"I don't mind it when people go, 'I'm so offended'. I actually don't mind it because what it's doing is starting dialogue about that notion and about that idea, even if they're using me as a whipping girl. That's all right. Who gives a crap?"
– Kate Rigg
Guy MacPherson: So, you're from Toronto. Let's get the facts.
Kate Rigg: The stats. Yeah, I'm from Toronto.
GM: And I know you went to Julliard. Is that a school of music?
KR: No, Julliard is like, remember the movie Fame?
GM: Yes, I do.
KR: That's Julliard.
GM: There is a Julliard School of Music, though, isn't there?
KR: There is. But there's a music division, a dance division, they have a really good opera division, and a pretty famous acting division. And I was in the acting division.
GM: And when was that?
KR: That was in 1993.
GM: So you're an actor.
KR: I am.
GM: Or an actress.
KR: When they let me, I am.
GM: So you were on set today?
KR: I was doing a PBS thing called 'Race is the Place'.
GM: What is that?
KR: They're doing a special with, um... It's sort of related to my comedy. I have a lot of crossover with a lot of what I do. It's not one thing, do you know what I mean? It's funny, but it's political, you know. It's a poem, but it's funny. It's hip-hop, but it's a comedy. We used to call 'Birth of a nAsian', which is a show that I'm bringing out to you guys, 'hip-hop comedy' because it's straight-up character comedy, like a Whoopi Goldberg show or a Lily Tomlin show, right, but also have this very urban beat kinda thing going on as well, which is a part of being in New York and a part of being a minority performer. And a lot of other minority performers, at least in this city and other cities, have chosen rap, spoken word, hip hop, as a really quick way of getting a message out. So I'm combining those two forms in the show but with a sort of Asian slant. Heh-heh, get it? And my partner, the person on stage with me, is a funky violin player who I met when I was at Julliard. She was in the traditional violin program there doing her Masters there. When she graduated, she's been doing projects with, like, Bono, Bryan Adams, the Absolute Ensemble, some new composers as well as the classical stuff. So it was a good fit. We're both classically-trained, but we both have an ear for what's happening right now.
GM: Is she doing hip hop on her violin?
KR: It's trip-hop violin. She has an electronic violin that's plugged into a bunch of pedals and samples and stuff so she creates like a really big wall of sound. It's sort of like Laurie Anderson but more hip hop than Laurie Anderson. It's less ambient and more like the beats. And because it's 'Birth of a nAsian', she's parodying things from 'Miss Saigon' and things like that.
GM: Her parents must be so proud.
KR: Her parents are dead. (laughs) Anyways...
GM: Oh, geez.
KR: Nice one, eh? (laughs)
GM: Well, so are mine.
KR: Nice going! No, her parents are dead, but you know they are proud because she's sort of taking [mimics a classical exercise] into something that's relevant and something contemporary. Her dad used to go to all the rock concerts. We talk about it in the play how she was this good Asian daughter; now she's like tattoo woman with samples and pedals and stuff. But I think a good artist now is able to mix old and new, and for us east and west. So that's what we're about.
GM: You're not co-opting the black culture here?
KR: Oh God, no.
GM: I don't know. I thought that sounded smart. Because hip hop isn't [just black], is it?
KR: Hell, no!
GM: But a lot of people think that.
KR: The strict definition of hip hop, if you look up the pundits of hip hop, what they always talk about is voices from the street. Now, what the hell does that mean? It means voices of the people who don't feel like they have a voice in mainstream media, speaking of their experience in a mainstream way. It's people sort of asserting their way to be part of pop culture and part of, you know, contemporary culture in an aggressive way. And they have kind of a reactionary voice at the moment it's been marginalized. So it is hip hop. It's just Asian hip hop.
GM: How old is this show, 'Birth of a nAsian'?
KR: In its present form, it's a year old. But we've been workshopping it and stuff, you know. Taking it to colleges and seeing what the college students think of it. And when we don't do the play, sometimes we tour as 'Slanty-Eyed Mama' and we just do the spoken word trip-hop. We went to Australia recently and went to really tiny little towns and did this really Asian stuff, like radical political stuff. It was great. And actually, I did comedy there, too.
GM: I don't understand. When you're 'Slanty-Eyed Mama', you're just doing the music?
