Atsuko Okatsuka Goes For More In Her Stand-Up

Refusing to be blinded by the light, Atsuko Okatsuka is leading the way.
Refusing to be blinded by the light, Atsuko Okatsuka is leading the way. Photo by Andrew Max Levy

Things are trending in the right direction for comedian Atsuko Okatsuka. Everytime she visits Houston, she is selling more seats. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger every time,” she agrees. “First time was The Secret Group in Houston, then it was the Houston Improv which was 150 and now a theater, which is 1100!” The venue is question is The Cullen Theater, which has book a night with Okatsuka on Sunday, February 4.

As her star has continues to rise, Okatsuka admits that hers was an unlikely story to end with a flourishing career in stand-up. “Oh gosh,” she starts. “For some people, its that they always knew they wanted to do it. I was an only child, you know? And also an immigrant. My mom and grandma, you know, we were undocumented. So they didn’t listen to pop culture stuff or watch stuff. And I didn’t have siblings to show me stand up comedy either, so what was my gateway into it?”

“I first watched it on a DVD, it was Margaret Cho’s The Notorious C.H.O. – a church friend gave it me while I was in church one day, like during a sermon she passed it to me.  So I brought it back home and I watched it. That was like the first time I was exposed to stand up comedy. I loved it. I couldn’t believe that Margaret Cho, someone who looked like me... I didn’t even know it was an art form that you pursue. I didn’t know it was a job. There was no way I could ever think I could do that. I was just enamored. Oh my God, its amazing. She’s so funny, it’s just her for an hour and she is making people laugh and thank at the same time. It wouldn’t be until years later, like when I was 20.”

She continues, recalling her earliest comedy successes before taking the stage: “I always liked making people laugh. However I could do it, whether it was physical humor or if there was tension in the room, which was often at dinner time in my family’s house... When I was 20, a boyfriend of mine at the time said I should do stand up comedy. And I hadn’t heard those words, like, ever. So I started do it at 20. That was a long answer.”

As it turns out, Margaret Cho is a pretty big fan of Okatsuka’s work as well. “She chose me,” the younger comic says, almost disbelievingly. “It was like a magazine and we got to pose together, but the theme was like ‘Icons and their Protégées’ It was icons and the person that will take over, like the person that she crowns next. She chose me.”

“Yeah, it was cool - we’re friends,” she says. “I know, full circle.”

In the past few years, the comic has been prolific. She released an album with Comedy Dynamics But I Control Me (2020) and filmed her debut comedy hour for HBO entitled The Intruder, which hit streaming in 2022. With this new hour, she is challenging herself in new ways – and is happy with the results.

“Yes, this new hour I’m bringing to Houston, I am taping it as a special. I can’t say where yet, as far as the [release] platform, but yeah, this is the show Houston will get to see before I tape it. Even just the jokes are even more elevated than my last special. I am really proud of them. It’s an even funnier special than the last one and I delve into things I never talk about in stand up too when it comes to personal things and topics that I’ve been thinking about as an adult that a lot of people have been relating to.”

While getting the laugh is often the number one thing for comedians when they analyze their output, Okatsuka is thoughtful in her response to what she prizes in her own material. “Of course,” she says. “I want people to laugh, but also think and feel... The main thing about a joke, and the essence of stand up comedy is it’s something that everyone has felt or experience but haven’t thought about the punchline yet. You have to be the person who makes them feel ‘that’s so true’ and that is what elicits the laughter. I love that so much because it is really about building community. ‘Oh my God, I feel so seen, I feel that way too, that happens to me all the time.’ The world building we get to do. So yeah, it’s making people laugh and also feel seen and think at the same time. It is storytelling for me too, because I am very personal in my stand up.”

Yet unlike a painter, who crafts their personal works behind closed doors, only to release the masterpiece after umpteenth revisions – Okatsuka says she relishes the difficulty of making her work shine with a constantly changing element: the audience themselves. “Stand up comedy is already exciting in that its unpredictable,” she sums up. “It’s a different audience every night. The audience changing is almost [challenging] enough. There are so many avenues you can take with stand up comedy too. Whether it’s being on late night talk shows, like I was just on After Midnight. So whether its game shows or acting or creating your own TV show. There are so many avenues you can take.”

Speaking of: the comic had the honor of being one of the first contestants on CBS’s new late night comedy offering, After Midnight with Taylor Tomlinson. A reboot of the defunct Comedy Central game show @Midnight,  the high energy hour sees comics reacting to the news and social media with brand new material in a competitive arena. Spoiler Alert: Okatsuka ‘won’ her episode, which aired on January 24, besting Daily Show writer Josh Johnson and stoner favorite Doug Benson.

“Yeah, we’re buddies,” she says of working again with host Taylor Tomlinson. “I was like, ‘OK, a weirdo is coming in!’ I mean, yeah. The stand up comedy community is like, we all understand each because we are all kind of freaks. I love how much stand up comedy is coming into the mainstream. People that maybe wouldn’t have gone to stand up comedy shows before are coming to them. The accessibility of it has been awesome.”

Animation is another arena the Taiwan-born comedian has recently dipped her toes in, appearing in the small role of Yuri in the Oscar nominated superhero sequel Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse. “It was so fun,” she recalls. “I almost forget I was in that movie because it was during the strike that it came out so I didn’t really get to talk about it. But yeah, it was another way I can be funny and lend my voice to a really awesome franchise. So yes, I saw character animated already and the scene was happening too, so I just got to talk during the scene while I watched it front of me. It was very cool to bring the character to life. Phillip Lord is the one who brought me in and yeah. He is like a visionary.”

The ability to carve so many unique paths appears most satisfying to a talent with diverse interests like Okatsuka. “We make people laugh, we write our own stuff, we perform our own stuff, we direct our own stuff. So we can tell stories, we can create animations. So yeah, we’re versatile.”

Okatsuka performs on Sunday, February 4 at 7 p.m. at Cullen Theater at 559 Prairie. For more information, visit $29.50-79.50.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee