Go! Go! Atsuko!

The rise (and minor pratfalls) in the almost-too-incredible-to-occur-in-real life of Atsuko Okatsuka
Published: 9 July 2024

No one batted an eye when the shoot date with comedian Atsuko Okatsuka was scheduled on April the first. Perhaps, we were too absorbed in making the appointment happen; maybe we never considered the possibility of Okatsuka not showing up. Looking back, the signs were there for a probable no-show: the slow back-and-forth via e-mail with Okatsuka’s management; a last-minute confirmation on the location and timing.

Ten minutes past the scheduled 1pm and a text saying that they weren’t able to find the studio, felt like a lead-up to someone jumping out from the closet, screaming “sike”. But Okatsuka and her husband, Ryan Harper Gray did show up. Of course, they did. Can the story happen in any other way?

After touring her next special, Full Grown, in America, Okatsuka embarked on an international tour that would take her from London through Southeast Asia before ending in Australia.

For her stop in Singapore, she only found out that she was performing at a cinema when she hit Asia. “I thought Cineleisure was a cute name for a theatre,” she reasoned. But venue withstanding, her opening night here went off without a hitch. After the opener had warmed up the crowd, Okatsuka came bounding out and leant into not knowing that she was performing in a movie theatre. Then, seeing the spotlight trained on her, she immediately mimed being an escaped convict being caught in a searchlight. The room broke into laughter and for the next hour, she had the audience eating out of her hand.

It’s the same effect even when it’s at an intimate setting like an interview. She is amiable, a cut-up. When she laughs, it reminds one of a Sesame Street puppet—somewhere between a felted growl and a chuckle.

“The men in our lives have either died or left,” Okatsuka says, describing her upbringing as “matriarchal”. Mostly raised by her grandma, who also pull double-duty looking after Okatsuka’s schizophrenic mother; Okatsuka’s family didn’t fit the mould like the others. “My dad divorced my mom; my grandma, mom and I were undocumented; my mom has a mental illness. Whenever I watch other Asian comics joke about how their parents want them to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer... I can’t relate because that was not my family.”

Her mom’s schizophrenia was not diagnosed at the time so Okatsuka assumed that this was just another one of her mood swings. She would create a fuss or throw a plate or anything within reach. After an episode, Okatsuka would notice a frailty whenever her mother calmed down. “I felt bad for her. I’d see her shaking her head like she was shaking out the negative voices. I’d talk to her and still treat her like my mom.”

Whenever her mom starts to “act up”, Okatsuka would play the clown to diffuse the situation. She’d bust a move or pretend a stick was a magic wand that can ward off evil. Her mother would laugh at her antics; the voices in her head fading into echoes.

In a way, her mother was Okatsuka’s first audience.

Suit and T-shirt, COS. Accessories, Okatsuka’s own. Mules, TOD’S

“I have to be a cheerleader for her,” Okatsuka adds. “I have to put on a song and urge her to dance. Mom, repeat after me: I am worth it. I am strong. There’s a darkness happening but I’ve to be cheery for her. I know it’s a crazy scene—someone is losing their mind and someone is tap-dancing in front of them. But that’s the only way I know how to handle the situation and it is with some light.”

The pandemic kept Okatsuka and her husband indoors, masked and responsible; all in an effort to protect her mother and grandmother living with them. While it was a period of “general sadness”, it’d prove to be the occasion that would shape Okatsuka into the comedian that she is today.

There were two critical points: one, she started to be introspective and write about topics that were hard to talk about before like her mother’s schizophrenia. It became an eye-opening entry into a different side of the comedian.

She had created Normalise Everything, a stand-up show that consisted of comedians who have parents with mental illness. The hour-and-a-half show was livestreamed and the money raised was donated to Painted Brain, a mental health organisation.

The second point is her social media game. Other than her stand-up bits, her TikTok has videos of her dancing, most of them either with her grandmother or with Gray. The innate silliness of her videos was a balm during COVID. In one of her dance uploads, she accidentally created the #DropChallenge, where Beyoncé’s bass-heavy “Yoncé” plays in the background, Okatsuka halts in the middle of her activity in Little Tokyo and drops, twerk-style as slowly as possible before rising again. All these happen with her grandmother in tow. That video had one million likes and her fanbase exploded.