KR: That's the name, like, if I were to have a band, it's 'Slanty-Eyed Mama'. But the play is 'Birth of a nAsian'.
GM: And the play is various characters. Is it one plot running through it all? Or is it separate sketches?
KR: It's like a Whoopi Goldberg show or a John Leguizamo show. What they do is they do a bunch of different characters, and of course the theme here is defining what is Asian-ness. And there are some surprising characters in there because I do, like, an old Trinidadian Creole woman, you know what I mean? But who's got some Asian in her. I love Whoopi Goldberg's show, like, her first show that went on Broadway. And part of what's so rad about that is she was like a Valley Girl, she was a Jamaican woman, she was someone from the hood. She was all these different things where you'd be like, 'Hey, a black person's not supposed to sound like, "Oh, my gawd, how are you?"' Right? She would just do it. And she's a stupid character and it was so radical just because that a message, you know what I mean? So there's still shades of that in 'Birth of a nAsian'. There are some surprising characters, like 'Tina Latina'.
GM: Hey, that's not Asian!
KR: She's part everything, including Asian. In 'Chink-o-rama', which is a whole different show, I have a Can-Asian.
GM: A what?
KR: A Canadian character, because it's me playing it, right? People love it because they're always waiting for Asian people to be playing martial artists or masseuses or whatever, and then you have some garage sale lady going, 'Holy fuckin' geez, eh?' I thought, 'Why can't an Asian person sound like that?' Why not?
GM: And you do.
KR: And I do!
GM: But a lot of the characters are the stereotypes that you're trying to fight, aren't they?
KR: Well, in this play, actually, it's more like we're addressing the inner life of a North American Asian person as opposed to fighting stereotypes. It's more like these surprising mongrel characters. Because I'm bi-racial; I'm half-Asian, half-white. I'm a rice cracker. And so a lot these characters are mixed race. You don't know what race they are exactly. And the 'Tina Latina', for instance, is talking about an unemployment office. She's going, like, 'I have to tick all these boxes, like African-American: Yes. Latina: Yes. Asian: Yes. Native American: Yes.' And then she gets to Caucasian, she goes, 'Why can't I tick that one, too? I'm part white.' Somehow when you say you're all these other things, you're not allowed to say you're white, too. I mean, what the fuck is up with that? And so it becomes this whole diatribe on that. There's a token Asian newscaster with a non-ethnic-sounding name who has kind of like a mini-breakdown. The funny is in the surprising. The reactions that I get from the audience, Asians, is... check out these freaky-assed characters from this very multi-cultural world. You know, we hear about them, we sort of know they're out there, but there's nothing on TV unless it's sort of a smack you over the head karate guy, you know what I mean?
GM: There's Connie Chung!
KR: Is Connie Chung mixed race?
GM: Oh, I see.
KR: People who are between the margins, people who are sort of in between people. Connie Chung is an interesting one because she's had to fight so hard just to be an American journalist and to not be a Chinese-American journalist. Who gives a crap that she's Chinese because she's talking about the news. You know what I'm saying?
GM: Kind of. But I just think of her as a journalist, though.
KR: That's because you're Canadian, as well.
GM: Oh, is it? Ah!
KR: The multi-cultural mosaic is a different model than the melting pot, for sure. But the reason 'Birth of a nAsian' works so well in Canada – we actually workshopped it in Canada at Buddy's and Bad Times in Toronto – and what's so cool is that it's got the classic, fun sketch comedy aspect of it, which are the characters, telling jokes – and I'm pretty edgy. Not dirty, but edgy and challenging. There's no hack jokes about, 'The difference between men and women are that women like to shop and guys like to watch TV. Ha, ha, ha!' It's none of that. It's sort of purposely slamming pop culture and taking a whole new take on what it is to be an ethnic person. ... There's the World Trade Center lady. You get this woman who is working selling souvenirs in front of the World Trade Center and ends up telling her whole story. She's like a street hawker selling World Trade Center t-shirts.
GM: How does that play in New York?
