Even if you’ve never heard of Charlyne Yi, chances are you’ve probably heard of her work. With movies and television series including “Knocked Up,” “This is 40,” “Paper Heart,” “30 Rock” and “House” listed in her impressive resume, Charlyne Yi has very quietly but very quickly become a popular name in Hollywood.
An entertainer known for her versatility, Yi is not only a comedian. She’s also an actress, a musician and an artist. But interestingly enough, what many don’t know about Yi is that she is also a former UC Riverside student.
In a recent interview with the Highlander, Yi talked about her life as a comedian, her passion for the arts, her time at UCR and her ultimate decision to drop out to pursue her career.
“I got an anxiety attack because [UCR] was so big,” she revealed.
Her collegiate life was full of doubt and turmoil. She didn’t have many friends, she had difficulty registering for the classes she needed to graduate and she found college to be far too expensive. She was a creative writing and theatre double major, and as Yi put it, she enjoyed those courses enough to continue attending the university — at least for a while.
“I didn’t graduate from UC Riverside,” Yi later admitted. “After I dropped out, I snuck in for a bit. During the time I was sneaking into theatre class, I was feeling down. I felt like a damn fool … I considered stopping sneaking into class, but for some reason went.”
The reason, she said, was that the university served as a sort of safety net for her. She admitted that she continued going to UCR only because she thought she was “supposed to.”
“I think school can be one of the greatest things [depending] on your teacher,” Yi said. “I am into learning and gaining experiences, skills and building for a good future. So I’m not putting down school in any means … I just think everyone has their own specific path tailored to what people would like to try along the way …”
At the time, Yi had already (and unknowingly) found that specific path. Before entering college, she stumbled across a flier at Ontario Mills that advertised a comedy contest. Her initial reaction was, “This is probably going to change my life … forever.” But it was a while before she eventually decided to pursue that career full-time.
She went on to perform at local comedy clubs while attending college, and at the same time held a job at Wal-Mart. In the end, Yi still found it difficult to afford the price of tuition, and she contemplated dropping out. It was only after she received words of encouragement from a UCR professor that she decided to leave the university and pursue her passion.
“Randomly when I entered class, professor Eric Barr was on an inspiring rant. He said something like, ‘No one cares if you never perform again. No one is going to, you have to.’
“Also during the time, I had already been performing at comedy venues for half a year, and felt that though the thought [of] quitting school and doing comedy and the idea of failing was terrifying, the thought of settling for something out of fear and convenience was a far worse failure.”
She decided to leave UCR permanently to continue working in comedy. It was a risk, but one that paid off for her. Eventually, Yi found small roles in sitcoms such as “Help Me Help You” and “30 Rock.” From there, she slowly transitioned to the silver screen, portraying supporting characters in films such as “Knocked Up” and “Semi Pro.” In 2009, Yi finally landed a lead role in the film “Paper Heart,” a romantic comedy featuring Michael Cera she co-wrote.
“… We got to go on the road and interview amazing real people,” she said about the film, calling it her most meaningful work to date. “And that was an adventure in itself, being able to speak to so many different walks of life.”
Her success continued long after making that film. She eventually guest starred in more shows and found a role as a series regular in “House.” Recently, Yi also played a role in Judd Apatow’s romantic comedy “This is 40.” Aside from working in movies and television, Yi has taken up hobbies such as painting, poetry, writing and music. She currently performs both as a solo artist and in the band “Old Lumps.”
Just a few years ago, Yi was a college dropout struggling to find her path. We asked Yi what advice she would give to current students who might currently be facing the same dilemmas she dealt with as a student.
“Maybe [college is] for them, maybe it’s not,” she replied. “Maybe it’s the specific teacher. I really shouldn’t be giving advice! Every person and situation is so drastically different. All I know is all you can do is try your best, and try to experience life so that you can decide how you feel about the choice and take initiative if you want to continue that path or not.
“I don’t think we have to be a job to be happy. Or be one thing. We have so many chapters and chances in our lives. We can be many things throughout life.”