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Jimmy O. Yang talks Silicon Valley, Mike Judge and his book

You know him as Jian-Yang from HBO's Silicon Valley. The comedian, actor and author stops by CNET to discuss the show and his new book, How to American: An Immigrant's Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.

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Jimmy O. Yang posing with some of the CNET staff.

Josh Miller/CNET

The character Jian-Yang is one of my favorite parts about the HBO show Silicon Valley. He's a weird mixture of maniacal roommate, unapologetic manipulator and app developer. Remember Smokation and Not Hotdog? His rivalry with Erlich Bachman, played by T.J. Miller, fueled some of the funniest moments in the show's first four seasons.

As Silicon Valley starts its fifth season, the Erlich Bachman-sized opening left by T.J. Miller's departure is filled in large part with more screen time for Jian-Yang and the actor behind him, Jimmy O. Yang.

But actor is just one of many labels that can be applied to Jimmy. He's also a stand-up comic, a Chinese immigrant, a former used-car salesman and a writer. And all these roles are hilariously documented in his book, How To American: An Immigrant's Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.

Now playing: Watch this: Highlights from our interview with Silicon Valley actor...
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Among the quotes on the back cover praising the book is one from Jimmy's dad that states, "Jimmy is not funny."

In the book's foreword, Mike Judge who created Silicon Valley writes:

"When we first cast Jimmy O. Yang in Silicon Valley, I didn't know anything about him. I just had a good feeling about him based on his audition. I had no idea that the accent he was doing was not the way he normally spoke and that his persona was very different from that of the character he was playing in our show, Jian-Yang. I also didn't know that he had graduated with a degree in economics from UCSD — the same school I had graduated from many years earlier. Or that he graduated in 2009, the year that I gave the commencement speech and that he had attended it and apparently had been somewhat inspired to go into comedy by what I said."

Judge goes on to write:

"You don't often hear the stories about Chinese immigrants. At least it seems that way to me. I think maybe it's because we Americans just don't ask."

Jimmy's book comes out at a time when talking about immigration can turn into a political argument quickly. But, he's not trying to stand on one side of the issue or the other. 

"I hope that this book will humanize that experience a little more when people see it from a genuine honest point-of-view -- and in a light-hearted way from my story."

Jimmy visited CNET and talked with us about being a competitive ping-pong player in his youth in Hong Kong, acting with Mark Wahlberg in the film Patriots Day and all the roles he didn't get, like being the Mandarin voice of Apple's Siri. If cigarettes were allowed, we would have smoked them, because this was indeed a special occasion. 

Watch a video of the full interview below.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation. 

Q: For Season 5 of Silicon Valley, Vanity Fair had a headline stating that you're ready to be the next main asshole on Silicon Valley.

That is true. No more supporting asshole, just main asshole. With T.J. leaving I was super sad and kind of worried where the character was going to go. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise and allow my character to mess with other people now, which is great.

You and T.J. were a fun comic duo like Laurel and Hardy or Chris Farley and David Spade. But I wonder how that fun will exist with you having more time to be more of an asshole? At the same time, are we going to see more things like the SeeFood app?

We'll see. I think there will be some good interactions and hopefully we'll find some new dynamics coming up. I'm not promising anything, but there's going to be a lovemaking scene. [long pause] Between me and Gavin Belson. We'll see where that takes us.

How long did that take to film?

A few days. We rehearsed beforehand, too.

Did you guys use a lot of wide angle lenses?

It was a lot, yeah.

Mike Judge created Silicon Valley, Beavis And Butt-Head, Office Space...

Idiocracy. Which is very relevant right now, sadly.

I know he spoke at your graduation when you went to college. But how did you guys come to work on Silicon Valley?

He was my commencement speaker just out of dumb luck. He talked about how he was a physics major working in Silicon Valley back in the eighties and how he hated the corporate culture. He puttered around as a traveling musician and eventually found his passion in comedy and animation.

