Meet The Mind Behind One of Today’s Great Stoner Comedies, Teresa Hsiao

Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens co-creator Teresa Hsiao discusses what-ifs, storytelling, and weed-dealing grandmas.
Hsiao
Photo by Casi Moss

Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens is pure, uncut silliness. It’s a series packed to the brim with personality and jokes relatable and literally out-of-this-world. In season three of the Comedy Central series, which was created by Awkwafina and Teresa Hsiao, Nora still searches for the answers to, “What does it all mean? Wait, what do *I* even mean?”

It’s the no. 1 stoner comedy on television, and season three may or not be the final season from Teresa Hsiao, who’s experiencing a career high at the moment. The former writer on Family Guy and We Bare Bears also co-wrote and produced what’s sure to be the best comedy of the summer, Joy Ride—a movie that lives up to its title. 

Recently, we talked to Hsiao about her journey as a writer and the endless delights of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens.

High Times: This is such a great comfort show. Its silliness is so comforting. 

Hsiao: Thank you. We were talking about that the other day. There’s so much content out there on the air, and there’s a lot of stuff wanting to be deep and fancy, and we’re not trying to do that (Laughs).

Emotional every once in a while, though, right? 

We get all the fun stuff out there, but then every now and then we sneak in some emotions. 

It’s also a great stoner comedy not just because Nora likes to smoke, but because of that silliness and the storytelling style of, what if? Anything goes. What fuels the stories these days? 

So much of it comes from Nora [Lum], and it really is a what-if. What if she didn’t become Awkwafina and didn’t become the movie star she is now? What if she had stayed at home and lived with her dad and grandma? Everyone has their sliding door moments of, if this didn’t happen, then this would’ve happened. During the new season, we really played around with that question of, what if she had gone down a normal path and stayed home? In a sense, it’s a love letter to her family.

We also get to play around with some of those what-ifs that you’re talking about, like, what if you got to go back in time to 2003? But a lot of times the stories are riffs on moments from her life. Nora’s dad actually did get fired for a similar incident where he did something in the server room. I don’t remember the exact details, but he messed something up in the server room and then just didn’t tell anyone about it. 

Obviously, our show is a little bit more extreme than what actually happened in real life. But a lot of what we’re trying to do comes from a very real place and then we expand on it for comedy.

There’s time travel and Nora briefly falls in love with an elf this season, which is barely scratching the surface of where the show goes. What does jumping the shark even look like for Nora from Queens?

We’ve done it so many times that it could be okay. We’ve had our time traveling and had a crazy imaginary character popping around. Jumping the shark would be something totally insane, but the nice thing is we are allowed to do these wacky bits and then come back to real life. Hopefully, it doesn’t feel too insane.

How did the show evolve from the original vision you and Awkwafina had for it? 

In season one, we were still sort of figuring it out. I think season two kind of hit its stride in terms of tone and the show’s style. There are so many great episodes from the previous seasons that we really love, but this time we wanted to tell more of a story. We wanted storylines through the entire season versus our [previous] one-off episodes. It’s almost our show maturing a little bit from season one to season three, in a similar way to Nora maturing from season one, even though she’s still sorting things out. 

It’s definitely true to that time in your 20s or maybe early 30s of just having no clue of what to do with yourself. 

When people are watching the show, it’s nice that they do relate to [the fact that] she doesn’t have it figured out and might never figure it out. I think that’s a real thing that all of us experience. We watch people go, “Oh, I’m gonna be a banker,” and then they just go off and do that. You’re just like, who are these people? For Nora in the show, she has different jobs every season. She doesn’t have one particular goal. I think it’s real and reassuring for people to see that. I find it refreshing she’s not just on one journey. She’s figuring it out and it’s a little bit loose, and that’s okay.

Even though you focused more on a larger story for season three, you still have those side adventures, like Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) becoming a weed dealer. How’d that episode come about? 

Oh my goodness, we’ve been talking about the idea of really wanting to give Lori a meaty episode that was her own. It just felt like the right time with weed getting legalized in New York and then also being able to say, “Hey, you are a badass. We want to see you do something badass.”

Obviously, in the classic Nora from Queens fashion, it starts off small and then immediately becomes a huge ridiculous empire. I could see not only grandma doing it, but I can see Lori having a strange idea, running with it, and all of a sudden, you blink and you look up and she’s got a huge cartel operating out of her home.

How important was accuracy in her cannabis empire?

