Behind the Asian Comedy Festival’s journey to elevating AANHPI voices and businesses

Behind the Asian Comedy Festival’s journey to elevating AANHPI voices and businessesBehind the Asian Comedy Festival’s journey to elevating AANHPI voices and businesses
via Ann Yoo
Michelle De Pacina
11 days ago
Before venturing into the world of comedy, filmmaker and comedian Kate Lee Moran grew up feeling isolated as a Korean adoptee. 
Moran, born in Seoul and raised in Buffalo, New York, would often get into fights with her classmates growing up. It was through performing arts, she says, that she was able to find the solace and power to truly express herself. Despite initially pursuing performance in acting and comedy, Moran transitioned to producing and directing, driven by her desire to amplify marginalized voices. 
Through initiatives like “The Revolution,” a stand-up comedy show spotlighting women and non-binary comics, and festivals showcasing diverse talents, Moran has since consistently championed inclusivity. After attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she honed her comedy skills at the Peoples Improv Theater, where she crossed paths with Edward Yoo Pokropski, a comedian and a two-time Emmy-nominated senior writer and producer at NBCUniversal, who shares her passion for showcasing Asian voices. A producer had reached out to them about the idea of a comedy festival exclusively hosting Asian talents. 
“Ed and I are both Korean adoptees, which is just honestly a coincidence,” Moran tells NextShark. “We didn’t know each other before we were connected. Ed and I started collaborating together, and we were like, ‘Oh, this is perfect. Let’s create this festival because there’s really a need.’ It was just kind of a match made in heaven.”
Ed Pokropski and Kate Moran. Images via ACF, Arin Sang-urai
The project would soon officially become known as the Asian Comedy Festival (ACF). Its inaugural event in 2020 featured a wide array of comedic acts, including star Ronny Chieng. Since then, ACF has been the largest and longest-running New York City-based international comedy fest dedicated to elevating diverse voices within the Asian and Pacific Islander community. 
The launch, which coincided with Lunar New Year, proved to be a resounding success despite initial concerns about attendance. With standing-room-only crowds, lines out the door and a diverse audience, the festival exceeded the founders’ expectations and highlighted a hunger for Asian representation in comedy. 
“We had a ton of people show up,” Moran shares. “It was not all Asian Americans who were coming to see this. It was a very diverse audience who were there to enjoy and partake in the festival. I think it made us all really emotional that our stories are worth hearing, that they’re valid, that they’re specific but universal. And that’s what we all really believe in and continue to this day.”
via Ann Yoo
Besides uplifting AANHPI talents and bringing joy to audiences, the ACF founders have made it its mission to support Asian-owned small businesses, partnering with numerous Asian entrepreneurs and raising over $22,000 for local AANHPI charities. 
Moran and Pokropski credits the remarkable and meticulous work of their co-founder, Yao King, whose philanthropic interests span from championing the arts to aiding the underprivileged and advocating for social issues and representation. 
King highlights how ACF evolved from initially being envisioned as a solely for-profit venture to embracing a model more focused on uplifting the community and performers. He also shares anecdotes illustrating the festival’s impact, including how it has introduced people to small Asian-founded businesses and created more opportunities and financial support for comedians and other emerging talents.
“Every year, we select a number of community partners, including a non-profit, that we can support with the fest,” King explains. “I think that was a key part of the evolution of ACF, trying to uplift the community along with the performers. All of our product sponsors each year are Asian-founded brands, and we’re looking for win-wins not just for the comics, but for anyone that partners with us. That approach has helped us make record donations to our non-profit partners each and every year.”
via ACF, Ann Yoo
For this year’s festival and their fifth anniversary, ACF is partnering with the nonprofit organization Welcome to Chinatown. The organization helps address the critical needs of the Chinatown community and its entrepreneurs. The festival will be hosted at the newly established Asian-owned social club, Sugar Mouse. According to King, this choice aligns with the festival’s goal of supporting Asian-owned businesses, serving as an opportunity to help promote the opening of the club. 
Their stated mission to serve the community also translates in their curation of the ACF lineup. While talent is a priority, they also aim for diverse representation within the AANHPI diaspora and a balance between established and up-and-coming comedians. This year, they are exploring a new format by partnering with established Asian-run comedy shows and performers such as Asian AF, Asianology, Banana Ketchup and Boba Gays. 
Looking ahead, Pokropski envisions expanding the comedy festival’s reach across the U.S., with plans for potential pop-ups or specials on streaming services. The founders also aspire to establish the festival as an institution that fosters connections, provides support and cultivates growth for comedians, small businesses and Asian-owned restaurants.
“We really want to be known nationally and then get to a place where we’re not needed anymore, where Asian-owned businesses and comics are so well-established and so mainstream that we don’t need the extra support,” Moran says. “That’s the dream.”
Reflecting on the significance of AANHPI Heritage Month, Pokropski encourages Asian comedians to remain authentic and resist pressure to conform to stereotypes. Emphasizing the festival’s commitment to inclusivity and acceptance, Pokropski affirms that comedians should feel empowered to “come as you are” without compromising their individuality or cultural identity.
“The fact that you’re representing the Asian community is enough,” Pokropski says. “We’re hoping to embrace everyone in any way possible.” 
Moran also emphasizes the importance of finding one’s community as a source of support and validation. Like Pokropski, she encourages individuals to embrace their diverse stories and experiences within the AANHPI diaspora.
“The lesson I’ve learned in this festival is that finding your community is key because at the end of the day, that’s where your heart is and where your truth lies,” Moran says. “So whenever there is any kind of doubt or self-hatred, lean into your community if you’re able to find that. All of your stories are so different and unique. As much as our show is about the diaspora, the content is so diverse. That’s something we always champion: we’re not a monolith, yet we are a community. We’re one big super diverse, sometimes dysfunctional, but really loving family. Find that family.”
This year’s festival performances will take place on May 7, 14 and 15. Tickets are available on the ACF official website.
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