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2023 SXSW Festivals Film Uncategorized

It’s okay to be lonely: An interview with Kevin Yee

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The past couple of years has forced us all to reckon with a pronounced sense of loneliness. Whether it was social and physical isolation or questions of whether our careers were truly forever stuck, the pandemic further exposed our insecurities of how much time we had to accomplish what we wanted to.

At this year’s SXSW, Kevin Yee dove headfirst into those intrusive thoughts with his aptly named episodic pilot A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone. While juggling acting, writing, a latent love for slapstick comedy, and the uncompromising drama of aging in the entertainment industry, Kevin was able to offer insight into what it’s like in the writer’s room, encouragement for queer and Asian creatives to stay in the fight for visibility, and certainly how to not die completely alone.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kevin Yee. Photo by Nina Menconi.

So, first of all, welcome to SXSW. I would like to ask if you’ve had any highlights so far?

I mean, it’s day two, so I am very tired. First of all, it’s a lot of energy. And I’ve also, as we were saying before, I have been pulled up for the entire pandemic. This is the biggest thing with the most people I’ve done in three years. We had a filmmaker orientation at Troublemaker Studios that was really, really cool to go just see where people make stuff in Austin and to be surrounded and meet all the other filmmakers.

I think that is what I find most exciting about this festival– meeting other filmmakers and creators. That and barbecue because we’re in Austin.The barbecue is really good.

I highly recommend Cooper’s.

I went to Cooper’s and I spent $40 because I didn’t know how to order.

Was it good, though? It was really good. But I ate about a third of it, and I felt really bad because it was such a waste of food. 

Exterior of Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Austin, Texas.

For A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone, how much of Ben’s character was autobiographical and how much was not? 

It was pretty autobiographical. Ben does write novels, and I’m not a novelist, but I am a writer for TV, so there were similarities. I would say the biggest difference is that Ben isn’t in show business. And so he’s not as much of a dreamer. I think he’s just a little bitchier than me. Not to say that I’m not bitchy, but he has a little bit of a drier, dreamless bitchy quality. That I think is grounded in realism, and so he feels things in a darker way than I personally do. I think he’s just aimless, and I think dreams are so important in life, and it’s something that maybe he doesn’t have. His journey is more just finding his place in the world, and I have that as well. I think his is just more amped up than me. So discovering the dream, that’s what the journey is.

Ben, played by Kevin Yee in A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone.

As a working artist who also feels like I get bored in one medium or another, it’s kind of that jack of all trades thing that has always haunted me. It’s led to self doubt of like, well, it’s because you’re not committing 100% to that one thing. And I think that’s a real distinct and also modern artist issue in the world. Everyone has to kind of become a Renaissance person, but what if you don’t even know what the one thing is?

But Hollywood doesn’t want you to be one thing is the problem. You have to be multi-talented in 2023, especially because now we’re doing our own content, and we’re TikTok stars, et cetera. And then even this, for instance. I am an actor, filmmaker, writer. I’m doing it all. But it’s to facilitate the bigger thing, which is to be able to tell stories that are specifically Asian. But if I didn’t have all of the skills, I don’t know if I could have even accomplished this. I had to make really shitty films ten years ago in order to make good stuff and write bad stuff, and try all the different parts of filmmaking. To make the bigger picture, or at least know how to put the pieces together. 

And so I think you need that. And even when trying to sell a series, they’re always like–they being Hollywood–you have to make it to show it. And so it’s like you do need to be a jack of all trades. As much as I agree with you, I have that feeling too, because I do so many things that it’s like, if I just committed to one thing, would that help? But I also feel like when I think about it for myself, storytelling is what I like to do and connecting with an audience.

So it’s not just acting, and it’s not just turning on a camera. It’s all of the things. And in order to facilitate that, I need to know bits and pieces of all of it. 

A still from A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone.

I want to ask you about loneliness, because loneliness is a big thematic part of the episodic pilot. What sort of thoughts come to mind in the ways that we talk or don’t talk about loneliness? 

