and we also represent talent a certain way. So all of this media like the Try Guys and Ashley and everyone, we all came from different backgrounds — not necessarily in front of the camera. Most of us thought we were coming just to produce videos. And then you never have people around so you grab your friends to throw them on camera. Any sort of popularity I have is really just based on the audience reaction, which is really cool and very surprising to me because I don’t think I am relatable at all as a human being, but apparently I am. People like crass Asians, I guess.

M: (laughs) Because there is not enough of them!

E: I guess so. Every Asian I know is kind of evil inside. Am I’m not supposed to say that in this interview, though, right? One of my most popular tweets — well, I’m not so good at tweeting because I never have clever thoughts that are appropriate. But I was like, “I don’t understand why people think Asian women are shy. If they are quiet, it’s just because they are thinking of ways to kill you.” That resonated with people a lot.

M: And then every Asian woman retweeted it.

E: And was like, “Yes!” I am constantly thinking of ways to kill people. I was like, “Yeah, that’s how we roll.”

M: Tweets like that are good nowadays for that whole “model minority” thing.

E: Oh yeah, I guess that plays into it. That does play into the reason, I guess, why I became so much more resonant with the Asian community. Because I get a lot of people who talk to me about the model minority myth. Yeah, that’s important, I think. I always say the diversification of us on-screen is even more important than just the opposite of what we are currently seeing. I mean for example, we talk about the emasculation of Asian men often. It’s important to have, of course, masculine males on screen. But it’s also important to have feminine men on screen. Like we have to have the wide swatch of it, otherwise everyone is going to have that issue. You know Asian friends who actually have these self-esteem issues and they have insecurities about that and it’s not going to help young boys feel comfortable [by] only saying, “We don’t want to look like that because we are going to be butch.” And I’m like hell, be whatever you want. Put on a skirt, I don’t care. I actually wish I could wear skirts more. I really want to wear skirts. I tell this to every stylist I meet.

M: So I think it’s funny that you mentioned Asian roles in leads because I actually just saw you on the red carpet at the CAPE event. I was covering it for ISAtv.

E: You were at the end right? Were you wearing a navy suit?

M: I was in the corner. Yes.

E: Yup, I’m very good at remembering people’s clothes.

M: You were the only one with a bluer suit than me. And mine was pretty blue.

E: Oh, mine was annoyingly blue. I looked like a big gay blueberry. (laughs)

M: Bringing it back to Willy Wonka.

E: That was a compliment by the way, totally complimenting myself.

M: [My red carpet interviews were] like a real quick thing, asking [attendees] their favorite moment, their favorite Asian American moment of 2016 and an Asian American moment they would love to see happen in the future. And the biggest answer was: more leading Asian roles being role models you can look up to, and that affect Asian males and gives them something to say, “Yes, this is something that represents me!”

E: Exactly. I feel like we are under this pressure, especially as young Asian men in media, to swing very hard in the opposite direction of this stereotype. Eventually it’s going to come to a point where there are enough roles out there that we can diversify those things, but I understand the sentiment where people like that I am crass and inappropriate and hyper-aggressive. I appreciate that people respond to it in a way that feels constructive. Do you come across that when people watch your videos?

M: Yeah, they –

E: You’re like, “Oh no, I’m not as disgusting as you.” (laughs)

M: No, no, no. There’s an audience for it that there’s not that that silent type that’s out there and it’s human basically. It’s flawed, saying things that are a little more not politically correct, you know? And people, you know, latch onto it. I remember I heard of you before I heard of the Try Guys, for instance.

M:Did the Try Guys come first or was it you?

E: Oh no, it was like we were individual producers and are still producing our own content as a sort of multi-hyphenate. So we are working on our own projects as well, and the Try Guys is one of our joint projects. But all of us are kind of like mini-production companies within ourselves. But Try Guys came later, about a year after we had all joined BuzzFeed when we just started reiterating our cast in a number of videos. It started to resonate really well with the audience. And so we were like, we might as well just serialize it and see how it goes. And that’s what brought us here. But they are like brothers for me now. But I know with Asian Americans especially, I was always “That Asian guy from BuzzFeed” originally. But then now I’m Eugene from BuzzFeed, which is great.

M: How does that feel?

