Kat Ahn, a guest actress on the “Benihana Christmas” episode of “The Office” in 2006, is speaking out about playing a “problematic” role on the NBC sitcom.
In the episode, Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and a few co-workers go to Benihana, a Japanese steakhouse, and invite a couple of waitresses to attend Dunder Mifflin’s office Christmas party. The two women, both Asian, whom Michael and Andy (Ed Helms) speak to at the restaurant are not the same as the two women who later attend the Christmas party, though this is never addressed.
A running gag throughout the episode is that Michael can’t tell the women apart, which Ahn, who played a waitress at the party named Amy, has noted is a “problematic” stereotype. She was disenchanted upon realizing she had been cast on the popular show “just… to be the joke,” she told The Washington Post in an interview published Friday.
“You’re told to shut up and be grateful,” she said. “Actors have no power until they become a star.”
USA TODAY has reached out to NBC and Ahn for further comment.
Ahn previously touched on how her experience on the episode taught her “why BIPOC actors play racist roles” in a TikTok video posted in January.
“Sometimes you take a racist role because you need to pay your rent, want to join the union, or don’t want your agent to fire you,” she said, noting that the 2006 episode aired prior to “wokeness.”
She added: “The storyline with myself and the other Asian American actress is that we were the uglier versions of the actresses at the Benihana. Also that all Asian people look alike. We’re one big monolith and just one big walking stereotype without any personality or any individuality, which is problematic. The whole joke was that all Asians look alike and that’s why Michael Scott couldn’t tell us apart.”
Former cast members Jenna Fischer (Pam Beesly) and Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin), who now host an “Office” re-watch podcast titled “The Office Ladies,” reflected last August on how the episode, which they hadn’t seen since it aired, made them cringe.
“I just don’t think the storyline would have been written today,” Kinsey said.
Rashida Jones, who played Karen Filipelli, also shared her thoughts on “Office Ladies” about scenes from the show that were uncomfortable to watch back.
“What works about Michael is this delicate balance between full cringe and well-intentioned, lovable, bad boss,” she said. “And to watch it now in the current climate like that balance feels different. … I think it’s good to have things that read really badly now and didn’t read badly at the time, because it is a mark of our progress. The show resonates because Michael reminds people of their bosses and people they work with and maybe a little bit of themselves. And it’s really important that people see that like you have to measure up to the moment that you’re in.”
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Ahn’s comments come amid a reckoning in Hollywood and beyond in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian racism and attacks.
Last week, comedian Ken Jeong took action following the March 16 Atlanta-area spa shootings – which killed eight people, six of them of Asian descent – by donating a total of $50,000 to the families of some of the victims.
Jeong appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” on March 22 and spoke out against racism and pushed back against claims denying that the shootings were racially motivated. Long told authorities his actions were motivated by sex addiction and not by race.
“There’s debate whether this crime was racially motivated, Asian American women are two times as likely to be assaulted in America,” Jeong said. “This was clearly racially motivated. This was clearly a hate crime.”
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Other celebrities including Sandra Oh, Chrissy Teigen and Trevor Noah have joined Jeong in speaking out and calling for allies to stand up and for leadership to take action.
“We must understand as Asian Americans, we need to reach out our hand to our sisters and brothers and say, ‘Help me’ and ‘I’m here.’ I’m proud to be Asian,” Oh told a crowd over the weekend at a “Stop Asian Hate” protest in Pittsburgh. “I want to hear you say, ‘I am proud to be Asian. I belong here.’ “
Contributing: Elise Brisco