I was just sitting in the audience -- probably hung over -- listening to this because I was an economics major and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn't want to have anything to do with economics. That speech really spoke to me and I thought I should go try to find what I'm really into.

I tried a bunch of things, like Jiu Jitsu boxing classes. I don't know why, but I did. Eventually, I found stand-up comedy and I felt that passion he was talking about.

Then, just out of luck, five years later I auditioned for Silicon Valley. He didn't know I was sitting in that audience, but I knew who he was. I got the job and at first day of table read I came up to him.

"Hey Mike man, you know what's awesome? You were my commencement speaker."

And Mike -- I don't know if you ever heard him speak he's very quiet -- was like, [Mike Judge voice] "Oh yeah, really? That's cool. That's cool."

And I'm like, "Yeah man, so you went to UCSD?"

[Mike Judge voice] "OK. Yeah, yeah. That's nice. How, um, how's UCSD now? Did you like it?"

"No, I fucking hated it," I told him. I was so nervous. "I just fucking hated it."

[Mike Judge voice] "Oh yeah? Me, too. It was kind of boring when I went there."

And I've been working with him ever since for five years. He's one of my best friends on the show now and it's pretty awesome.

You've had a lot of things change over the time you've been on Silicon Valley in your personal life and professionally. What does he think of it?

In season one, I started with literally just two lines. I open the door and said, "This is Pied Piper." Then, they wrote me in another episode -- "I eat the fish." So I ended up in three episodes in the first season as a guest star basically, and I had maybe five words total.

Then in between season one and season two, Mike was the first to tell me, "We're excited to have you back even though I still don't know where the show is going to go."

But he was the first to reach out to me. Eventually, I became a series regular out of circumstances I talk about in my book. I was offered another job at Yahoo. But in the TV world it's exclusive -- you can only either work with Yahoo or HBO. Then, HBO was kind enough and supported me enough to match the offer. And the rest is history, I guess.

In the first season, Jian-Yang was living with two other guys…

There was no introduction of who he was. I just kind of showed up in the house. People on Reddit were like, "who is that intern guy or whatever?" I was never really an intern. I was a dweller in this place, but I liked that. Eventually, they kind of explained it, but it's still mysterious how he ended up there.

As an actor playing him, why do you think audience likes him so much and wants to see more of him?

I think T.J.'s character really brought this character out because he was always bullying everyone, being obnoxious. And this little guy -- this foreign weird little guy -- is the only guy that has his number and that can throw him under the bus and be a pain in the ass for him. I think people wanted to see that. It's like a David versus Goliath thing. But, at the end of the day, you can see it's like Laurel and Hardy. There's some kind of love between the two. I think T.J. and I in-person that our senses of humor are very close to each other. So it kind of just works. We clicked immediately.

Since you guys have such a chemistry, do you ever think there might be chance for a movie or a series with the two of you after Silicon Valley?
Maybe. I would love to. We talked about writing together a Chinese action comedy or something like that. Wouldn't that be awesome?

Ah, yes!

We have been throwing that around. I talk to him every now and then. He called me one night, it was at midnight and he was like, "You're the first person I called, but I'm not coming back next season."

I'm like, "Aw dude, that's super sad." I tried talking him out of it. But obviously, his mind was made up, it's T.J.

And he was like, "Yeah, but don't be sad, dude. This may be the end of Erlich and Jian-Yang but maybe not the end of T. J. and Jimmy." So, I think we could definitely explore more TV shows, films and stuff like that.

Something I did not know, and I watched it last night, was that you were in the movie Patriots Day.

Oh, yeah.

And you're so good in it, too.

Have you guys seen it? Nobody seen it.

First of all, you guys should see this movie. I had not seen this movie before, but it is an actually an excellent movie. It's about the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013?

2013. Yeah.

And you play the character Danny. All the characters are based off real people. Knowing that you have a background in stand-up comedy, you're on Silicon Valley and you've done other shows like It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, how do you end up in a Mark Wahlberg movie about the Boston bombing?

