Who Is Nora From Queens?

Photo: Comedy Central

Midway through the debut season of Awkwafina’s bawdy new Comedy Central sitcom, Nora From Queens, the main character, Nora Lin, is queefing into a mic for a white SoundCloud artist named “Rat Lung.” Rat Lung is the boyfriend of Nora’s high-school classmate Melanie, who phones Nora after he directs her, bizarrely, to bring an Asian friend to the studio. Unfortunately, Nora is busy: Earlier, her little cousin kicked her in the crotch while wrestling with Nora over her enormous vibrator, causing “melancholic flute-like” noises to erupt from her vagina. She is too embarassed to go see Rat Lung record. But Melanie presses. So Nora shows up, and sure enough, accidentally queefs in the studio. Rat Lung marvels at the grandness of “a Chinese-Korean vagina fart,” begging to add the sound to his sample collection. After much cajoling, Nora acquiesces: “Fine — for the culture.”

“Queefing … for the culture” might as well be the tagline for Nora From Queens, a jerky ten-episode ride of whoopee-cushion humor and corny, misfired racial commentary. Based loosely on Awkwafina’s upbringing in outer-borough New York City, it follows an unemployed 27-year-old living with her single dad (played by BD Wong) and grandmother (played by Lori Tan Chinn). Awkwafina’s Nora is coarse and slovenly, with a habit of squawking profanity like a potty-mouthed parrot. “AWW SHIET! 420 GANG GANG!,” she screeches at her teenage neighbor, before blowing smoke from a hot-pink vape in his face. Later, her cousin Edmund (Bowen Yang), a haughty Silicon Valley whiz kid, boasts during dinner that he only goes to San Francisco to get his Tesla serviced. She hoots: “More like his testes serviced!” Her comebacks are as predictable as they are puerile.

Many brilliant television shows mine the indelicate lives of female fuckups for comedic material. Abbi and Ilana of Broad City luxuriated in filth, shitting their pants and storing weed in their vaginas. Molly of Insecure had so many failed relationships that her best friend, Issa, performed a terrible open-mic rap, “Broken Pussy.” But all of these high jinks between friends were anchored by a sweet and genuine rapport; you sensed they’d still be shooting the shit, figuratively, even when the camera stopped rolling. Nora From Queens leans on similarly outlandish conceits, but is bone dry on chemistry — some dialogue is so forced it’s like the actors are meeting for the first time. In the pilot, Nora attempts independence by moving in with her high-school friend Chenise, who she assumes is a well-to-do lawyer but actually performs for “” When Nora is finally convinced to join Chenise on-camera, her “Asian dragon lady” costume catches on fire after her tail brushes against a candle. “Ohh, you’re lit!!!,” Chenise yells. “I’m lit!,” Nora cheers. Bombarded by these sterile jokes, I imagined a miniature Jeb Bush whispering over my shoulder: “Please clap.”

The real-life Nora invented “Awkwafina” as a brash counterpoint to her “quiet and more passive” personality. Under the moniker, she debuted a cocky diss track called “My Vag” in 2012 that equated a rival’s genitals to a “five-hour PBS special.” It went viral. Awkwafina eventually established her identity as a wily underdog who stomped over the boundaries of good taste, and became famous for playing characters like herself. In Ocean’s 8, she was a lowly street hustler from Queens. In Crazy Rich Asians, a folksy-seeming “Asian Ellen” who rolled up to dinner parties in pajamas and told things to you straight. These were minor roles, enough for Awkwafina to joke about her irrelevance by claiming that she, like her Ocean’s 8 character, had been randomly found in a park. Those parts didn’t allow for much dimension, and her quick bids for laughter got her in trouble for appropriating AAVE. But still, she can no longer joke, as she did on her 2018 EP, “Who the fuck is Awkwafina?”

