We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the multi-talented comedian, writer, actor, Broadway dancer, and former 90s boy band member Kevin Yee. His newest project, a television pilot titled A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone, will debut at this year’s SXSW in Austin, TX as part of their Independent TV Pilot Program.
Check out our interview below! This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Davis: So to start out, just in your own words, tell us what A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone is all about.
Kevin Yee: Sure, it's about a queer Asian writer who goes to a gay bar on his 40th birthday. He has a panic attack in the bathroom and passes out. And then he wakes up in the hospital. And he realizes how disconnected he is from society and life in general. And he decides to turn his life around and change it for the better with the help of a new friend that he makes along the way. And while doing this, he writes his own self help book called A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone. So I call it the bitchy Eat, Pray Love.
It is a drama, but there were comedic elements to it as well. For South by Southwest, I have an 11 minute pilot presentation and hopefully I'll be able to tell this story in a bigger way in the future.
MD: I know for a lot of people, myself included, the pandemic really sparked a level of rumination over our own mortality. I was just wondering if the pandemic influenced your creative process?
KY: Oh, very much. So I did actually write this more in my mid 30s, like five or six years ago. But it became even more apparent during the pandemic. And I had actually not had a panic attack before when I wrote the script. And then during the pandemic was the first time I ever had it. So it became more apparent to me.
And, and the idea of loneliness, I think, became even more relatable. I think everybody was kind of struggling with that, as you were saying loneliness and mortality and all of these things. So it kind of brought it into laser focus. But it was something that I was already kind of experiencing and feeling in the world that we were living in, before the pandemic as well.
MD: It sounds like the development of this project had some kinds of twists and turns. You did end up self-financing and crowdfunding through Indiegogo. What was it like to produce a project where you didn't necessarily have to answer to anyone?
KY: Oh, amazing. And I think that's what the purpose was. I had had the script for a long time, and it had been floating around Hollywood… I knew that there was something special and something relatable to it. But it was really struggling to find its home.
Because I think also as relatable as it is, a lot of projects get pushed to the finish line because there is someone famous attached or, or there's something more general to the story. The fact that this is based or centered on a queer Asian character, I think was bumping a lot of people, because we don't really have that- it doesn't exist. We have queer Asian stars at this point now because of Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster and Nico Santos, but none of them have been the center of their television shows.
And so it was hard for me to pitch it and to sell it because people would be like, well, we've never seen this, which should be the point of Hollywood, but it's not. So we almost sold this to a Canadian company and the deal fell through.
And that's when I finally was like, I think that I have to show it because nobody has seen this before. People are struggling to imagine what this would look like. So this is really my complete version of what a queer Asian centered television show would look like. As a television writer myself, who writes for shows, I can be kind of more general with my writing if I need to be. But I think there is something about authenticity. It was more important that I showed it fully in this project. So that people could understand what it would look like.
MD: From your perspective, as a queer artist, do you feel like your voice has been limited by “the powers that be” working in the film and TV industry?
KY: Yes. Yeah, I mean, it's a long, long discussion. I've been actually in the industry since I was six. That was my first paying job. So I came up as a child. And then I was a teenage performer, I was a Broadway performer, I was in the music industry, I've been in the film and TV industry, I was on the show Dickinson as an actor. So I've kind of seen all all the sides of Hollywood for my entire life, and how it's changed and not changed.
And I think that Hollywood has always kind of been stuck in a rut. And one thing that happens is every now and then they're held accountable for how diversity is included. But what seems to happen is the language just changes but not the actual system. I think we have a systemic issue in Hollywood about how people are included. And it is just because a lot of Hollywood is about commercialism and selling to the biggest audience that they can.
So it becomes a challenge when the majority of Hollywood has been centered on straightness and whiteness. And that is how we're used to telling stories. And changing the system takes such a big overhaul. Then again, I think people like me get brought into the system, and asked to conform, as opposed to finding authenticity within the diverse characters that are being brought to the screen now.
MD: What is it like to try to be channeling that authentic voice and push for more diverse representation at the same time that we are seeing such an ugly backlash, like what we've seen in Florida and other places?
KY: It's difficult, because I think people think Hollywood is more open-minded than it actually is. And so it is a hard system to change. And the difficult part of the conversation is that it is more helpful for me to exist in the system, as opposed to not, but existing in the system does often mean that I am faced with racism, casual racism, casual homophobia, or being told to conform.
I think that's a big thing that happens with us is that we come into the system and we're told they want us for our name and our diversity. But the authenticity part is kind of like testing the limits with a lot of Hollywood storytelling. So it has been a challenge. And it's always been a challenge.
But like I said, if I was to give up, there would not necessarily be somebody there to take that spot. And then that becomes difficult because one of the biggest complaints that I always hear from Hollywood is when they're looking for Asian writers or Asian actors, they're like, we can't find any. And it's like, well, you're not really cultivating that.
It's the same with queerness, too. In the moments that they need it, have you cultivated those artists and brought them into Hollywood in a way that they're now capable to do that job? And often, like in my own shows that I've written on in the writing rooms that I've been in, all of them have had Asian characters. And all of them have had queer characters. So I've never been in a show that's just like straight white men because I'm only brought in when they need that diversity factor for authenticity or for scalability. And that's not necessarily wrong.
I think it's important that they do have someone like me in the room if there are Asian characters or queer characters, but it is about cultivating talent right now. And that is, I think, the biggest challenge because it's now just starting. It's the top of the system that needs an overhaul. And how do we get there?
MD: On a more silly note, earlier in the interview you called A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone a bitchy Eat, Pray Love. So what would be your three dream locales to eat, pray and love, but in a bitchy way?
KY: Definitely Drag Brunch would be my favorite or Drag Bingo, anything drag is the best place to eat. I don't pray. I'm not a religious person. So I guess when I feel like I need a spiritual connection, I go to the mountains. I live in Los Angeles. And I go to the Verdugo mountains for a hike. And just have my moment with the universe.
Love. Love is a tricky one. And I think that's one that like, the series explores a little bit because I am very much like that character where I've been very disconnected. But I guess the one thing that I have realized later in life is how much I miss my family. My family is all in Vancouver. And I've been away from them, basically, since I was a teenager, and I'm missing them in a way that I haven't in the rest of my life.
So I would say the best place to love is Vancouver, where you can also get a drag brunch and you can also go hiking. Yeah, so Vancouver, probably.
You can check out A Guide to Not Dying Completely Alone at SXSW in Austin, TX with either screening of their Independent Pilot Program on March 12th, 2023 at 5:15PM or March 16, 2023 at 11:45AM at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar theater.
For more of Kevin's work, you can watch his comedy special for free on Tubi (episode 5 of Comedy Invasian) or catch him in the Apple TV+ series Dickinson. He also wrote for a new Disney Channel series, Hailey's on It!, which premieres later this year.