One of these fans was Mike Birbiglia, a veteran comic, who asked her to open for him on his tour. During the tour, Okatsuka related to Birbiglia about an intruder being breaking into her house three times in a day and wondered how she could incorporate it into a special that she was working on. Bowled over by the story, Birbiglia worked with her on her special that would eventually become The Intruder.

The Intruder was Okatsuka’s first HBO special and she was also the second Asian-American woman to have a stand-up special with the streaming giant. The first? That honour goes to Margaret Cho, who, in a roundabout manner, inspired Okatsuka to pursue comedy when her friend passed her a DVD of Margaret Cho: Notorious CHO during a sermon in church.

Okatsuka had never seen stand-up before. At the time, she was an immigrant sharing a space with her mother and grandmother in her uncle’s garage. She kept her head down, only exposed to the things that her “immediate family [were] into”. Cho’s special blew the doors open into a larger world. Not only was a woman, who looked like Okatsuka, cracking wise, but there was a confidence that spoke to her. In a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, Okatsuka says, “I often wonder what it must feel like for her, knowing who she is since she was born. It took me probably 10 years to figure out my voice.”

You've read the stories about how her parents met on a Japanese dating show. Or how when she was eight, her grandmother kidnapped her from her father and stowed her away to America. Or how her grandfather died at the hands of the Kuomintang during the White Terror in Taiwan. These and many other incredible instances are peppered into Okatsuka’s life. They would be wellsprings of material for her comedy but before the age of 19; before the recommendation from the community college film professor whom she was dating to try stand-up, these chapters amounted to just another day in her life. Because of her immigrant status, Okatsuka just wanted to blend in and not make waves.

Growing up in America, she wanted to change her name but said that she wasn’t “creative enough” to come up with anything new. She had gone by “Stacey” for a little bit. “And then that song by The Ting Tings came out,” Okatsuka said, “That was a fun wake-up call. They call me Stacey. They call me Her. That’s not my name. That’s not my name. And I was like, yeah, why am I trying to be white? That’s not my name.”

She had struggled with fitting in all her life. When she lived in Japan, she had to deal with the lack of warmth from the locals because of her foreign status. Whenever her mother had her schizophrenic episodes, Okatsuka had to push aside her own needs to tend to her.

“When I was four and under, I had the bowl cut,” Okatsuka said. “And I was trying all sort of ways to fit in. Maybe adopt a long hairstyle, like Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie. Maybe being blonde is the way to go.

“But when I finally found my voice in comedy, I wanted the bowl haircut that I had when I was a kid. When I was young, I didn’t feel like I could completely be myself. But now I can. This is a second chance at being my childlike self again.”

She finds it important to hold on to the spirit of playfulness. “Because as you grow older, you have to deal with paperwork and rules; more doctor visits... technical things that are very serious. I want to continue embracing that childlike joy.”

The bright colours, the haircut, the comedy—all these and more are Okatsuka’s better sequel to her childhood. “Part two is gonna be better than the sad, dramatic childhood.”

The moment the industry is ready for someone like her, everything else had to happen before that.

“In America and everywhere in the world, honestly, representation in the media has not always caught up to the number of people who actually want to do a certain art or have been working at it,” Okatsuka explains. “For example, in America, when I first started, there was Margaret Cho and then Ali Wong. We didn’t have many people before us, who did it and who were embraced by Hollywood, who were embraced internationally. Of course, you don’t have the self-confidence to think, oh, I could do it too.

It was 2018: Ali Wong’s second special came out and Fresh Off the Boat was already a TV show. More Asian-American representation was rife in the landscape. Okatsuka had been doing stand-up for a while; her comedy got better and she started to see more people turning up to her sets. “That was when I thought that I didn’t have to walk dogs any more or teach film at a community college. I could quit those and focus on stand-up comedy.” She doesn’t do accents in her act. “I’m not good at them, I feel you can tell a story without doing them and I don’t want to be taken the wrong way. Especially with Western audiences, they might laugh for the wrong reasons and not listen to the story, setup or punchline. They are just laughing because there’s an accent. See, Asian accents are choppy and silly-sounding. That’s why it’s funny. That’s so... old school now. That was the old way of laughing that I don’t think is funny any more.”

When asked about her first impression of her husband, she says “Oh, I’ve always wanted a sister, you know. We’ve started to dress alike; we joke similarly, and we laugh about a lot of things, it’s like I’ve found a sister that I’m also attracted to. So, that’s special.”

