Sometimes, when comedian Atsuko Okatsuka goes onstage, she dances. And sometimes, the earth moves along with her.
Last summer at a Pasadena comedy club, The Ice House, Okatsuka ran onto the stage with full energy. “Hey, Pasadena, hi!” she says in a recorded performance pinned to her Twitter profile. In the footage, you can see the camera shaking with the earth as Okatsuka continues dancing.
“Earthquake! Earthquake!” People are shouting in the background.
“What’s happening?” Okatsuka pauses for a moment.
“Oh shit!” she leans forward to the crowd. “I thought I was making that happen. Everybody okay?” she checks before continuing to riff on the situation.
“A part of me died that night,” Okatsuka says. Theatrical actors are tasked with performing their lines through any situation — regardless of potential hecklers, wardrobe malfunctions, missed cues, they have to pretend there’s still a fourth wall dividing them and the audience.
But there’s also something to be said for stand-up comedians who don’t always have the luxury of a script. There’s something even more to be said about one who performs right through an earthquake, making the ongoing seismic shifts part of the punchline.
“An earthquake is kind of a quieter heckler because they can’t talk back,” Okatsuka says. “It was like a true test of everything that I’ve learned, and my personality too. For me, it’s important that the audience feels safe.”
Aside from stand up, Okatsuka is the creator and host of the weekly podcast (and sometimes live show) Let’s Go, Atsuko! A Woke Japanese Game Show, a show that’s been praised by Vulture and The New York Times. Okatsuka’s parents actually met on a Japanese dating show (“That’s why my grandma raised me,” she jokes), so the podcast is sort of a homage to that history. Every episode, Okatsuka invites contestants and challenges them with questions about their wokeness — if you check out her Sketchfest show, you’ll get to see her podcast live.
“Of course I’m hesitant to use the word ‘woke,’” Okatsuka says. “Woke” was her way of trying to define a multidimensional value to her show beyond the silliness of traditional game shows. “At the end of Let’s Go, Atsuko!, you’ll have learned something while also laughing at the absurdity.” Okatsuka acknowledges that the word “woke” has been co-opted from the Black community.
“God, I didn’t mean to bring race into this,” she says as we speak. Okatsuka is very conscious about her role as an Asian-American woman in comedy. When she first started in 2009, Okatsuka was 20, and didn’t see many other Asian-American female comics. She also wasn’t a big fan of some problematic parts of comedy culture like racist, misogynistic jokes, so Okatsuka and fellow comics Jenny Yang and Yola Lu thought, “Well, let’s make our own stage-time happen. Let’s make comedy what we want to see.”
They decided to start their own comedy tour called Disoriented Comedy, filled with Asian-American female comedians. They believe it’s the first of its kind since its establishment in 2012.
“I was able to do so much more comedy and travel during that time,” Okatsuka says.
During its height through 2016, Disoriented Comedy toured nationally at colleges and brought on a new producer (comedian D’Lo) according to Okatsuka. In January of 2017, Okatsuka started Let’s Go, Atsuko!, a project she had been meaning to take on for a while.
“I found myself. I am very proud to be an immigrant, who I am. I’m an Asian-American female stand-up comic,” Okatsuka says. “It was really empowering to do Disoriented Comedy. Now, how can I take this and bring it back into the mainstream world, as me?”
Let’s Go, Atsuko! Live, 10 p.m., Jan. 24 at PianoFight Mainstage, 144 Taylor St. $22
SF Sketchfest Dozen: Atsuko Okatsuka & Whitmer Thomas, 7 p.m., 9:15 p.m., Jan. 25 at Punch Line Comedy Club, 444 Battery St. $25
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org