It was just auditioning, you know. I think it was one of those roles. The guy was a Chinese immigrant. They literally brought every Chinese person in Hollywood to audition for this role. And I'm pretty good at being a Chinese immigrant, I guess. I was one so I can relate to it. I came here when I was 13 so I understand the mannerisms, the accent, the thought process and all that. It was great, it was nerve-wracking for sure -- Pete Berg who is a pretty cool director. Then you got Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan -- everybody I looked up to was in this movie. And here I am across Mark Wahlberg trying to do the scene. But everybody was really cool, and when the camera starts rolling, especially the way that Pete directs, you're acting, you're this character now.

And the real guy, Danny, who eventually became a hero from this Boston Marathon bombing thing, I got to talk to him and be friends with him. I bugged him every other day in Boston. It was a tough role to take on, especially for somebody coming from a comedy background. But I think it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences -- that nobody watched.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Well, they should. We're gonna get them to watch it.
Yeah. Watch it people! It's $3.99 on iTunes.

It's not though. But it is on Showtime.

It's on Showtime? Who's got Showtime? This guy. Use his password.

But there's actually one scene I wanted to bring up. It was the scene in the car, when the Danny gets car-jacked. I'm not even thinking you're an actor at this point. I'm just totally into the story. But how was it to film that scene?

The real story is Danny got held at gunpoint and car-jacked by the two terrorists, the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombing. They drove him around for an hour and a half with pressure cooker bombs in the back. And according to the GPS, they were trying to go to Manhattan and bomb Times Square. This is the part of the story a lot of people don't know. Then Danny, when they pulled up a gas station, he ran off -- at gunpoint -- and called the cops at the other gas station. And that lead to the eventual shoot-out and arrest of those two guys in Watertown. So, Danny was a real hero. It was amazing.

I didn't really know anything about the story and when I researched it, there was the real footage, surveillance footage, of him running across the gas station out of the car -- it's chilling -- and him making a 911 call inside the other gas station. So that footage definitely helped me see the scene.

We played everything real because it's Pete Berg and handheld cameras. It was surreal. I was honestly scared. There were dudes with guns pointed right at my head. I think I had I some PTSD and some nightmares for a couple of nights. I can only imagine what Danny went through.

Throughout the movie, Mark and Pete said that this is not about us as actors. It's about the victims and the heroes. So with that in mind, it became slightly more fulfilling and an easier process for us to go through.

You mentioned that when you auditioned they brought in every Chinese immigrant.

That happens a lot.

And that's a good segway to your book How to American: An Immigrant's Guide to Disappointing Your Parents. It's a great title for a book. This book is hysterical. But the story behind it, is filled with all these poignant moments from your life.

Thanks.

Specifically your dad are mom are such great characters. Your dad is so loving but also so critical about everything you do. That being said have they read the book?

My dad has read the book. So he said, [father's voice] "wow, this is actually a really good book. Did you actually write it?"

I'm like, "Yeah, man, I wrote it." So he's still kind of not giving it up, you know?

He's like that all throughout the book. You take your parents to a very cool standup club that you're performing at in Vegas.

And my dad's like, [father voice] "No. You're not funny."

Your dad was in Patriots Day, too.

My dad played my dad in Patriots Day and that's why he thinks that's a good movie. He's a comedian also, and he jokes, and he's a ball buster. He did read the book, and he wasn't upset about the parts that I thought he was upset at: That he never supported my comedy career and things like that. He was upset about the fact that -- [father voice] "How can you let people know that me and your mom always argue in the house? You can't let people know that I have credit card debt."

That's just life.

I did not realise in Hong Kong that you get an English first name or nickname.

Hong Kong was a British colony and you're born with a Chinese name. My Chinese name is Man Shing which means "ten thousand success." It's a name that's sure to set me up for failure. My English given name was Jimmy. There's not really an explanation for it. My parents gave it to me because apparently it just sounded good to them.