A more fundamental question for the show lingers: Who is “Nora from Queens”? A sitcom could have offered an opportunity for reintroduction, a more thorough negotiation over the terms of one’s identity. Yet in Nora From Queens, Nora is easily written off as a bottomless well of antics induced by drugs and immaturity. She presents less as a human being than a punch line: “They call me Kristi Yamaguchi,” she quips, while playing blackjack in Atlantic City. But lurking behind her dim-witted shenanigans and limp self-stereotyping is a prickly undercurrent of anxiety. In one episode, she gets roped into working with a serial scammer and is later arrested. Eventually, the police officers let her go: “She’s no criminal,” one explains. “She’s nobody.”

Photo: Comedy Central

For many years, the real Nora Lum was a “nobody” — a beleaguered millennial who seemed destined to tumble down three flights of steps for every one she managed to climb. Shortly after “My Vag” went viral, she was fired from her assistant role at a publishing house. She wrote another self-made hit, “NYC Bitche$,” while working for $9 an hour as a cashier at a vegan bodega. When an A&R scout at a major label reached out to her, she assumed she had made it, but, as she explained, “he listened to two of my songs and never called again.”

In a 2018 essay, she wrote about the tumultuous early years of her career: “I remembered those days when I got fired from my job for Awkwafina, when I was broke for Awkwafina, when I got kicked off lineups because ‘Awkwafina is a joke,’” she wrote. Her recent trajectory has had a dreamlike quality — she won a Golden Globe for her starring role in The Farewell, which demonstrated that she could master drama as well as comedy (while still playing the no-good unemployed millennial.) When she accepted the award, she teased, “I told you I’d get a job, dad!”

Most of the characters in Nora From Queens are still nearing 30 and fumbling, and their palpable shame at their failure hints at a broader millennial unease — the worry you’re constantly falling behind; that you’re only going backward; that you’re nowhere close to who you want to be. Edmund, one of the many excellent sheep churned out by Stanford, still laments that he’s the “poorest person from [his] freshman floor.” Melanie, discovering that “a BFA only gets you so far in the content game,” starts braiding hair in Atlantic City. A rare bit of feeling peeks out when Nora consoles her: “You’re not a loser. I am a loser! You’ve lost more jobs than I’ve ever had,” she states.

The problem with the series is that it reduces its characters to spectacles, and scrapes away the resilience that made its namesake so interesting. Nora is the most ill-fated of them all, but she bulldozes through jobs and lives with her parents because of unbelievable idiocy, not economic precarity.

So far, Nora From Queens has been heralded as a win for Asian-American and female representation, and in numbers, it’s impressive: an all-Asian main cast, a female-led writing staff, and all women or Asian directors. But in striving too vigorously to sound cool and of-the-times (read: Marie Kondo jokes), it hampers itself from being truly groundbreaking. Culturally specific moments that have traditionally been absent from TV, such as a fight between Chinese and Korean ladies over an outlet at a food court, are clogged with poorly conceived jokes like “Ima K-pop her face!” or “We invented paper, bitch!” Even worse is when Nora’s grandmother threatens to “slap the yellow” out of her son for improbably doing opium. (He was gifted a kitschy sculpture of a spoon by a friend.)

Awkwafina is capable of more nuance: In The Farewell, she absorbed the virtue of stillness, relying on subtleties of facial expression and body language to communicate a dejected grief. As a result, her funny moments seemed funnier, her lines more punchy. Nora From Queen defies Awkwafina’s own caution against relying on comedy to save moments from awkwardness, to the detriment of herself and the series. Awkwafina has mentioned that she slips into a southern accent when she’s nervous, and, occasionally, her accent devolves into her oft-criticized “blaccent,” which is not only insensitive, but distracting.

The full title of the series, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, is meant to illustrate how two distinct personas represent the same person, and how there’s no longer a clear duality. But the show’s first season suggests the persona has supplanted the person — and somehow the funniest versions of both Awkwafina and Nora are still missing. Comedy Central renewed the show before the pilot even debuted, and unless it can give Nora more attributes than just exhausting immaturity, it’s a risky move. At some point, she’ll have to bail herself out of adolescence.

Nora From Queens Captures a Familiar Millennial Anxiety