E: It feels good. I try to separate – again, we are talking about perceptions of Asians in new media vs. how I see myself – and sometimes there is a disconnect. You know, I think being an influential viral producer and personality, especially when we are people of color, we have to navigate really carefully. Right? So I am not saying that I purposefully act a certain way to make a point, but if I have an opportunity to curse, I will curse. That’s just me in general. But I do see that when some, well most, young Asians we are generally seen in society as quieter and less – we have less of a “don’t give a fuck” attitude – that we’re never associated with. So any time that I am allowed to express that on camera, I make sure that I do it with gusto. Just so that it doesn’t seem like I’m acting or I’m happening upon it, but really it’s just me. It’s funny because that is a part of my personality I always thought I would have to hide if I was to be on camera or in any sort of production whether it be on internet or in traditional media. But that’s the beauty of the internet, that’s is where you can do it, you know? If anything, that is where we start seeing [that] the audience actually wants to watch it. That’s where I always say that it’s not necessarily the anti-stereotype, but it’s just being able to be authentic to yourself [that] people respond to first. If that happens to be a fun, outgoing, crass-type, that’s great.

M: Bonus points!

E: Exactly. But, I think that honesty with yourself and being able to own that and project that without a studio trying to craft you into a certain type – that’s why people are leaning so hard into things like YouTube and videos across platforms that are not traditional.

M: I wonder if how different our personalities would have been if we didn’t find this stuff out from making videos and seeing what people were responding to.

(Photo Jack Blizzard)

(Photo Jack Blizzard)

E: Yeah, if we went straight in as actors in the traditional film industry. Do you feel like you’d be different?

M: It allowed us to bring our true personality up a notch. I can be myself — yeah, I’m actually getting positive feedback from people. “Let’s be more myself!”

E: Well, for me, the best example is before being on BuzzFeed or the internet, I would have cast myself or thought of myself as a very serious individual and I would have thought that my greatest strengths were probably playing into things that I thought were darker. And you know, that is still part of me, but really the internet and the international audience and the comment sections helped me realize that sometimes you are funnier than you think you are. And sometimes thoughts that are maybe too out there, maybe even too ethnic in certain ways, actually resonate with tons of people. I mean, the Santa Claus video — the first thing I say in it was, “Here comes Santa Claus leaving kimchi under your tree” — and everyone loved it! Then most people start the conversation, “What’s kimchi?” And someone is like, “Oh, kimchi is this.” And someone says, “I don’t like it.” And then I find that person and hit them across the face!

M: Do you find that people say you are the same on camera and in person?

E: Yeah, I actually that’s what’s one of the most awesome things about it is that I’m pretty much the same person that you see on camera in BuzzFeed videos because the sort of ideology behind BuzzFeed motion pictures content is really based in authenticity. We first and only put our own producers on screen. Yeah, so you can’t get more authentic than filmmakers having to throw themselves into things like taste tests and then me putting on heels back in the day in 2014 when I first joined. So there is really no way for me to act or hide now because I do have acting experience and I do love the craft, but it is not what I think is most valuable necessarily with what we do in the online space. Because they really just want to see real people being as authentic to their experience as possible. And for me it’s always been discovering through the mirror that is the internet who I was and who I am and what is actually valuable about that, especially for young Asian Americans who are watching. And yeah it just turned out that I was, I guess, the right type of person for this environment because of how unfiltered I am as a personality. But if we went drinking after this, you would get the same ol’ Eugene. Every terrible thing you heard on the internet about me is probably true. But they are not terrible like, “Does Eugene really like hold his liquor well?” or “Does Eugene really like get in people’s faces about stuff?” And I’m like yeah, I do. There’s no artifice there.

M: So [how about] a tolerance video?

E: Oh my goodness. The Try Guys have had two drinking videos. One was where we tested the legal alcohol drinking limit and my — that was fascinating because we all know — well, people don’t know, but people should know. East Asians drink a lot of liquor. A lot. Koreans are the worst.

M: I hear. I’ve never been to Asia, but I hear.

E: Yeah they have highest drinking per capita in the world, twice as much as Russians. South Korea, isn’t that insane? And if you go to Korea after they work, they just do shots of soju until they are completely blacked out. But, I don’t know if that is like genetic or anything. I don’t do that, no.

M: You’ve never gotten that far?

E: No. It was interesting because we were testing our legal alcohol limit and my resistance was higher through most of it. But at one point I was in the illegal area. But I still felt sober in my brain. That was what was the most sobering experience, right? Because I could think I wasn’t drunk, but I was technically drunk. So it is not how drunk you actually are. It’s how drunk you feel you are that is actually more important, you know? Because some people will feel really drunk and they are not actually drunk, which is better because then they could incapacitate themselves. And for me that was a huge learning experience for life because I actually stopped drinking as much after that because I knew that maybe I was more —

M: — it would catch up?