My dad's name is Richard. And I asked him, why is your name Richard? [father voice] "Cause I want to be rich." Very simple straightforward Asian man thinking.

My mom name is Amy because that's her Chinese nickname -- Ah-Mee. They named my brother Roger after Roger Moore their favorite James Bond. How Asian is that? Like James Bond is so Asian for some reason.

Especially Roger Moore. That's a very specific James Bond.

And my brother hated that name. He was like, "That's an old white guy name." So eventually, when he turned 18, he changed his name to Roy. Which is very ironic because that's an old black guy's name.

In the book you mentioned that you played ping-pong as a kid and that you were good at it.

I was pretty good.

In fact, your first time on TV was endorsing a ping-pong table?

You can't get any more stereotypically Asian. I was competitive ping-pong player. I played in youth tournaments, under the age of 13. I was really small, cute little kid, and there was a TV interview on the local news. They brought in these adjustable-height tables that a ping-pong company was testing out. I was one of the testers on TV playing it. And, they loved me. They brought me for an in-studio interview the next day. Everybody in my family was there. Hong Kong is such a small place, it's like Manhattan. People thought I was a superstar celebrity. But actually I wasn't that good at ping-pong, I just looked better than I actually was. When I lost in
a school tournament, it was really sad. Everybody thought I was a fraud.

Are you any good now?

I'm decent, I actually went over to play at my buddy's house who has a ping-pong table. I lost pretty handily. I can still toss the ball really high and serve with some spin. But I'm not good at consistently hitting the ball anymore. It takes a lot of practice.

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Josh Miller/CNET

But going back to growing up, when does being a stand-up come into your being?

When I grew up in Hong Kong, I'd never seen any stand-up and even now there's maybe one comedy club. It's not really a thing historically as an art form in China or Hong Kong. And when I first came here, my first stand-up that I watched was BET Comic View. I don't know if you guys remember that? It was really awesome. I was watching BET not just to learn the language but to also learn the cadence and the culture.

The one good thing about stand-up comedy is it's not just jokes. It's people telling us about culture, and stereotypes, and in a funny way what America's about. So I really thought that was interesting. I didn't even know that white people did that and black people did that. I don't know, people did different things, right? In Hong Kong it's all just Chinese people anyways. It was really interesting to me to see all the different stereotypes and cultures and beliefs here. So, that's I guess how I got in to stand-up, or got interested in stand-up.

It seems to me that as you were getting into stand-up and becoming more successful that's when you also starting going after acting jobs, right?

I think that's a pretty natural progression in LA. I just wanted to get a couple of commercials, because my buddy told me he was a security guard -- basically an extra -- in this vodka commercial and he made $60,000 off residuals. These commercial gigs could be a lottery ticket and that's all I wanted to do. I just wanted to do stand-up and a commercial or two every year so I can sustain living in LA. But then one thing led to another and I went through really crappy auditions. One of my favorite parts of the book is the 101 auditions that I logged. Before I went on to the 102nd audition, which was Silicon Valley.

I used to be an actor.

Really?

I think it's funny that you kept track of all your auditions.

All these roles are really -- [reads from audition list]

  • Taiwanese, 20 -- looks 12 -- computer geek.
  • Loud Japanese host
  • Chinese restaurant owner
  • Walmart employee speaks Mandarin
  • Young Asian guy friend of Haley

All these very stereotypical roles that are two line parts. Then eventually, I booked a couple of these. The first one I booked was on Two Broke Girls. It was just a person in line with two lines (of dialogue). The Always Sunny part is in here somewhere. Out of the 101 auditions, and I booked maybe four things. And whatever commercials that I did book, like I did a Verizon one and even an Apple one, they never aired. I never got any money for it. That $60,000 is not as easy as it seems. And the 102nd one was Silicon Valley.

A couple auditions that stood out to me from your list were: Samsung "journalist/DJ" and a different Samsung one -- "hip/casual". What is hip/casual?

Now, I guess? Hip/casual?