It’s a joke, of course. Ryan Harper Gray is more than that. He helps her with her skits, her production, her schedule. He’s her Guy Friday with added spousal benefits. They met through a mutual friend’s shoot and just fell hard for each other. In one of her bits in The Intruder, Okatsuka describes the moment she found out that Gray had a schizophrenic mother. “And I was like, Oh my God. My mom too. And we had the craziest sex ever.”

But even in the comfort of each other, there are still some things that are verboten. “Being a comedian is hard but it’s harder for their loved ones,” Okatsuka says. “Because we talked about everything so what’s safe to talk about on stage? There was one time I talked about him having stomach issues, like diarrhoea stuff and after the show, a fan saw Ryan and screamed, Hey, that’s the diarrhoea guy. Ryan says, oh, no, that’s gonna stick. Can we not tell that joke any more? I said, of course. I don’t want you to be known as that ‘diarrhoea guy’.”

(And to Gray who is probably reading this—a sigh already forming in his throat—apologies for retreading this incident up again.)


At the point of the interview, back in April, Okatsuka wagers that her special, Full Grown is about 75 per cent finalised. “There’s a lot more jokes that I think I can write for it and some I might replace.”

She says that her discipline in comedy is the only adult thing about her. According to Gray, she’d write almost every day.

“I’m not organised but whenever I have time during the day I’ll write. Or at the very least, I’ll be thinking about jokes. If something made someone laugh, I’ll remember it or I’ll write it down on my phone.” She’ll deconstruct the joke later—why was that conversation funny? Why did that person laugh when she said that? How can I expand on it? Okatsuka can be such a nerd about it”.

The first joke that she ever told was at a comedy class that she found online. “Oh, you could tell jokes at an open mic but those clubs are usually open at 10pm to midnight. It was’t very safe for women at that timing.”

The premise of her first joke is about how her name is Japanese and she worked in a Japanese restaurant and she drives a Toyota. “It’s about why everything I do is Japanese-related. It was literally a stupid sentence that just stated facts.”

She’s easily recgonisable but she is also trapped by it, especially her hairstyle. Because Okatsuka acts as well, it’s tricky for her to audition given her appearance. “I can be myself in my stand-up but fitting into other people’s role is a balance that I’m still trying to figure out.”

The easiest way out of this is if someone created a role where the character already looks like her. Or the other option, that she briefly mentioned, is if she created a role for herself. That might be a possibility as she’s talking to TV networks about creating a show based on her life.


She's a people pleaser by nature. After the initial show in Singapore was sold out, those who couldn’t get tickets were asking if she would add more shows. She acquiesced and created four more shows. Gray says that every time Okatsuka performs, it drains her.

So imagine, during her tenure in Singapore: five performances held over three days. That takes a toll on a person. “This is probably the last time we do something like this,” Okatsuka says.

But still, people are clamouring for more shows from her. She’ll return to tour Asia again and she’ll swing by Singapore to perform on 22 and 23 July. This time it’ll be at a proper theatre in the Esplanade and, of course, both nights will be sold out.

Okatsuka alludes to a lack of mystique to her. “I think I’ve done whatever I could do to show you who I am. Everyone is caught up, I think,” she says. “I’ve pretty much shared so much of my life that everyone has seen it all.”

These days, she uploads once or twice a month. She’s trying not to overload her feed with too much information but, if the likes and sold-out shows are any indication, people are still interested in what she has to say. When it comes to her anecdotes, her premises often start as tragedies: The intruder in the home; a pandemic that saw no sign of abating; a mother with mental illness; a sham marriage. Without punchlines, the set-ups are just... tragic.

And perhaps, that is Okatsuka’s magic. That she can find an avenue away from the expected grief and unhappy endings. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And then, you wonder if lemonade is just lemon piss and so you do a spit-take because that is a funny reaction.

In today’s climate, choosing to be happy is such an audacious act. And with Atsuko Okatsuka leading the charge on this, we will gladly follow.

Photography: Shawn Paul Tan
Styling: Asri Jasman
Hair: Sha Shamsi using OUAI via SEPHORA
Make-up: Kenneth Chia using SISLEY
Photography Assistant: Xie Feng Mao
Styling Assistant: Chua Xin Xuan

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