‘Beef’s’ big Emmy night highlighted by Ali Wong’s historic win

Sorry to the rest of the hungry limited-series Emmy field; all the prime cuts went to Netflix’s “Beef.” It won all the top awards in its category, including for limited series, writing, directing and lead actor — and for Ali Wong, collecting a history-making win for lead actress. Fittingly, for a show that was often labeled a comedy, creator-writer-director Lee Sung Jin’s series acceptance speech spoke to “Beef’s” deeper flavors with a dash of humor.

“A lot of the suicidal ideation in the show was based on stuff that I and some of the folks up here have struggled with over the years. I’m really grateful and humbled by everyone who watched the show and reached out about their own personal struggles. It’s very life-affirming, so thank you,” he said, surrounded by key talent from the show on the Emmy stage. “I feel like we live in a world kind of designed to keep us separate. Even here, some of us go home with trophies and some of us don’t. For some of us, when we live in a world like this, you begin to think that there’s no way anyone can understand you or like you or much less, even — no potential at being loved.

“The greatest joy of working on ‘Beef’ has truly been working with the folks up here who love so unconditionally, so thank you to them … and lastly, everything I do is for my three dogs. So, the federal drug administration, if you could please fast-track that canine anti-aging pill, that would be so lovely.”

As Ali Wong ascended to the Peacock Theater stage to accept the Emmy for lead actress with a steadying hand from beau Bill Hader, she stepped into uncharted territory. She became the first woman of Asian descent to win a lead acting award at the Emmys.

“I wouldn’t be here without my amazing parents — my father, who I wish was alive to share this moment with me. My hilarious father, who loved me unconditionally and taught me the value of failure. To my beautiful daughters, Mari and Miki,” she said, choking up, “You are my everything and thank you for inspiring me, and this is for you.”

The San Francisco-born Wong made her name as a stand-up comedian with hit specials on Netflix (such as “Baby Cobra” and “Hard Knock Wife”). She successfully crossed over into lead acting roles with the rom-com “Always Be My Maybe,” opposite Randall Park. But none of those projects achieved the acclaim of “Beef.”

In “Beef,” Wong plays Amy, a small business owner (and wife and mother) on the verge of a major deal that would make her a multimillionaire. She runs afoul of Steven Yeun’s Danny, a hustling contractor not averse to shady dealings, when they have a minor fender-bender that quickly metastasizes into full-blown road rage. The series explores how their inability to let go of perceived slights sabotages their lives and the lives of those around them (when those around them aren’t doing plenty of damage themselves). It’s not exactly a chucklefest, but the difficult-to-categorize show led the limited-series field with 13 Emmy nominations.

A number of Asian American actors have collected Daytime Emmys ( Jodi Long of “Dash & Lily,” Karrueche Tran of “The Bay”) and several Asian and Asian American actors have earned Primetime Emmy nominations. Sandra Oh, who is Asian Canadian, has been nominated 13 times, including as the executive producer of the drama series “Killing Eve.” She was the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated in a lead acting category, for “Killing Eve” in 2018. Asian British actor Archie Panjabi became the first performer of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy for her supporting work in the drama series “The Good Wife” in 2010.

The Emmy voters agreed Wong’s work wasn’t the only thing about “Beef” that was well done. Creator and executive producer Lee became a three-time Emmy winner in one night.

On the stage to accept the prize for writing, he said, “First and foremost, thank you to the [other] writers. We wrote this over Zoom, which is the healthiest way to communicate. Thank you for powering through that.”

Accepting the directing award, Lee recalled how rough things were for him when he came to Hollywood: “When I first moved to L.A., my bank account went into the negative by 63 cents, so I had to deposit a dollar bill into my account to avoid the overdraft fee. And the ATM screen said, ‘Are you sure you want to deposit one dollar?’ And I was like, ‘No,’” he said, smiling, as the Peacock Theater audience laughed. “I wasn’t sure of anything back then, and I certainly wasn’t sure of holding something like this.”

The series’ other big winner was Steven Yeun, whose roles as lead actor and executive producer earned him two Emmys. He is the second Asian American to win lead actor in a limited series — Darren Criss won in 2018 for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” Riz Ahmed, who is British Pakistani, also won in the category for “The Night of” in 2017.

Accepting the lead-actor prize for his portrayal of sketchy hustler Danny, Yeun thanked someone unexpected — longtime set photographer Andrew Cooper. “There were days when it was difficult to live in Danny’s skin. Sometimes I wanted to judge him. Sometimes I wanted to make fun of him. And [Cooper] pulled me aside and said, ‘Never bail on Danny.’ And … thanks. And I wanted to say thank you to Danny for teaching me that judgment and shame is a lonely place. But compassion and grace is where we can all meet.”

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