T-Mobile band guy, Verizon proud son.

Proud son, I got that job.

Here is one that stands out to me: Apple, voice of Siri Mandarin.
Yes. I auditioned for the voice of Siri in Taiwan Mandarin or something. That job paid $200,000. But you have to sit a booth for months. I didn't get it cause my Mandarin is not perfect. I don't think I would have gotten the English Siri job, either.

Going back to your dad. You got him into acting, but why? He was an economist? Or -- what was his job?

He was a businessman back in Hong Kong. And when he got here he became a financial advisor. That's why he wanted me to do finance and econ and stuff like that. When he saw that I was finally getting some roles he was like, [father voice] "It's so easy. He can do it. I can probably do this."

I thought I would teach him a lesson. I signed him up with my agent, and she started sending him out on some auditions. And you know how hard the audition process is. Out of 100, I'd book maybe 4. And for him, out of his first six he booked four. It completely backfired on me. [father voice] "My god this is easy."

And my aunt would call the house from Shanghai and be like, [aunt voice] "Hey Richard, you're such a good actor. Your son must have taken after you." This is not going well for me.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the story about your It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia audition. Your dad was invited initially to audition.

They were looking for an older scientist that can speak Mandarin and English. We have the same agent now, me and my dad. She was going to send my dad into it. But it's a very Americanized, improvised, show. My dad might not understand that type of humor. My agent made a last minute call and asked, "do you think your dad's ready for it?"

I kind of lied and I'm like "he's ready" -- because he's my dad. But I knew he wouldn't get that kind of humor. My agent made the call and wanted me to come in instead. And that was one of the first big parts that I got on TV. [pause] So I took the job from my dad.

What stuck me was your dad's reaction to that, because throughout the book he's so critical of everything you do. But when that happened there was this nice little moment between you.

Yeah, he was kind of humble. He was like, "You know what? Maybe she made the right call. I don't think I would have been very good at this."

I feel like he's the American dad that's trying to live vicariously through his son, through high school football. You know, yell at him because he wished he could've played football. It probably comes from a little insecurity. That's why he's so critical. It's nice to see that moment of vulnerability.

OK, so how long is it going to take for this book to be a Netflix show?

I'm working on it. This will be life after Silicon Valley I hope. We're in the early phases of picking the right place to land it and develop it. But I'm pretty excited about it. It could be a fun show kind of like Atlanta or The Master of None -- Asian version. Naturally, it has to be. I can't just make it into a Nigerian version.

Well, you could… but you shouldn't.

Yeah, that's true.

What are some of the more strange or interesting jobs you've had to support yourself as a comedian?
When I graduated and I didn't go into econ, I had three jobs in San Diego. I was a used car salesman during the day. It was the crappiest car lot you can think of too. We sold cars to people for 24-percent interest. It was their last resort. We sold to people with bad credit. Our slogan was: Either you buy our Dodge Neon or you go take a bus. Pretty easy sales job.

In the evening, I work at the comedy club -- at this place called Comedy Palace. It's a Greek restaurant during the day and a comedy club at night. I worked the door, collected tickets, folded envelopes and I would do a set if I was lucky -- if they gave me the stage time.

Then at the end at night, I'll put in another shift. I'll go to a strip club, and I worked as a strip club DJ. And that's a whole chapter. Is me being a strip club DJ.

That is a whole chapter. Honestly, you just got to read it. What's interesting is you're constantly in the situation of trying to feel like you belong someplace, whether it's at school, doing comedy, on a TV show or audition or even at a strip club. But then at the same time you're so genuine which maybe leads to disappointment.

I think everything -- stand-up, strip club DJ or even acting -- is what a foreign person's view of America is in a way. "This is a very American cool thing that you want to do." If you watch too much music videos growing up, you'd think strip club DJ is one of the coolest jobs ever. But it's not. Nobody wanted to work there. They've all been in prison multiple times, that's why they're there. I'm the only idiot that actually wanted to work there. For the longest time, I tried very hard to be American because I've always felt like the foreigner, the outsider. And eventually, it's those lessons that I learnt -- OK, this is not actually a great job working in strip club or selling used cars. That landed me into trying different things like stand-up and got me to where I am now.

