The Crazy Rich Asians star hosted SNL almost two decades after Lucy Liu, and their opening monologues show how times have changed…
On 6 October, Awkwafina hosted Saturday Night Live, and thus became a) the first woman of Asian descent to host in a whopping 18 years, and b) the second woman of Asian descent to ever do so.
No wonder, then, that the Crazy Rich Asians star decided to reflect upon this momentous occasion in her SNL opening monologue.
Taking the audience back to 2000 – a time when she was not yet Awkwafina, but an 11-year-old Nora Lum from Queens – the rapper and actress explained that her idol, actress Lucy Liu, was slated to become the first Asian American woman to host SNL. As such, an inspired Nora had travelled all the way to Manhattan to wait outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza that night.
“I was a kid and I didn’t have a ticket, so I knew I wasn’t getting in,” Awkwafina said. “But I just wanted to be near the building. And I remember how important that episode was for me and how it totally changed what I thought was possible for an Asian American woman.”
As the audience cheered, a visibly moved Awkwafina added: “Standing here tonight is a dream I never thought would come true, so thank you, Lucy, for opening the door.
“I wasn’t able to make it into the building back then, but 18 years later, I’m hosting the show.”
Naturally, viewers – including Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh and The Hangover’s Ken Joeng – took to the social media platform to recognise the landmark, and applaud Awkwafina for breaking down that barrier.
As many have pointed out, Awkwafina’s monologue – when compared alongside Liu’s – feels overwhelmingly different in terms of tone.
“I just found out that I am the first Asian woman to ever host SNL,” Liu said back in 2000, to applause. “This is amazing and so cool and, believe me, Connie Chung is pissed. But seriously, Asians have had to deal with a lot of stereotypes, had to overcome a lot of stuff, and I wasn’t sure how sensitive everyone would be here, but … ”
It was at this point that the show cut to a “video diary” of Liu’s week, which showed her preparing for the episode. In one scripted clip, she can be seen excitedly snapping photos of the SNL writing team. Another sees Jimmy Fallon dismissing Liu a dry-cleaning assistant. A third sees Liu – dressed in red silk shirt and trousers – stepping on to Tracy Morgan’s back to give him a massage.
Perhaps the most shocking moment of all, though, is when Liu informs the cast that she has brought them a bowl of “her grandmother’s special recipe for cocker spaniel.”
“Despite how it looked, they really made me feel at home,” Liu told the audience.
Whether Liu was involved in the writing of her own material or not remains unclear. One thing that is clear, though, is that things couldn’t be more different in 2018: instead of playing up to outdated stereotypes, Awkwafina used her platform to call out the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
Indeed, one skit – which saw Awkwafina star opposite the likes of Marion Cotillard, Allison Janey and Kate McKinnon – specifically called out Hollywood’s penchant for whitewashing.
“There were plenty of great roles for Asian women in the 1940s,” noted McKinnon, in character as fictional actress Debette Goldry. “And I should know — I played all of them.”
It is a staunch reminder of Awkwafina’s own words earlier this summer, when she informed NBC News that “I’m not going to put on a ‘Fu Manchu accent’ for comedy”.
“We’re not desperate for roles anymore,” she said at the time. “[Crazy Rich Asians] is going to say we’re not sheep, and if a role sucks, then we’re not going to do it.”