KR: Great! It plays great because everybody sees them all the time. And also in New York City, Asian people sell batteries on the subway for a dollar. They walk up and down the aisles with, like, Hello Kitty keychains, little keys that make noise, little flashlights and stuff, and batteries. So they walk up and down, like, 'One dolla, one dolla, one dolla' and nobody really pays attention or looks at them. And then there's the ones at the World Trade Center selling ... I come out on stage and I've got the World Trade Center t-shirt on and all my stuff, and I'm like, 'Ground Zero t-shirts, small, medium, large, extra-large. Ten dollas. For you, special price, eight dollas.' And I go, um, 'Hey, Twin Tower salt 'n' pepper shaker, hey, Ground Zero ashtray, get it right here. Hey, America lost its citizens, and you can buy a t-shirt!' And then I start telling a story about this white lady coming up to me and asking me where Ground Zero was, like it's some big tourist attraction. And we go into the whole commercialization of this terrible tragedy and then it goes into her story about how she ended up here selling these things in the first place, selling her soul to sell these things. And it gets kinda dark, but it's hilarious, too, because it's stuff people don't want to talk about.
GM: Would it be fair to say you're a message comic?
GM: I mean, there is a message.
KR: I'm a message artist; I'm a funny comic. We've been talking politics, and that's all very well, but I chose comedy as my medium, and I'm committed to it. I've spent a lot of time in the clubs. I started all these projects in comedy clubs because ... 'Birth of a nAsian' is funny because it fits in the place between comedy and smart people theatre. It's right in between. And the way the smart people theatre is delivered, though, is in this hip hop way with a soundtrack and beats. So it's not just like sort of a preachy kinda thing. It's not the right vehicle to talk about these things, I don't think. Because like I said, hip hop is minorities and marginalized people who have something to say who aren't traditionally heard in mainstream media speaking loud and speaking strong and speaking with a different heartbeat than what's normally out there. So it's a really cool way of performing this stuff. We love it. And so combining with regular, traditional comedy with Gilda Radner type of comedy... Like, the first sketch is really Gilda Radner-y, kind of. I come out in a helmet and crazy wedding dress and combat boots. It's pretty insane. And to also have the sort of urban poet doing the transitions, it's cool. It's a really cool experience.
GM: In this balance between message and comedy, is it an equal balance, or do you weigh it more to it's gotta be funny first.
KR: If you're doing comedy, yeah. (laughs) If you're doing a play, no. It's funny, but it's funny-surprising, it's funny-challenging, it's funny-scary, it's funny-dark, it's funny like it makes you question your own values, it's funny-interesting, it's funny-bizarre. It's not, like, funny-and now I just forgot everything you just said because I've heard the same joke a million times. It's not like funny-boring. It's not like funny-recognition stuff. It's observational comedy, but from the point of view, perhaps, of someone who doesn't traditionally get to make observations about the world.
GM: When you went to Julliard, did you have an inkling that you might do comedy one day?
KR: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. When I was in Toronto, I used to do Whoopi Goldberg sketches. I cut my teeth on... At the time when I was reading, like in high school and stuff, there wasn't a whole lot of this kind of stuff available that spoke to me specifically, so I was reading a lot of black comic stuff, I was reading stuff about, just the voice of the people, like George Wolf [?] or, like I said before, Whoopi Goldberg, Lenny Bruce. Even Eddie Murphy kind of stuff on Saturday Night Live. I was looking at that stuff that talked about race and sort of trying to relate to it as best I could as a half-Asian, half-white Canadian. And so when I started writing my own monologues, I was actually in Australia when I did my undergrad and that's when I started to write in that style.
GM: When did you move to Australia?
KR: When I was 17 I moved to Australia.
GM: Are there any white comics that you admire?
KR: Oh, hell yeah. Tracey Ullman, Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, I like Danny Hopps' work, although he's a little more serious.
GM: I don't know him.
KR: He's like a white guy that talks like a black guy. He's in the PBS special. He does characters. When I was in Toronto, at a lot of comedy festivals, there's a lot of comics, like Shawna Sperling and people like that doing characters, which I just love. Because it's not as big a passion in America. Standup is king here. Character comics are not king. People do it, but it's sort of like an afterthought. Whereas in Canada, there's no shortage.
GM: What do you think of stereotypes?
KR: What do I think of stereotypes?
GM: Yeah, because obviously stereotypes are evil, but...