I wonder about the timing of the book coming out now, especially in the current atmosphere in our country. How do you think this can help the conversation we're having as Americans about immigration, immigration reform, how we treat immigrants?

I didn't take or try to argue a certain viewpoint in this book. And I don't really do that in real life. I think immigration itself has become a problem because it's become a political issue. One side thinks this and the other side thinks that. It's become an argument. I hope that this book will humanize that experience a little more when people see it from a genuine honest point-of-view -- and in a light-hearted way from my story. They can understand what it's like to be an immigrant firsthand. And maybe, you know, it'll humanize it more and make them come up with a more informed decision on whatever their viewpoint is. Instead of trying to jam it down their throat.

Ultimately it's empathy. In your book you also talk about being on the last Arsenio Hall Show.

It was one of the last episodes. He was promised a second season. I did the show on a Friday and Arsenio was like, "Man, you did it, man. You did it." And I was super happy. He was one of my heroes growing up. He's like, "Come back anytime, dude. We'd love to have you anytime." And he got canceled the next Monday. I don't know what happened.

It's not you, probably.

Probably.

OK, so I have a thing called pick one. I give you three things and you just gotta pick one. OK. And we just go fast through these. The first one is LA, San Diego or San Francisco.

Come on. That's not even fair. I have to say San Francisco if I want to leave this building.

You have to. All right, next one. Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, or Kanye?

I gotta say Jay Z.

Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, or Nintendo Switch?

I really wanna buy the Nintendo Switch. I had the decision between Xbox or PlayStation. But all my friends were on PlayStations, so I ended up getting the PlayStation. But I think I'm going to need to get an Xbox, too because I want to play Overwatch with both groups of friends. But the Switch, I heard, is amazing. So that's a tough one. I'm gonna say PlayStation, for now, because that's what I play.

That's fair. I'll respect that. Get a Switch though. All right, UberEats GrubHub or SeeFood? 

I think SeeFood. Yeah, I think SeeFood.

Sopranos, The Wire or Games Of Thrones?

Sopranos.

Really?

That's my favorite show of all time. I've watched every episode like five times. I love Game Of Thrones, though. You know I haven't seen The Wire. I feel it's such a good show that it needs my full attention for me to sit down and actually watch it.

And if you do watch it, just get through season two.

Should I skip a season?

No, no, don't skip it. But when you get to season two you might be like "What is going on?" Just get through it and you'll be like, "Thank you, David Simon." Next one, T.J. Miller in Deadpool, T.J. Miller in the Mucinex commercial or T.J. Miller in the Yogi Bear Movie?

What a prolific actor, huh? I think Mucinex, yeah. That mucus is very cute.

That's some sweet snot there. iPhone, Android phone or flip phone?

I wish I can go back to a flip phone, but I can't.

How come?

Because I have to be on a level playing field, or else I'll be getting information too slowly. That's my dream: To get a flip phone if I could. But I need everyone else to also get a flip phone for it to work. But I'm an iPhone guy.

Last one: How to American hardcover, How to American ebook, or How to American audio book?

Maybe all three, man. The hardcover is nice. You've got some cool pictures, and you can see the audition log and everything. The ebook is cool, you can skip you can just type Ctrl+F and go to some section. But the audio book, I read the whole thing myself so that will be fun too. Get all three, guys. Yeah. You guys have a tech job, you guys have money.

Clearly they are working so hard. OK so, my last question. I know you're here to talk to us, but you also have a stand-up tour?

Yeah, yeah. I'll come back here (San Francisco) in May, at the Punch Line. Go to jimmycomedy.com for all my appearances and to get tickets.

What's your handle social handle?

@funnyasiandude.

Thanks for talking with us.