Well, I think the one thing is that loneliness is portrayed in one way and friendships are portrayed in one way on film and TV, specifically in Hollywood. I always felt like I was weird for not wanting to be like the friends on Friends and being surrounded and living with five of my friends and constantly being surrounded by people. So there’s this push, I think, to always be around people. And if you’re not, then you’re weird and you’re an outsider. And I don’t think that’s true for this show. I don’t want to give answers to anyone about how not to die alone. That’s not the point of it.

It’s to watch somebody go through that journey. But I think specifically with Ben, and it’s something within my own self that I’m exploring, is like, what makes me not lonely, not what TV tells me or what society tells me, but what makes me comfortable and what makes me happy? And also, am I okay to be lonely? Because loneliness isn’t always terrible either. We can be solo travelers. We can live through society by ourselves, and that’s okay. We don’t have to be married. We don’t have to have kids to fulfill ourselves.

Because one thing I found in my life is that all of the things that I thought would fulfill me didn’t. And it was all very surface level things, career things and stuff like that. And so the journey is deeper. And so I hope that people can see that within this character and with other things that I create as well, is that we in society, us humans, are defined in a certain way. And it’s not to say you are a victim if you’re not that or if you’re a complete outsider, but it’s like, what makes you happy and what makes you feel like you’re existing? And that’s what I want to pursue within my own work and within myself, too, as I am getting older. This push to get married and to have kids and “Am I weird to not have that?” is unfair, I think, because that’s not all of us.

Being alone and being comfortable with that and being with yourself, being in the company of yourself, resonates really strongly with me.

And I think that with Ben’s character, he is struggling with that. He’s struggling with the expectations that society has put on him. But the question I’m trying to ask is in the future, if the show goes on in future episodes, is it actually okay to be where he is in his position? I also feel that for myself. A lot of this show came out of my fear that I was too career based. And everyone always goes like, “you have to have a good work life balance.” And it’s not that I disagree with that, but my work is my passion, too.

I’m an artist and that is my passion. It feels like that’s the center of my life. My center of my life is not to get married and have kids. And so when people tell me that, it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong or bad, and I don’t think that’s right.

And I may regret it when I’m 80 and dying alone. You know what I mean? But in this moment, I don’t think it’s a monolith. Like us humans shouldn’t have one goal together. We are all different. So can we celebrate that? And is it wrong to? I’m not saying that what I’m saying is right either because like I said, I could feel this in the future. But right now, I feel like Ben specifically is going to go on this journey, and you’re going to see him in the show really struggle with trying to do it.

A still from A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone.

It’s supposed to be a roasting of the self help industry. Because I feel like so much of it is ridiculous and it’s intangible. It’s not that I disagree with it. And it’s not that I don’t think it works for some people, but it’s almost this feeling that if you read the books and you don’t do what they say or you do what they say and you don’t get the results they say you’re supposed to get, then it’s your fault. And is that fair? But again, I don’t necessarily have the answer because it’s like in a few years, I might be like, “Oh, no, I fucked up my life because I didn’t follow that book.”

So there’s a moment  in the pilot when Ben’s revelation about how to move forward summons tears and grief. It’s a joyous and terrifying moment. Can you talk a bit about crafting the scene and what emotions you are drawing from?

It’s a tough scene because it’s supposed to encapsulate the show and everything in the show. So it starts as a comedy, and I think the banter starts very comedic, but then I think it is this [scene.] I’ve had many revelations like this in my life. It’s like once you have this realization, you can’t go back. And once you let that emotion out, it’s with you forever. And because this is a pilot and it’s showing where it could go, you see the switch in him that I really needed the audience to see. It was difficult to craft because we were trying to bridge the gap of comedy and drama.

As somebody who is an artist who watches a lot of films, I try not to be self indulgent in a way that makes me uncomfortable sometimes. But with this, I felt this was the first time I needed to go there. And even as a performer, I don’t think anyone has ever captured me on camera in a drama. Everything is comedy. But I knew that with this, I needed it to resonate in a dark way for people to see the funniness, but also to see the darkness, and then to see the funniness within the darkness.

