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Asian American actors find a home on YouTube

Performers such as Ryan Higa and Kevin Wu have built large followings on the video site. The new channel You Offend Me, You Offend My Family looks to capitalize.

June 22, 2012|By Robert Ito, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Antonio Alvarez, left, Sung Kang and Ryan Higa in the series "Acting for Action."
Antonio Alvarez, left, Sung Kang and Ryan Higa in the series "Acting… (YOMYOMF )

"Seduce with the eyes," says actor Sung Kang, making love to a store mannequin in the premiere episode of the online TV series "Acting for Action." A veteran of the "Fast and the Furious" movie franchise, Kang is teaching his craft to YouTube star Ryan Higa, whose online fan base numbers more than 5 million subscribers. Higa is eager to learn from a real film star, but Kang — playing a self-worshiping caricature of himself — is clearly just in it for the cash.

The bit is played for laughs, but the setup raises an intriguing question: When it comes to Asian American actors and their younger YouTubing peers, who should be schooling whom? At a time when Asian American actors like Kang struggle to score the limited roles open to them in film and TV, YouTubers like Higa are amassing huge audiences without going to a single cattle call, pulling in six-figure salaries from the online ads that accompany their broadcasts.

Both groups collide on You Offend Me, You Offend My Family, a new online network that's part of YouTube's expanding stable of channels dedicated to original programming. Launching alongside networks headed by name brands such as Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal and Amy Poehler, the Asian American channel is the brainchild of Justin Lin, director of "Better Luck Tomorrow" and four of the "Fast and the Furious" films.

"Acting for Action" is one of the first shows to premiere on the network, which features YouTube personalities such as Higa and Kevin Wu, a.k.a. KevJumba, performing alongside actors such as "Glee's" Harry Shum Jr. and "Community's" Danny Pudi. The network hopes to build on the popularity of young Asian Americans on YouTube — of the top 20 channels, four are produced by Asian Americans in their 20s — while bringing in talent from film and TV.

For the actors, the network offers a chance to star in series rather than remaining faces in large ensemble casts. For the YouTubers, it's an opportunity to get out and collaborate with veteran actors and directors outside of their bedroom "studios."

YOMYOMF began life as a blog, created by Lin and friends to entertain one another between gigs. Despite the website's title — a line from Bruce Lee's film "Enter the Dragon" — most of the bloggers being Asian American is almost beside the point. The site became a place where director Quentin Lee could post about hiking in Malibu, say, or Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang could write about his love for theater legend Joseph Papp.

"When we get together, we don't just sit around and talk about being Asian American," says Lin. "That website became a really great incubator, a way of finding people and creating this family."

When YouTube began soliciting pitches for original networks last year, the YOMYOMF crew was approached by Higa, Wu and singer Chester See, who suggested a partnership. YOMYOMF's first slate of programs includes "Internet Icon," an"American Idol"-esque talent show in which contestants compete to become, well, the next Higa, or Wu, or See. The competition drew scores of Internet wannabes from across the country. Higa, 22, who honed his own YouTubing skills as a high school kid living in Hilo, Hawaii, didn't relish sending young hopefuls home.

"It was really stressful," he says. "One of them said, 'Thanks for shattering my dreams.'"

In the YOMYOMF series "KevJumba Takes All," Wu battles friends in often lopsided contests of skill and knowledge. In one, the former film major challenges fellow YouTuber and math whiz Felicia Day ("The Guild," Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") to retake the SATs; in another, he engages Shum in a pole dancing contest.

"The title sounds kind of cocky, but I end up losing a lot of the challenges," says Wu.

In "Acting for Action," Kang offers specious acting tips to young YouTubers hoping to break into action films. The irony is that young guys like Higa and Wu have already built careers and audiences without going the Hollywood route, so what can they learn from old-school actors like Kang?

"I have so much admiration and respect for what these guys do," Kang says. "I'm envious! Because I'm going, 'Man, what if YouTube had been around when I was in high school?' I would have made full movies. With these kids, like Ryan, he's probably made more money than I did in my whole career."

To publicize the network, YOMYOMF created a promo reel that's a mashup of YouTubers, actors, singers and family members, all set in the sprawling, albeit fictional YOMYOMF studios (the network's real base of operations is a small, nondescript, second-floor office in South Pasadena). In the short, Jessica Alba washes a car and wrestles, former Laker Rick Fox weeps, Kang and Shum get their backs shaved, and See and Higa battle on a rooftop, with the exploding ruins of downtown L.A. as backdrop.

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