Meet the intruders
Exclusive joint interview with Atsuko Okatsuka and Ryan Harper Gray
With her HBO special debut, The Intruder, hitting screens on 10 December, the standup comic and TikTok trendsetter is joined by her husband to discuss their unconventional upbringings, that home invasion and creating comedy to make sense of out chaos
His identity was never verified. He was a white guy, wearing a cap and a mask, and he was right there in the backyard. Although when challenged he claimed to be “trying to get to a neighbour’s house”, he soon became aggressive – and a day-long physical confrontation began.
The isolated Silver Lake hillside house in Los Angeles where comedian-actor-writer Atsuko Okatsuka and her actor-artist-producer husband, Ryan Harper Gray, live is located on Waverly Drive – a winding street notorious for its own Manson Family attack in the late 1960s. Known for its panoramic views of The Valley, and the distant ridges of the San Gabriel Mountains, the street remains as isolated today as it was when Charles Manson’s hit squads roamed the city by night. Up here, the one thing never close at hand is help.
Atsuko’s new HBO comedy show, The Intruder, takes its name from the moment during the pandemic that Atsuko and Ryan fought off the man in the cap, Home Alone-style, as he tried to break into their house three times over the course of a single day. With police nowhere to be seen, the two finally fled their home and checked into a hotel. The following day, they returned, strung lights over the exterior of the house and started a neighbourhood watch scheme. In the special, she peels back the layers of her upbringing.
In their own way, Atsuko and Ryan are both intruders. Of Taiwanese and Japanese background, for seven years Atsuko was an illegal, undocumented immigrant, hiding out from the authorities in her youth and living at one point in a cramped garage with her mother and grandmother. Her parents met on a Japanese dating game show, which later inspired her podcast and live show, Let’s Go, Atsuko! a (woke) Japanese Game Show. An actor, Ryan grew up in Texas, out of place in a conservative society, the son of a well known Pentecostal preacher.
Both had schizophrenic mothers – and both were raised unconventionally. This all speaks to a single fact. As Ryan puts it: “When you’re unconventional, in a world full of conventional people, it makes you de facto, an intruder.”
Known for her stints on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Comedy Central Presents and one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch for 2022, Atsuko is perhaps the first comedian to let her grandmother intrude upon her act. In fact, the comic welcomes her “best friend”, Grandma Li (@AtsukosGrandma), into her dancing videos. But it was in January 2022 that she was catapulted to new viral heights. Not for surviving an earthquake while onstage (check out this viral clip), but after posting a TikTok video squatting in random locations around LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood with her grandmother – doing what’s now known as ‘The Drop Challenge’ to Beyoncé.
Since it dropped less than one year ago, the now-viral clip has been watched more than 9 million times and recreated more than one million times on TikTok alone, and counting. Celebrities like Chelsea Handler, Serena Williams, Camila Cabello, Heidi Klum, Kate McKinnon and the cast of Saturday Night Live – and even this dog – have all drop-squatted abruptly to spoof the twerking dancehall-lover. And now you might do too, because it’s silly in its sultriness – and therefore joyous.
Husband Ryan is mostly behind the camera, producing his wife’s skits. So TOPIA caught up with the comedian and the unofficial ‘third’ half of her act…
Tell me about The Intruder – what does it mean to have your first HBO show?
Atsuko: HBO started the standup special, so I’m ecstatic. It’s an honour. Throughout The Intruder are jokes about why I’m conflict-avoidant and Ryan’s not, reflections of upbringings, and realising the things that made us feel like freaks growing up are our superpowers. I’ve been called “artfully offbeat” in my style of standup. I got into it after I dropped out of the University of California, Riverside, and decided to try what I’d been wanting to try. When you feel like a failure is a good time to take risks in the things you’ve always wanted to do.
How does your unconventional upbringing inform your comedy?
Atsuko: Margaret Cho calls the thesis of comedians’ jokes their ‘essential comedy’. I was formerly undocumented and so a lot of my jokes, the essential comedy or perspective behind it is: “I didn’t want to be here but I am”. Jerry Seinfeld’s is: “Is it Me?”. I’m a product of divorced parents, my dad’s on his third marriage, my mom has schizophrenia, I was undocumented for seven years because of a lie my Grandma told me about how long we were gonna be in the States. At a certain point I wanna look at my family and be like, “look, if you wanted me to do comedy, you could’ve just told me!”.
Ryan: Who knows what makes you the way you are? I grew up in Texas, the son of a Pentecostal preacher and a schizophrenic mom. Nothing made sense so there was no need to make it make sense. So when the world said “no!” or “wait!”, I just decided they didn’t make sense and I moved forward anyway. While that may not sound like it relates much to the arts, I did grow up with a performer in my household and oddly enough that did prepare me for life as the spouse and partner of the stand-up comedian. Understanding the importance of the relationship that she has with the audience and a drive and passion to communicate with them and an honest way has been the joy of a lifetime to watch and support.