I was really lucky because my director is Yen Tan, who’s quite prolific in the queer Asian film Community, and we met while writing a movie that we’re currently pitching with an all queer Asian ensemble cast. [Tan] is so good and comfortable in the silence. I am uncomfortable with silences. As a comedy writer, I love rhythm, fastness going past it. And so the combination of us really worked and I knew it would because of the way that he directs, and I very much just let him do what he needed to do, even though I was the creator of it.

I really let him, as a director, make it how he saw it because I wanted the difference between the two. I will admit that the bigger part was that I wanted the representation. And so when I was performing I wanted people to see themselves maybe for the first time in a way that they hadn’t before. And because I’m an artist, that isn’t insular. It’s about connecting with the audience. I knew the importance of that scene bridging that gap of comedy and drama, but also hoping that people would relate to it. Even if you’re not queer and Asian, no matter what your background. If you haven’t had that moment, then you’re very lucky in life. Like I was saying, once you have that moment, it’s with you forever and you can’t go back and you can’t hide it.

I call it the Catcher in the Rye moment, where it’s just like you have this realization the world isn’t the fantasy that you thought it was and your life isn’t going the way you thought it was. And now you have to figure out how to keep living with this new knowledge that you wish you didn’t know.

Poster for A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone.

So in the pilot, A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone is a book.

Can you tell us anything about the book that we don’t get to see in the pilot? Is it real? Are there other parts of the book that were supposed to be in it? And does that bear a large amount of significance in the future of this project?

Yeah, the book is the central piece. How do I do this without giving away anything? The book is the show because it is the connector from the father’s character to the son throughout the series and the ending of the book.

I read in an interview that you have a slapstick sensibility towards comedy. Could you talk about the inspirations you have there in terms of slapstick?

I mean, I definitely grew up watching cartoons, and even as an adult, I watch Bob’s Burgers every day with my breakfast. And I wouldn’t call them slapstick, but I do think I have a very animated feel, and also because I’ve done a lot in the musical theater world as a performer. I like that type of performance, too. I feel like people look down upon [slapstick.] And I think it’s actually harder to do comedy sometimes than drama, because as a writer, you have to have a punchline every three lines. I like to just embrace that side of me and just say “I do like that, and I will watch that, and I find it entertaining.”

And in a moment of darkness in the world, you can really escape it through comedy and slapstick, and everything has a purpose: drama, comedy, everything. But I think people should respect comedy more.

That physical comedy, right? Like, having that presence. Personally, I think most people don’t really associate Asian people with physical comedy at all, or maybe even in physical spaces. And so the fact that you’re going there and that some of your inspirations is super meaningful because it’s representation elsewhere. I want to envision you working in animation at some point in the future. 

I actually have… yeah, I can say this. I just wrote on a show called Hailey’s On It!, which is coming to Disney Channel this summer, and it stars Auliʻi Cravalho and Manny Jacinto, who plays Jason Mendoza on The Good Place. So I do have a cartoon that I wrote for that’s coming out. I wrote like nine episodes on it. And it’s really funny, very slapstick. 

Promotional image for Hailey’s On It! Premiering on Disney Channel in 2023.

How does writing for animation compare to writing for other mediums?

Well, in this case, I’ve only written live action for streamers. So you have to write them full season-wise. And for the cartoon, because there’s like 60 episodes, it’s more like a factory in the way that TV used to be made, where they had to have a new episode every week. With this cartoon, for instance, it was very lightly serialized. There is a through line, but we didn’t have to think about it from episode to episode and we would just pitch the episode. It was very joke driven.

Whereas the other projects that I’ve worked on that are live action, we had to think about the overall arc of the eight episodes. I also just wrote on a half hour dramedy and that also you had to think about the whole picture of the season. That can actually be more difficult and a little more overanalyzed too, because it’s only eight episodes. For cartoons you don’t have time to overanalyze it, which I personally think is better. And that’s how I create the best, is to just go for it. When I overthink projects, it takes too long and then I never get started.

Animation is its own beast. I can’t say that I like one or the other better, but I would say comedy-wise, the show that I’ve written on has that slapstick sensibility, which I really enjoy making.

Do you have any words of wisdom for your younger self?