E: Yeah if I was thinking, “Oh, I’m sober,” I’m probably actually not sober. So that was actually really good for me in general. But then of course we followed that up with testing which type of alcohol f–ks you up the most. And that was just us running around trying different liquors and beers. But generally I don’t get hangovers, I don’t get drunk very quickly, so I am one of those bastards.

M: You are lucky. But do you get Asian glow?

E: No, I don’t. I get K-rage.

M: As in, Korean rage? I didn’t know that was a thing.

E: Korean rage is when Koreans drink a little more than they should and they just get really angry about stuff, you know?

E: People don’t know Korean girls go hard. Like when I meet Korean girls and I’m out, and they are like, meet my friends. And I’m like, “Yeah, what do you want?” And they are like, “Johnny Walker, black label shots!” (laughs) Or “Crown Royal shots!” Yeah it is always like makgeolli or soju and like all of it. But, then I go out with my Chinese friends and they are way more chill about it and they are like “Nah, we don’t need all of that right now. I don’t need that business.”

(Staffer: You’ve had makgeolli and soju and beer together right?)

E: That’s like all — you can’t not have all three when you go to K-BBQ.

(S: That’s basically a Korean thing that you just do. You mix all the things together, like, let’s do this.)

M: Korean jungle juice?

E: Yeah, Korean jungle juice! Oh yeah, that’s perfect. I should do that at a party. Korean jungle juice party. I’m introducing all my non-Korean friends to makgeolli and they are all obsessed with it. They didn’t realize it. And you put it with Sprite and it’s just — have you had it?

M: No I’ve never heard of it.

E: We should have brought a bottle here. Everyone should try makgeolli even if you are not Korean. It’s delightful! In Korea they put in a literal giant bowl in the middle of the table and you take smaller bowls and you scoop it and chug it. So you will be drunk by the end because people order like 12 giant bowls. Yeah see, my Korean is terrible, which is awful. My Korean drinking and eating habits are excellent. So when I go to Korea all of my relatives are so angered that I am not fluent and then they watch me eat and drink. So I will purposefully eat and drink as much as possible. And one thing Asian people like across the continent is if you are skinny and if you can eat a lot. It’s like mind blowing to them. … It’s the holy grail of a person! They are like “How you so skinny and you eat so much? I’m so proud of you.” And then they are like, “This is my nephew.” And I’m like chugging the soju and I’m like, “I don’t want any more blood sausage,” but I’m like eating all of it. Oh, I have to be impressive in some way. Yeah that’s that Asian life, right?

M: I wonder if someone has ever realized that and used that to their advantage, you know what I mean? Like to get that toy when they were a kid.

E: That’s me! That’s me every time I go to Seoul, yeah.

M: Do you have any of a lot of close relatives in Korea, or?

E: A lot of my dad’s family is there and then most of my mother’s family relocated after the war to the United States. But because I was so insulated in Texas, I never met them until after my parents divorced. And when I graduated college, I got to go to Korea more. They are all in Seoul or surrounding cities like the mountains. Doing that good ol’ Korean life and have probably never seen one of my videos. But I think that’s great.

M: They don’t have BuzzFeed over there?

E: No, they do. But I really think they have zero interest in watching my Internet. My mother is still trying to figure out with YouTube Red is. I am executive producing and starring in a YouTube Red show that’s going to come out at the end of this year. I announced it to her and sent her the Hollywood Reporter article about it. And so she goes, “Oh OK, so it’s like YouTube, but more red?” I was like, “No, mom. But it’s like Netflix.” But she goes, “Yes, what is Netflix?” And I was like “Ugh, this conversation is not going to go anywhere.”

E: I was just KakaoTalk-ing [my mom] this morning and then she just went into a diatribe about  how I need a new car and that I need to drive safely and is my earpiece in. And I was like “Yes, it’s in. I’m talking to you as I’m driving,” because I talk to her sometimes when I drive to work. And I think most Asian parents, if not all parents, especially Asian parents, spend half the conversation just like nagging you about something. It’s like, “Hi, hello. Have you fixed your car? Oh, Are you driving right now? OK. Are you eating OK? You eating?” It’s always, how much are you eating? Because she always thinks I’m too skinny, which I am. I am too skinny.

E: So what about you? What are your influences when it comes to how you produce digital content? Because I know we are both film students from, I guess, the top two film universities in America. Can I call NYU top two? I don’t know, but I know which one is number one.

M: Woah, woah, woah.

E: I’m just saying, I’m just saying. There are lists released.

M: They are very different. In USC, you have to choose a concentration, right?

E: We have to. They really try to make it a microcosm for the industry, which is why I think people come out prepared for what happens when you enter Hollywood. So it was actually quite a soul-crushing experience, overall.

M: Oh really?

