How Being an Undocumented Kid Helped Atsuko Okatsuka Find the Humor in Life

When Atsuko Okatsuka and her family came to the United States when she was 10, she didn't realize they planned on staying.EXPAND
When Atsuko Okatsuka and her family came to the United States when she was 10, she didn't realize they planned on staying.
David Brocca

The one-year anniversary of the Mermaid Comedy Hour, a monthly stand-up show that only books women and prides itself on never booking the same guest twice, was supposed to be a raucous celebration.

The stage had been decorated with a gold “happy anniversary” banner, there were candy goody bags placed on every chair, and attendees had been asked to dress like mermaids for a costume contest. But the mood that night had been significantly dulled by the results of the presidential election the week before.

Barbara Gray was bummed. Instead of talking only about herself, she said onstage, people expected her to joke about politics now? Kristal Adams said she was trying to be nicer to white people — she didn’t want to be looked at as the angry black woman from a sitcom (although she’d consider playing one if there were any TV writers in the audience, she said). The Puterbaugh Sisters, a power suit–wearing comedy duo from the Midwest, were feeling nostalgic for the things they used to consider problems: not having an agent, not getting booked for a TV comedy special. Now, they worried about not being able to make decisions about their own uteruses or the possibility of their friends getting deported.

For Atsuko Okatsuka, another comic who performed that night, the fear of deportation wasn’t totally unfamiliar. When she was 10 years old, her mother and grandmother packed their bags and moved the family from Japan to the United States. They told Okatsuka they were only going on a vacation, and she didn’t know they’d planned all along to overstay their two-month visas.

“We didn’t do it through the legal process because that would take too long,” Okatsuka says. Her mother’s mental health had been deteriorating, and she felt that living in Japan — which her mother associated with her divorce — was only making her schizophrenia worse. “She was threatening suicide and depressed, and so you know, like many other people, my grandma was like, ‘Well, let’s go to the States, I hear that’s where you’re supposed to go. That’s where dreams come true,’” Okatsuka told me after her set at iO West Theater in Hollywood.

The first couple of years weren’t easy. The family quietly stayed in Okatsuka’s uncle’s garage in West Los Angeles and tried to fake a sense of normalcy: Okatsuka enrolled in elementary school and taught herself to speak English. She mostly tried to stay out of trouble. “You can’t really be running around causing arguments and stuff if you’re undocumented,” she says. “So I went to public school and I would come back home to the garage — like, I would hang out with my friends, but I would never talk openly about how I got here [to the United States].”

She and her family entered the lottery for a green card every year, and after seven years of waiting — and hiding — their names were finally drawn. By that time, she was about to graduate from Venice High, and she’d started to take an interest in comedy. “I think moving here, it was like survival mode, and when I finally realized I was here for good, that’s when I really started appreciating the humor in things,” she says. “And being like, this isn’t terrible — it sucks. But making my family around me, making myself giggle, it was important, you know?”

After college in Orange County, she began performing at local clubs, experimenting with a deadpan style of stand-up that she likens to that of Mitch Hedberg. “For some reason, this one Latino comedian, DJ Cooch, took a big liking to me, and so I was opening for him and he was headlining for a while,” she says. “So I was hanging out with, like, a bunch of Latinos, some of them were kind of like tatted dudes, you know? That was the audience.”

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Then she discovered storytelling shows such as The Moth and Mortified — she now runs one of her own at the Lyric Hyperion — and her stand-up morphed into something more conversational and less traditional. “I think audience members started being able to even finish jokes for the comedians at the big comedy clubs, you know? Like a setup punch line,” she says of what was happening in comedy at the time. Now her favorite places to perform include an outdoor taco stand and the upstairs lounge of a Chinese restaurant in Los Feliz, near where she lives. “It always has to be somewhere where you’re cramped and maybe standing and a little uncomfortable physically. That’s alt-comedy.”

But Okatsuka hasn’t forgotten her roots. Her stand-up set that Monday night focused largely on a recent trip to Olive Garden with her mother and grandmother. It was her mother’s birthday, and she insisted on ordering the “Tour of Italy” dinner special to celebrate. She wanted to binge on every kind of soup and eat endless salads and bread sticks. She wanted servers to sing "Happy Birthday" while clapping their hands in unison, and she wanted to eat her slice of free chocolate cake at the end of it all. Finally, she was living the American Dream.

atsukookatsuka.com


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