By John Ortved
Photos by Jennifer Rocholl
Kelvin Yu is everywhere. And everything. Looks, brain, talent. Acts, sings, writes, conquers planets. When I reach him in LA on Tuesday in June, he’s being a husband, dogwalker, and rap fiend.
Yu sits at a rarified place in Hollywood, alternatively acting and writing on some of the most sophisticated, award-winning comedy series on TV. Much has been made of his stereotype-shattering role as Aziz Ansari’s hunky best friend in "Master of None" (Vulture called him a “hottie” on a show “that has quietly shifted the paradigm of Asian-American representation on television”). Meanwhile, since 2011, he and his writing partner Steven Davis, have been writing and producing on "Bob’s Burgers" — for which he’s picked up a couple Emmys — the cultish, fan-friendly show that has supplanted "The Simpsons" as everyone’s (or everyone with taste’s) favorite animated sitcom.
Next: the world. Netflix, the Thanos or Loki of the film world — depending on where you stand — is entrusting him with a global film project rooted in Asia. Yet all he wants to talk about is rap.
“Music has gotten so hard to manage. I’ll hear a song come on in my car, and I will glance at the stereo, and I honestly won’t know what is the album, song, or artist. Wale, Shine, DNA. Which is which?” Yu’s taste for hip-hop came from breakdancing, which he began in Palos Verdes, a wealthy enclave of Los Angeles. “In high school, I would spend my lunch break in the gym, where the teachers would lay down mats so we could breakdance. And then I would go off and audition for Pirates of Penzance,” he says.
Before high school, his earliest days were spent in Culver City. “I grew up with all Mexicans until I was 12, then moved to an area where it was all white and Asian people,” he says. “I was looking for a place. In high school, theater is a fairly raceless place. If a kid can hit a high note, he’s getting that role.”
Performing was clearly on his mind. For college, he wanted to study theater at NYU, but his father disapproved of his career ambitions. They compromised, and he stayed in his hometown and attended UCLA. “He played right into my hand,” says Yu. In his senior year, Ryan Murphy — the producer, of "Glee," "American Horror Story," "Nip/Tuck"and many more — cast him in his the WB’s "Popular" (he played an ironic take on a nerdy Asian kid). And soon he landed more parts, on shows like "Felicity," "ER" and "Gilmore Girls," as well as in critically acclaimed films like Milk. But acting left him wanting.
“It’s a really unhealthy way to wake up in the morning,” he says. You control very little. Your career is in the hands of others, and you’re victim to Hollywood’s fickle wants, needs and prejudices. It was on Milk, in fact, that he began writing. “I was like, even Sean Penn is sitting over there, waiting around,” he says. “When you’re a writer, it really occupies your mind all day. Writing you can just nibble. Acting you can’t do that. It’s a healthier way to live than waking up in the morning and hoping your agent calls.”
A pilot he and Davis had written got in front of "Bob’s Burgers" executive producer Jim Dautrieve, not that he thought anything would come of it, even after he was hired. He thought it would be a fun six months, nothing more. But the show is not only on its eighth season, it’s revived the standard for what an animated sitcom — and a sitcom, really — can be (irreverent, punchy, catchy and droll, while simultaneously heartwarming, and socially conscious).
And then the pendulum swung back. Yu found himself missing acting. In 2014, he was shooting a legal pilot for ABC when the call for "Master of None" came in. “I sent in a quickly-made tape (I wanted to take my wife to dinner that night) and the next morning I got a personal text from Aziz asking if I could fly to NYC to meet the producers.” A few months later, about 75 years of what could make a stud on TV was challenged.
Writing and acting success already achieved, Yu isn’t necessarily satisfied. He and his brother, an award-winning fiction writer, are collaborating on yet another project that's still under wraps. Meanwhile he and Davis are looking east, as Netflix has asked them to write a movie, definitely not titled Kung Fu Grandpa, which looks to suit a worldwide audience, but very much with the Asian market in mind.
“Chinese audiences are really sensitive. I don’t know how you make a movie that’s going to play well in Shanghai that’s also going to play well in Ohio,” he says. “When it comes to the deeper stuff about stories and characters and heroes and leading men, it’s a real conundrum for writers and directors.”
It also speaks to his own personal tension: the difficulty of being at once a Taiwanese son and an American man. “The former you’re driven by duty, to your parents and the group. And then you’re supposed to click into another mode in the workplace, or in the structure of Hollywood where you kick down doors and demand a raise.”
Living between acting and writing, film, and TV, Hollywood pressure and diversity’s angles feels like a good deal of tension. But for Yu, it’s released in two places. The first is through his marriage, “Getting married allowed me to use my entire brain. My single friends when I’m out with them you can tell 15% of them is not listening to me.”
His second solace is in the water, where he surfs as much as possible. “I grew up surfing. I’m in the water a few times a week or I go crazy and start punching things,” he says. “I don’t want to sound too Patrick Swayze, but it’s hard to care about your stupid petty daily life when you get in the ocean.”
This makes Yu sound a little more “namaste-d out” (his words) than he really is. He looks at those people in Hollywood like Ryan Murphy (“Ryan Murphy will be the last Ryan Murphy,” he says), like Jordan Peele, and he wonders how they do it all. He marvels at them. “It’s enough to light a fire under your ass.”
John Ortved is a New York City-based writer who watches altogether too much TV. His articles and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, the New York Times and Vogue. You can twitter him @jortved.