The multi-hyphenate local wants to assure you she’s not the girl in Shen Yun ads — while she finds the funny in seriously tragic situations.
On a recent Monday night at Heartbeat House in Atwater Village, comedian-actor-filmmaker Atsuko Okatsuka was catching her breath after leading 15 women in an elegantly choreographed, booty-shaking “cardio groove” dance workout.
In the lobby of the small fitness studio where she teaches twice-weekly classes, Okatsuka gasped, mid-towel-off, at the sight of a poster taped on the studio’s front window. It advertised Shen Yun Performing Arts, a traditional Chinese dance recital recently meme-ified for its ubiquitous marketing splashed all across Los Angeles.
“They found us!” she exclaimed, proceeding to gently inform the woman running the studio’s check-in desk about Shen Yun’s connection to Falun Gong, a “cultish” religious belief system that opposes same-sex relationships. The poster was ultimately removed and discarded to Okatsuka’s relief.
“I don’t want people to think I’m the girl on the flyer,” she said, half-sarcastically. “Who else would it be?”
One-liners riffing on ethnicity and identity are a natural part of the conversation with Okatsuka. She moonlights as a dance aerobics teacher, but performs stand-up comedy most nights of the week.
“I’ve been through identity shifts, as a comedian and as an Asian American, trying to find how these two speak to each other. Sure, I talk about race, and that’s worthy, but more and more the things I find funny now are the silliest things; the stupid things in seriously tragic situations.”
Okatsuka opened for Margaret Cho at the Wiltern a few years ago. She has a one-hour stand-up episode on Hulu’s “Comedy InvAsian,” and currently hosts three monthly shows around Los Angeles, including “Let’s Go Atsuko! A (Woke) Japanese Game Show,” at Dynasty Typewriter at The Hayworth in MacArthur Park.
“I’ve been through identity shifts, as a comedian and as an Asian American, trying to find how these two speak to each other,” Okatsuka says. “Sure, I talk about race, and that’s worthy, but more and more the things I find funny now are the silliest things; the stupid things in seriously tragic situations.”
Her social media feed is peppered with Tweets like “My husband just asked for chopsticks to eat with instead of a fork. I think it’s safe to say my work here is done. Send me another white guy,” and “Immigrating to the U.S. means you have to learn English twice. 1st time: Basic Grammar 2nd time: DJ Khaled.”
There’s also Instagram posts of her adorable corn dog-hogging grandmother, portraits of Okatsuka performing on stage with dolphin hand puppets and the occasional self-filmed twerking video in front of locations like the Glendale Central Library.
“You can say [twerking] is thirst-trappy or sexual, but it’s a hip and foot technique, and I respect it because it’s very technical … like comedy,” she says. “[It] seems improvised, but to truly get the form it can take years.”
Okatsuka is an L.A. native by way of Japan and Taiwan, which is where her family immigrated from when she was 10. She jokes that her first language in the states was Spanish — she grew up a minority among Latinos in her grade school. Okatsuka and her mother lived for a time in her uncle’s garage before she, her mother and grandmother eventually became citizens. It was at Venice High School, where she discovered her love of performing, first as a cheerleader, then getting involved in theater.
It’s been 10 years since her first stand-up gig at a club on Pico Boulevard. After a decade of honing her voice and navigating the technical stuff — the bookers, managers, promoters, opportunities — Okatsuka says the creative work has finally leveled itself out, and she’s happy where she is.
She recently hosted Grrrls Comedy Open Mic, a free monthly event at the Edendale Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in Echo Park. The open mic is fashioned as a “lab” where female comedians of varying esteem and Twitter followings can work out material amongst their peers.
“My husband just asked for chopsticks to eat with instead of a fork. I think it’s safe to say my work here is done. Send me another white guy. “
Okatsuka turned up despite being sick with the flu.
“My husband and I sleep in different beds when I’m sick. I feel like I’m having an affair with soup,” she said, clasping the microphone stand through an oversized sweater to protect the group from her germs. “I’m at second base with chicken noodle, and you don’t even want to know where I’m at with Tom Yum.”
She informed the audience that her identity has been stolen by someone who is renting cars and not returning them.
“There’s a woman out there with my same look, living life harder,” she said. “Is she funnier than me? If it’s also an Asian, defying stereotypes, being a badass selling car parts for thousands of dollars — maybe good for her.”