KR: I think they're based on truth. I think that the problem with stereotypes is that when people don't look any further they tend to dehumanize the person who's the object of their stereotype. But stereotypes are also great comic fodder because we can all recognize a stereotype and if you have a sense of humour about them, they can become super jokes, really good jokes. Great comics like Chris Rock take great pleasure in doing, like, watermelon commercials and shit, right, because it's fucking funny when you show the absurdity of stereotypes. It makes everybody feel smarter, it makes everybody feel better, and it makes the world better because you're not running away from them or ignoring them or pretending they don't exist. You're smacking them around in the comedy boxing ring a little bit. And everybody's made better by it: the comic's made better, the audience is made better, and the world is a little better.
GM: You're half Indonesian and you have the 'Chink-o-rama'.
KR: The actual title of it is 'Kate's Chink-o-rama Featuring the Chink-o-rama Dancers'.
GM: Is any Asian a chink?
KR: You wanna talk about that? I could talk about that. Chink is a nonsense word because I've been called a chink, I know Japanese people have been called a chink, I know Thai people have been called chinks. Almost any Asian heritage in major urban centres have been or have known people who have been called chinks. Only a percentage of those people were actually related to Chinese people. And I'm assuming that 'chink' is a diminutive for Chinese. I'm making that assumption because I didn't coin that term. My theory is, there's two ways to deal with racist language. One, you can be of the school of thought that says any time you use it, you're keeping it in the culture and therefore bringing us all down. Or two, my school of thought, that it is in the culture and 'chink' takes its meaning because of what I just said. There is no real meaning for the word 'chink' other than that which is assigned by the user, you know what I mean? Like, I become a chink if someone calls me a chink. Otherwise, how can a chink be a Japanese person? Chink takes its meaning from the intent of the user. They're giving it its meaning. It's based on the assumption that all Asian people are the same and look the same, which is racist, and that's where it gets its meaning from. So I, as a conscious person and a thinking person, feel that, such as gay people co-opting the word 'fag' or black people co-opting the word 'nigger', re-possessing it and throwing it back, in a way, by using it within the community, you can change the meaning of a word, especially when it's a racist word. You can't change the history of the word but you can re-package it and you can deconstruct it and you can expose it in all its ridiculousness. You can take this word and say it so many times it becomes a nonsense word. You can show how absurd it is. When I did 'Chink-o-rama', that show is about stereotypes of Asian people in the media. That show is about Charlie Chan, Susie Wong, Asian hookers, chefs, martial artists, we sort of touch on all those things. The reason it's called 'Chink-o-rama', is going, "Is this a chink? Is this a chink? Is this Japanese girl dancing on stage with me a chink? Is this Korean guy next to me a chink? Am I a chink?" It makes you ask it over and over again. By doing that, it takes the hush-hush power away from the word. I think that not saying it allows it to fester in the minds of the bigots who want to use it incorrectly – or if there's a correct way to use it.
GM: I don't think there's a correct way to use it! (laughs)
KR: It takes the power away from people who use it to hurt because you're saying that this word a) is a bullshit word, b) I'm going to say it a lot so how are you going to hurt me? It's sort of that we reclaim it; you can't have it.
GM: But if somebody called you that on the street right now, it would still hurt even though you've reclaimed it.
KR: It would hurt, because of the intent of the user. But just like if you said 'you fucking faggot' to some gay guy, that would hurt because someone's throwing a hate at you. Is the word the thing that hurts? No. It's their homophobia and hatred of the person; it's the racism of the person. That's basically my point, is that the word is just a bunch of letters on a piece of paper. The word is a sound that you make with your mouth. The hurtful thing is the assumption that all Asian people are the same or the assumption that all bullshit images of Asians that we see in mass media are true. So we debunk them all.
GM: I've been called a fag, and I'm not a homosexual. So does that make me a fag? Or a homosexual?
KR: It means that someone's trying to put you down. You can take that however you want. Does it make you a homo? No.
GM; What did you think of the brouhaha a year or so ago with Sarah Silverman and Guy Aoki.
