When Atsuko Okatsuka was out shopping with her grandmother in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles one Sunday, a funny thought popped into her head.
What if she filmed herself suddenly dropping everything and squatting in sync with Beyonce’s song, Yonce? Okatsuka did just, while her grandmother, who was both confused and encouraging, looked on. She uploaded the video to TikTok in January last year, along with the caption: “How low can you go?”
The video quickly went viral and sparked the launch of the “drop challenge”, as people around the world filmed themselves suddenly “dropping” to the beat. Serena Williams, Camilla Cabello, Kerry Washington, Zoe Saldana and the cast of Hamilton were some of the challenge's famous participants.
The viral trend is in many ways reflective of Okatsuka’s comedic style — simple, relatable and unexpected.
“It was a little bit of a surprise, but I find it very silly and funny, it makes me happy,” Okatsuka tells The National.
“I just posted it for fun because I just want people to laugh and have a good time. That's why I got into comedy. It's such a simple move that went worldwide. It was cool to see.”
Okatsuka will be performing as part of the Dubai Comedy Festival at Dubai Opera on Monday, along with comedians Beth Stelling and Rachel Feinstein. While the US comic has performed internationally before, this is her first time trying out her material in Dubai.
“I'm working on my Dubai comedy set right now,” she says, from her home in Los Angeles.
“I’m just making sure that the references make sense so it's a little more universally relatable, so you don't have to live in Los Angeles to understand what I'm saying for a joke.”
Okatsuka, who is of Japanese and Taiwanese heritage, uses her own life experiences to connect with audiences — and not much is off the table. She touches on topics such as being an undocumented immigrant in the US for seven years, cultural differences and casual racism, to her mother’s mental illness and her thoughts on marriage. Through a physical and quirky performance style, Okatsuka takes many of these deeply personal experiences and transforms them into relatable, funny anecdotes.
“When I write jokes, it's about trying to connect with people,” she says. “I talk about difficult subjects like mental health and things like that, sometimes current issues too. For me, it has to be funny first. My motivation for doing stand-up is to connect with people and to make people feel seen.”
Okatsuka’s comedy has been described as childlike and whimsical. While this may be true of her delivery, there is a universality and element of wisdom to her narratives.
“I think that stand-up comedy is sort of a service industry — the audience is our customer,” she says. “Even though we're telling personal stories or jokes that can be very specific, at the end of the day, for me, I think it's important that the audience gets relief and a laugh.”
And while her blend of wit, insightful humour and life experiences appears effortless on stage, as seen on her recent HBO comedy special The Intruder, Okatsuka’s style is not without its challenges.
“As a stand-up comedian, especially an American one, there's a certain style of stand-up comedy that people grew up listening to, which is very set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline — it's very observational, like the Jerry Seinfeld type,” Okatsuka says.
“I love that kind of style of stand-up comedy. But I want my own point of view, my own style, to comes across in an art form that is so often performed in a traditional style. It's about mixing the two and that's a challenge.”
And despite her confident onstage persona, she still gets nervous.
“You should always be nervous when you're going up to do stand-up,” she says. “But you should feel nervous when you're doing something you love, because that means you care.”
More information on Atsuko Okatsuka's performance and other acts at the Dubai Comedy Festival is available at dubaicomedyfest.ae