At 22, Emma Eun-Joo Choi is the youngest host of the new NPR comedy podcast “Everyone & Their Mom,” which began airing in February 2022. Choi was an intern at the longtime NPR radio show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” As a comedian and journalist, Choi approaches political and societal issues in a nontraditional manner using comedy to inform her audience and shape the narrative of stories in a universal way. A recent graduate of Harvard College, Choi’s plays have appeared at the DC Fringe Festival.
Harvard Political Review: “Everyone & Their Mom” is a show where you and different co-hosts address humorous news stories. How do the ways that comedians transmit information differ from the traditional mechanisms a news anchor might utilize?
Emma Choi: I work with people in the newsroom and it is incredibly journalistic. There are plenty of rules about what you can do. Comedy, of course, is less restricted. Comedy is a really important way for us to dissect the way that the world works for us. Not only do we realize how ridiculous things are at a certain point, but part of the news is the emotion behind these things and the real experiences behind politics and current events. Comedy has an incredibly unique way of finding a different way to talk about these events, because sometimes we realize how ridiculous things can be.
HPR: How is the ability to approach a certain topic in a comedic manner something valuable?
Choi: We get in a lot of trouble when we take ourselves too seriously, no matter if it’s politics or not. Putting things in context is incredibly essential, no matter where you are in life. For me specifically, comedy has helped me process the news. Because everything seems to be terrible sometimes, we can’t just live in doom and gloom. My show was a nice break from that because it is about things that are happening in the world, but it is also about things that are kind of stupid and fun too.
HPR: As an Asian American, what are your thoughts on how Asian identity is represented in political comedy? How does your Asian American identity influence your involvement in political comedy?
Choi: It has evolved a lot over the years. My first exposure to Asian comedy was Margaret Cho and Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), and other incredibly racist and insensitive characters in rom-coms. I didn’t know there was anything else in that.
But recently, there’s been a really big explosion, in not just Asian representation, but also diversity within comedy over the past 10 years and it has been incredible to see. There’s still a lot of work to be done about increasing diversity in the comedy industry.
If you’re a comedian from a diverse racial or ethnic background, you are expected to talk about the experiences that belong to that racial or ethnic background. We, the “Everyone & Their Mom” production team, talked about this a lot behind the scenes at our show: about how we’re trying to represent a lot of different diverse ethnicities and experiences and genders without asking these people on our show to talk about those things specifically. My experience being a woman of color, being an Asian woman has informed me in the ways that I approach booking on my show, and not asking these people to talk about their trauma on our show. Just having these people on our show is enough for representation. A big part of diversity is just letting people be themselves too.
HPR: Comedy, especially political comedy, has become increasingly polarized along ideological lines. Is this divide beneficial or detrimental to comedy in general? And why?
Choi: Most political comedy shows such as The Daily Show are skewed towards the left side of ideological lines. Should there be more comedy right? I don’t have very much to say. I would assume that it is wrong to have comedy exclusively on one side.
But it’s been interesting how jokes can have you end up being canceled for saying the wrong thing. And how people are so angry at cancel culture. This is a big part of when you think of comedy and politics. As long as there’s been comedy, there’s been political comedy and just another facet of what you can make fun of.
HPR: How might individuals become more or less engaged in a serious topic when they watch comedic impressions of those topics?
Choi: Any kind of discourse around a topic, of course, inherently brings attention to that topic, you know. So as long as there’s more conversation around that, I think you’re going to care more about it, even if it is comedic discourse. I immediately think of Dave Chappelle and his transphobic jokes. As I said before, any discussion of a topic is discussed. No bad press, no press is bad press. It’s more noise. Of course, if you talk or joke about a topic in a way that’s not appropriate, or in a way that Dave Chappelle does, that kind of discussion is hurtful and bad, and it is adding a voice to the conversation that seems to be heightened in a way it shouldn’t be like. If you’re on a platform and you raise your voice, then people are gonna think that platform is something to follow, which is dangerous. So I think that part of comedy is recognizing how far your voice carries and how you can manipulate your words to reflect your truth, without hurting other people.
HPR: What are the typical reactions you aim to produce in your audience besides laughter?
Choi: My show is all about the following joy. It is about following one thing that makes us happy and following that in a really weird, amazing way. We try to produce joy and laughter. But also a kind of intimacy. A big concept of our show that we talked about a lot is it should feel like when you’re at a party, and there’s this one corner, where everyone’s talking and having fun. We want it to feel like that corner of the party. And it’s not a place where we’re serious or heavy things happen, but it is a place where you can bring your whole self and feel accepted.
HPR: Do you think comedy can be used as a political tool?
Choi: Absolutely. Just look at Veep. Veep is an American political satire comedy. One of the very first pieces of satire was called “A Modest Proposal.” It involved a guy who’s in Ireland and suggests that we should just eat babies instead of dealing with a potato famine. Those are all acts of political comedy. That’s why NPR has a correspondent at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Comedy makes you laugh. But all comedy is, essentially irony. The irony is when someone says something that you don’t expect them to say or what you thought of. There is so much to comedy theory, but at its root, comedy makes you question why you’re laughing, what the truth is, and why you don’t expect them to say that thing.
HPR: How would you approach individuals who believe comedy can be influential or serious?
Choi: Comedy is a really big umbrella. Some things are more straightforwardly political commentaries, like satire such as the Onion or the Daily Show. Comedy by definition, it’s not serious. The form has been manipulated in a lot of different ways. Someone like Hazan Minah or Hannah Gadsby, is doing incredible work, but what is comedy other than a joke, set-up, punchline? If someone were to come up to me and say, “Your show isn’t serious, you’re not doing actual important work?” I think that’s a ridiculous argument. Not everything has to be serious. No, our show wasn’t serious. Our show was about stupid stories that we find online. In a messed-up society, having fun is a political statement. Just finding joy in the face of terrible — tragedy — is important to work.
And that doesn’t mean that we’re going to have a really important message every single time, or that we’re going to be on top of a soapbox trying to tell you what you should think or believe. We’re just trying to put something fun in the world that creates new space for people to be themselves.
HPR: What does the future look like for you?
Choi: I’m a senior right now. I’m thinking about that stuff. But I just really love making the show. I’m excited to build something with NPR and work in comedy and on my show. This show is a project in and of itself. I’ve been just working on the show a lot. I’m also trying to do school, so I am focused on one month at a time. But we’re excited to get out in the field more frequently. And trying new stuff that hasn’t been on NPR before.