I didn’t want to be here but I am!Atsuko Okatsuka
What do you guys think about the future of the USA?
Ryan: Maybe I’m delusional but I feel very optimistic about the future. Growing up in the States it’s always felt like we do things with a two-step forward one step back method but that it is progress. And as an interracial couple who travels the world, America is the only place where that feels completely unoriginal and that’s nice.
Atsuko: I feel the same! There’s tons of discourse in the States and communities who push for as many checks and balances as we can. It’s a lot of work but for me, it’s home. And I love my home.
You guys have been together for a while. How did you both meet and what attracted you both to one another?
Atsuko: We met through a mutual friend we’d both known for years. But he’s so popular and has so many friend groups that we didn’t know about each other until he brought us together for a project. We were both fresh out of breakups and horny. But also we found each other hot. Very important. And humour. We had similar senses of humour which then puts a lot of other things in place.
What’s the secret to being a successful ‘creative couple’?
Ryan: Having fun and not being competitive. Competitiveness is generally what causes chaos in relationships.
Atsuko: Yes, a lot of fun. Being silly, letting each other be our true selves without judgement. Celebrate the wins together and don’t sweat the losses too much. Never hold grudges and giving grace will go a long way.
Ryan: The big challenges are figuring out lunch. How does one pick a restaurant? And figuring out the blending of each other’s lifestyles. Marriage or moving in with someone is really just two people figuring out how to navigate the traumas from their upbringings together.
This is a really cheesy question, but do you remember the exact moment that you both realised your Relationship Was Real?
Ryan: Obviously the answer is the same as it’s always been since the dawn of time: When we posted a picture of us on Instagram. That makes it official.
What is a daily ritual or even guilty pleasure that makes you feel good?
Atsuko: I do have a drink every night.
Ryan: And I Ryan do have one with her.
You have found a community and tribe, that you missed out on while growing up, within stand-up comedy. Why does the world need comedy?
Atsuko: It’s existed throughout the history of the world for a reason! Particularly in standup comedy, we use all the forms of comedy: standup (writing the jokes, performing them), improv (you’ll never get the exact same performance twice), sketch (we’re acting our scenarios we paint in our jokes) and clowning.
Ryan: Yes, comedy is how we make sense of the chaos. And in this moment of shit crazy chaos, comedy is the way to simplify and understand. It’s the poetry of our time.
Atsuko, how do you cope with the stress of being onstage?
Atsuko: I have a lot of control which is calming actually. I write the material, I perform it, so I’m directing it too. That amount of control is freeing. But when there is pressure for say, tapings or TV appearances or prepping for a bigger project, and this is gonna sound egotistic but I listen to former performances of mine to remind myself that I can do it.
And what’s your favourite joke?
Atsuko: “I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… five thousand dollars per bullet… You know why? Cause if a bullet cost five thousand dollars there would be no more innocent bystanders.” It’s by Chris Rock.
Comedians to follow
LA places to support
Lastly, as part of a new generation of American storytellers, how will you both continue to change the game in 2023?
Ryan: I really found a deep love for making space for others. Growing up, you’re always fighting to take up space. But somewhere along the way, I really learned to love making space for voices I hadn’t heard and I hope to continue that.
Atsuko: In 2022, I loved getting to tour and see so many parts of the world including Edinburgh. It was cool to see how the hour of standup changed and took shape too. March 2022 was when I did the show in Brooklyn where HBO execs were present and then they bought it a couple of months after. In 2023, I will continue to unapologetically be me when I’m storytelling or joke-telling. I spent too long trying to sound like other people only to realise folks needed to hear Atsuko.
TOPIA Season 02: THE EGG
Atsuko: An egg reminds me of the time I was a lonely kid and owned a chicken in Japan and we’d eat the egg every morning for breakfast. Split between my mom, me, and Grandma. It gave me character.
Ryan: For me, when I think about an egg, I think about a lazy egg. Something I discovered when travelling to Japan with Atsuko and someday I look forward to being a lazy egg myself. Not today, but someday.
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
What’s so good about this?
The secret to being a successful couple is something as elusive as anything else. But perhaps what Ryan and Atsuko show us is that a relationship based on caring might be just the firmest foundation one could seek to have – whether that’s for an elderly relative, or just each other. It’s an important lesson for us all.
Keep an eye out for Atsuko’s standup comedy special this December, exclusively on HBO. To join Atsuko Okatsuka’s tribe and see her upcoming live shows, visit atsukolive.com. Follow Atsuko on Instagram and TikTok.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.