For all the comedians and actors who have come and gone from “Saturday Night Live” in its four decades, there has been a near-complete absence of Asian performers onscreen.
The NBC show is taking a step toward rectifying that. Bowen Yang — the son of Chinese immigrants and an “S.N.L.” writer — will be one of three new cast members for the 45th season, which begins this month, the show announced on Thursday.
Joining Yang are Shane Gillis, a stand-up comic based in New York, and Chloe Fineman, a regular performer at the Groundlings in Los Angeles. All three will be “featured players,” the cast members who are typically newer and introduced toward the end of the opening credits.
“S.N.L.” has had little representation from Asian actors, as cast members or hosts, in the past. Fred Armisen, who appeared on the show from 2002 through 2013, is of Asian descent; another former star, Rob Schneider, is one-quarter Filipino; and Nasim Pedrad, who was in the cast from 2009 to 2014, was born in Iran.
There have been six Asian or Asian-American hosts in the show’s history — most recently, Sandra Oh and Awkwafina.
Yang — who joined “S.N.L.” as a writer last season and co-hosts a pop culture podcast, “Las Culturistas” — also will be one of the few openly gay cast members to appear on the show.
In an interview with NPR in July, Yang attributed his early career inspiration to Oh’s character on “Grey’s Anatomy.” (As a student at New York University, he aspired to be a doctor, he said, before realizing that entertainment was his calling.) Though he was not a regular cast member at the time, Yang got to appear alongside Oh in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch last season. He played the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, with Oh playing his translator.
Gillis was deemed one of the “new faces” at the 2019 Just for Laughs festival, a major comedy gathering in Montreal where Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, Pete Davidson and Ali Wong also performed early in their careers.
In addition to Fineman’s time at the Groundlings, an improv and sketch comedy theater in Los Angeles, she was also one of the “new faces” at Just for Laughs, in 2018. She has appeared on “Jane the Virgin,” “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Grown-ish,” according to her IMDB page.
“S.N.L.” has faced criticism in the past when its cast has lacked diversity; it had no black women for several years before Sasheer Zamata’s casting in 2014. Because it lacked Asian cast members, the show has for many years had to call on a longtime production designer, Akira Yoshimura, to play the part of Sulu in “Star Trek” sketches, and in one instance, he played Connie Chung.
Including the three new players, there will be 18 members of the cast this season after the departure of Leslie Jones, who spent five years on the show.
The 45th season of “Saturday Night Live“ begins Sept. 28, with Woody Harrelson as the host and Billie Eilish performing.