KR: That's what it was, it was a brouhaha. I think that, first of all, the context of that joke, what she was saying, "I want to write something really racist on my piece of paper, so I'm gonna write 'I hate chinks.'" I don't see what the problem is, you know what I mean? She said, "I want to write something really racist on my paper!" But you see, Guy, who has never been able to speak out in media about Asian-American issues, took this as his moment to speak about that word and its hurtful history and the way Asian-Americans are sort of neglected and mistreated. And even though I think that basically he was violating her right as a comic to tell a joke that was actually politically correct, I'm glad it happened because what did it do? It made NBC and all the other networks sit up and start actively recruiting and looking for Asian-American talent because they were basically pointed to and said "hey, what's going on? There's a huge population of these people watching your shows and how come none of them are being represented on TV?" Entertainment's like casting a vote. You put your money in there and you want some of the products to reflect your experience.
GM: But are there as many Asian comics as Jewish comics or black comics?
KR: Well, not yet, but here it comes. Is it because there aren't any or is it because they won't let them have a fucking job? I think it's both.
GM: I saw that Fox was going to have their Charlie Chan festival of movies...
KR: Are they really?!
GM: No, it was taken off because I guess an Asian watchdog group said no, you can't have that.
KR: That's hilarious! Well, I mean, I don't know. Are we going to deny that he existed? No. I mean, do they have festivals of Al Jolson things? They do, probably, right? So go for it.
GM: What would somebody like Guy Aoki say about your show?
KR: Oh, he likes it.
GM: Oh, he's seen it.
KR: Oh, yeah.
GM: And the other shows, like 'Chink-o-rama'?
KR: That's what I'm talking about. He hasn't seen 'Birth of a nAsian' because it's too new. I mean, literally, we performed it in New York once in November, once just recently, and this will be our first official outing with the show, ready to rock. But he saw 'Chink-o-rama', which in a way is much more incendiary because of the title, right? They were digging it. His group, MANAA, they gave it the big thumbs up. Because really, we're talking about debunking Asian stereotypes. What's wrong with that? And I don't mind it when people go, 'I'm so offended'. I actually don't mind it because what it's doing is starting dialogue about that notion and about that idea, even if they're using me as a whipping girl. That's all right. Who gives a crap? (laughs)
GM: Do you ever foresee doing comedy bits not about race?
KR: Oh, I do do comedy not about race. I talk about my pussy all the time on stage.
GM: Excellent. We didn't talk about that.
KR: We didn't talk about pussy. I don't talk about it in the show so much. When I package the shows, I'm trying to do things that are interesting, cohesive, and that people will say, 'Hey, that's something that I haven't seen and I want to check that out.' Or 'That's something in the festival that catches my eye because I'm an Asian person.' I feel responsible certainly to the Asian-American and Asian-Canadian community. I definitely feel responsible to them after touring with 'Chink-o-rama' for a year and having all these really wild encounters with people backstage. Remember the Abercrombie & Fitch thing? Remember that?
GM: Uh, no.
KR: They printed all these really racist t-shirts that had pictures of Asian people doing laundry and pictures of Asian people being delivery boys and stuff. And people picketed in San Francisco to get them taken off the racks pretty quickly. College students mobilized. So we printed these t-shirts that said Abercrombie & Chink. And when we went to San Francisco, people were coming up to us and telling us their stories of being on the front lines or whatever. Like, I don't think it's a problem to portray stereotypes as long as there's other representations of Asians out there as well to counterbalance them. But when all you got is girls shooting Ping-Pong balls out of the cootch and stuff, then it becomes a little more hurtful because people are like, "Oh, great, once again people are telling me, computer programmer with a college degree, that I'm actually a concubine shooting a Ping-Pong ball out of my cootch." It's insulting, right?
GM: But you do shoot a Ping-Pong ball out of your cootch, don't you?
KR: I do, for about half an hour. We both do it. We do it to music.
GM: Excellent... What do you think of Margaret Cho?
KR: I love Margaret Cho. She's a brilliant standup. What I do is completely different, though.
GM: Because yours is sketch.
KR: Because its character. I do do standup. Actually, we're friends. I totally admire her. It's a really wild skill that she has in standup.
GM: Similar sensibilities to your shows.
KR: Kind of! We're both kind of freaky girls like that. I'm heavily influenced by drag. Like, I got really into drag. I'm a drag-hag. I'm a voyeur and a drag-hag. Because when I was a teenager looking at drag queens, I was like, "This is so cool. What he's saying is, 'I'm not what you see on the outside.'"
GM: Now everyone's going to think all Asian women are drag-hags.
KR: Crazy drag-hags who like to talk about sex. That's okay.