E: It was wonderful, it was exactly what I needed. But, you know, for young artistic kids coming straight out of high school it is difficult because within the program, eventually to even do an undergrad thesis, you have to pitch and get yours chosen. They select only a few individuals who get to make it.

M: NYU, too.

E: Except with them, they will just literally tell you to your face, “It’s not because of your script, it’s because we don’t like to work with kids.” Or, “Oh, we thought you were going to do something more Asian?” You know, it’s like they will get in your face about things like they would in Hollywood. It really puts you in that place where you are like thinking, “How am I going to be more marketable in the actual industry when I leave?”

M: Yeah, more like on the business side of things.

E: Yeah, exactly! NYU, I’ve heard, is more open to other forms of creative expressions and is less regimented in terms of, this is a comedy and a drama, and you have to do this.

M: There’s multiple tracks. Did you guys have experimental?

E: I was an experimental filmmaker, essentially. Most of my work was rather experimental and most of my style was experimental and I did a lot of genre mashing. I was attracted to things that weren’t quite — it wasn’t really explained by category, which is why a lot of my professors were like, you’re very NYU. You have an NYU sensibility. It’s probably better that I went to USC because it did help me understand that I couldn’t just — man, if I was in New York right now and I went to NYU, I would probably be in an art studio basement just like, painting the walls with my hands. I was just that type of kid.

M: Have you been to New York and painted the walls?

E: Yes, I have been. I haven’t painted the walls with my hands yet but I loved the art scene in New York. I’m like super into it. That that was my background. I was a hyper-artistic kid almost to the point where I was a painter at one point. I was doing all the fine arts in such a way where viral media was not the logical place for me to go. So everything I was doing was essentially the opposite of what would be considered mainstream. Or at least my sensibilities, you know? But I think times are changing, the environment is changing. A lot of it is because of the internet. But getting on BuzzFeed and people reacting in that way and being like, “Oh you are mainstream,” or, “Your perspective is valid,” is kind of the best thing about the job that we do, right?

M: Yeah.

E: It’s because we can then hopefully bring that artistic film school snobbery to the masses! Because I’ve actually done a lot of high-concept work at BuzzFeed. So it hasn’t all just been me on camera. I have the two biggest hits on YouTube hits for BuzzFeed. One was called “If Disney Princes Were Real” and another one was “Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History.” That one was very much in the vein of old-school Eugene before the internet, which was high-concept music video, art style —

M: You know you’re talking about yourself like, as a character?

E: Yeah. Way back Eugene.

M: Season One Eugene!

E: Yeah, but it’s interesting. Without BuzzFeed, or the way the internet’s ideology works, I wouldn’t have been able to create that package and make it so marketable. I shot it in a very artistic way. But the entire concept is sort of informed by this whole like great grand communicator that the internet is. It essentially visually lined up the whole female form from since ancient Egypt all the way to the last hundred decades. And just kind of smashing them side by side, gave this idea of body types are so ephemeral that idea that this idea that we strive toward is almost ridiculous even though you could look at each one individually and really appreciate it. And it’s just morphed so much! Even in the past five years. That is one of those things where that video is so resonant, especially for young women. But it also allowed me to just kind of exercise that art director arm, that USC-educated arm. But, I think that is really what is going to be the type of media that I think people are going to be sharing way more in the near future. It’s cool to be a part of that. I think that’s the best part about being a viral producer, is that impact is so direct. People can immediately respond and share, and own the experience of watching it together in a way that’s tangible as opposed to a sort of morphous traditional media, you know, where you have a reviewer and a critic see a movie and it’s like you paid to go see it in the theater. It’s a very different experience.

M: Starting off with painting and traditional fine art, this is the paint of this generation basically.

E: Oh, that’s very poetic.

M: Thank you!

(Photo Jack Blizzard)(Photo Jack Blizzard)

E: The internet especially has allowed for what I think is the keyword these days: multi-hyphenated, which I refer to myself as, to be able to stretch all the different aspects of filmmaking from writing to editing to producing to acting. You naturally kind of have to do all of that as a new media creator because many times, if you’re even just vlogging, you have to edit your own stuff, you have to know how to upload it to the internet, you have to shoot it and light it. Before, everything was so regimented and you had to be different things. … Now it’s all like that one package is what is sort of the new era of young. Even big celebrities also have to do that. They are creating their own stuff, they also have to be relevant and authentic and they have to open up their lives. And directors are now also writers and writers are also actors and it’s kind of been opened up to the masses, which is so great because it used to be “Oh, only George Clooney can go from being a writer to an actor.” But now younger people like us who are coming with the internet, we are already doing it, you know? We are already training ourselves in t