It’s hard because I don’t want to say that I’m a masochist, but it is really difficult to be queer and Asian in this industry. I think that for my younger self, I would just have to say, “Buckle up, because it’s going to be tough.” But I also feel like maybe that would have been helpful because my heart has been broken so many times by this industry.

And if I had prepared myself to know that instead of being this hopeful person… not to say that that’s bad. I say this in my episode too. I thought the rules were the same for everyone, and that is not true. 

It is not true for Asian people, and it is not true for queer people. That’s America. That’s in this world, and this is in Hollywood, too. So if I went into this industry at the age of six thinking that this was a meritocracy, that if I worked harder and that I had the best work, that I would win… that is not the case. I think when I was younger, maybe I could have prepared myself better if I knew that. And now that I’m older, I would say it keeps going and it’s still a struggle.

You know, I turned 40 this year. I’ve been in this industry since I was six. It’s changing so slowly. But it is important for people like us to be in this industry, as hard as it is, as much as you’re going to face. Because if we’re not here, then no one else will be here. And there’s strength in numbers and so many people that are around me give up and then I become weaker because people leave. We need more queer people and Asian people to be in this industry.

And I say that to myself as a young person to keep going. But I also say this to other creatives who are on the brink or that are young or that are struggling, keep going, even if it’s in little ways because we are stronger together.

Can you tell me what it’s like to ride a roller coaster 27 times?

Oh, my gosh. Yes. So I was a kid when this commercial happened, and I had no idea that was what was going to happen. And so what happened was I was hired for the day. I wasn’t necessarily an extra, but they basically put me behind the lead, so I had to be in every shot. And so that roller coaster, I counted, it went 27 times, and I had never gone upside down. I think I was like, maybe eight or nine. I’d never been on a roller coaster that went upside down.

I will say I got used to it really quickly out of necessity. I don’t think I ever saw that commercial, even. But I don’t go on roller coasters anymore. I feel like I’m done with that. I don’t want to know how it feels like to almost die anymore. I think the world is already like that. I don’t want to test that. The past couple of times I’ve been to Disneyland, I’m like, I don’t need to go on that roller coaster because I’ve done enough in that commercial at like nine years old that I never need to do it again.

Whether it’s film, music or something else, what are some Asian creators you’re keeping an eye on? 

I’m a huge, like, Nico Santos fan. I consider him a friend too, but I am more of a fan, I think. I just love that he is so open about who he is. And his representation on Superstore was so important for me because I’d never seen that before.

And we did a comedy festival. Do you know the Comedy Comedy Festival? Yeah, we did it together. And I fangirled over him. It was the first season and I was like, I need to tell you and I don’t know if he really heard me in the way that I was saying it, that this is changing my life.

So the last question I have for you. What’s next for you and the pilot?

So that’s a good question. I wrote this pilot about six years ago. So I’ve been trying for a very long time to sell it, and I know that there’s something special in it because I’ve been staffed on two other TV shows from it, and I’ve gotten an agent from it. I’m here at SXSW with it, but I think that this pilot that I’m presenting is the accumulation of those six years. We almost sold it, like, two years ago to a Canadian company, and then the deal fell through in a really Hollywood weird way that was rude. So that’s what really made me make this. And I was like, I’m going to make it myself. I’m going to self fund it. We had some IndieGoGo money as well, and we made this very beautiful thing. And when I watched the final edit of it, I was like, this could be it.

I write a lot of stuff, so I will be in this industry forever whether they like it or not, and I will be continuously pitch queer and Asian centered stories and stories that hopefully change authenticity within Hollywood. But maybe it’s time for me to move on from this story. Maybe this is the final form. And for it to be here at SXSW is so special to me. So I’m releasing my grip and I’m hoping that that will lead to either me finding my next big story to tell or somebody else seeing it here that will take up the fight with me.

But I can’t do it alone anymore. I’ve done it too long. Even my reps at this point have been like, we tried. No one’s buying it. So I need to move on and loosen my grip. And whatever happens, I leave to the universe.


This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort in-person at SXSW 2023 in Austin, Texas on March 11th, 2023. Header photo by Nina Menconi.

Artist pages: Website | Instagram | Twitter | IMDb 

Film pages: IMDb 

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