Our writer, Kyle [Lau], who wrote that episode, did a deep dive into everything that you would actually need to run a true business. Kyle had an incredible list that he gave to our props department to say, “Okay, these are all the actual things, and let’s make it funny.” 

Is it true Lori initially wasn’t interested in playing Grandma? 

She was a little bit wary. In the beginning, we had said, “We want someone to speak Mandarin,” because that is what Nora’s grandma speaks. Lori wanted to speak Hoisan which is her language, which is a dying language, a southern dialect, sort of Cantonese, but much more obscure. 

I think in the beginning she had said, “I’m not gonna do it if they make me speak Mandarin.” Eventually, we talked to her about it. It was never gonna be a situation where we would make her speak a language that she didn’t want to speak. We knew Lori is grandma, so she has to be a grandma. We made it work.

I wanted to ask about your career path since it’s different from a lot of writers. You went to Harvard and then worked in finance. When did you leave that world behind for writing full-time? 

It was that thing of, you don’t know what you’re gonna do, so you just try a bunch of little things. I ended up at Lehman Brothers in the summer of 2006, basically a year and a half before it went bankrupt. I remember saying to myself, “This is a stable job. I should just take this job because I can make a little money and this is a respectable career.” 

I did a summer at Lehman Brothers, and it was so boring. It was terrible. I don’t want to spend all my time making money for rich people. A year and a half later when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and triggered a 700 billion government bailout, I thought, well, I guess it was a good choice I left. It was a reminder that what you think is the safe and respectable option is not always the safe and respectable option. We only live one life, so let’s try and make it as fun as possible if you can.

Where’d writing fit in at that time? 

At the time I was lucky enough to just start writing scripts on the side and see where that goes. I ended up writing a script that got me hired on a random Canadian kids show called What’s Up Warthogs! Through that show, I got representation and they put me up for Family Guy, which was my first real big network job. I never would’ve predicted that path. If you had come to me when I was in college, and I was a very serious person, and told me, “Hey, you’re going to write comedy one day,” I would’ve been like, “Yeah, okay, whatever…” 

[Laughs] You weren’t writing comedy then?

I was writing short stories, but I didn’t even know it was a job. I didn’t have any connections and I didn’t even know people did this thing. I actually didn’t even know the National Lampoon was a common thing. I didn’t try out for it because I was just like, “Oh, that’s for someone else. It’s not for me.”

Part of the lessons with Nora from Queens is, you can start one way and then you can zigzag so many different ways, and you don’t need to have it all figured out. My career path has been just that of, I didn’t know where I’d start, but I just went with it. 

Having that life experience, that must bring something different to your writing too, right? 

I think that you’re absolutely right. I meet a lot of writers who say, “I’ve been wanting to write my entire life.” You ask, “Okay, great, what are you writing about?” If you had a life experience before writing that you can write about, you can say, “Oh, I did this, and I can write something specific to that.” To me, that is more interesting than someone who says, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I’ve just been writing stories.” That’s great, too, but someone who also spent a year driving Uber is more interesting. 

It’s great to write, and absolutely everyone who is a writer needs to write, but a part of being a writer is having experiences that are different from other writers. Travel and meet new people or just do a job other than the writing job. Obviously, I had worked in finance, and when people hear about that, they’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and want to hear more about that. 

I think across the board, whether it’s TV or short stories or whatever, the job is to live a little. It’s also a great procrastination technique, like, “I can’t actually do writing right now. I have to go live.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s good advice. Where do you want to go from here? What do you hope to achieve next as a writer? 

We’ve made so much progress in the last five years in terms of representation in the community, and I would love to continue that. I think we’re getting there and having more voices on screen than there used to be. 

Back in 2018, it was crazier. Crazy Rich Asians came out and it was like, if this isn’t a hit, they’ll never make a movie with Asian people ever again. Now, we have more shows on air featuring Asian American leads, people of color in general, and have more movies coming out. I think all that is great. I want to continue the moment.

I want to be able to showcase our community in ways in which it doesn’t always have to be the prestige thing or the movie that’s going to win a bunch of awards, but just in ways that are authentic and fun. I want to make people laugh. I think that’s the biggest thing, just that comfort that you were talking about [in the beginning]. It’s the best compliment when people say, “We watch this show, we love it, and it makes us feel this sense of comfort.” It’s just so nice to hear, and we’ll never take that for granted.

Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens is available to stream on Max. 

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