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Artist Profile: Comedian Karen ‘Big Dog’ Chee on Embracing Comedy With Kindness

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Karen Chee ’17 is a comedic “big dog” — or at least that’s what her coworkers call her. But what did she do to earn such a noble title?

“Oh I gave myself that nickname,” said Chee in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “They had written my phone number down incorrectly on a contact sheet at work so when I went to correct it, I asked them to please also write my name as Karen ‘Big Dog’ Chee.”

Now, when Chee goes to work as a writer at “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” her coworkers refer to her as “Big Dog,” though anyone who has spent any time talking to kind and mild-mannered Chee knows this intimidating name to be inapt. She describes herself as “a bit of a square,” recalling a daily to-do list that consisted solely of making chocolate chip pancakes, finishing a book, and doing a puzzle. Regardless, the name has stuck with the “Late Night” staff. Chee’s default Zoom username is now a perfectly imperfect description: “Big Dog (she/her/hers).”

Chee — former Quincy House resident, dedicated alum of the Harvard comedy scene, and one of the Harvard Class of 2017's Fifteen Most Interesting Seniors — now works on a variety of projects as a comedian, writer, and actor. Besides writing for “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” she is also developing a movie, writing for the TV series “Pachinko,” and working on a book along with other assorted projects while regularly performing stand-up comedy in New York.

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When asked about her experience working for Seth Meyers — a man with a demeanor that she compares to “that friendly neighborhood dad who coaches the local soccer team” — Chee smiled. “It’s great. Genuinely I am a big Seth Meyers fan outside of work,” said Chee. “But I don't need to say that, we don't want his ego to explode,” she added after a moment of reflection.

Beyond writing for “Late Night,” Chee also has her own recurring segment on the show entitled “What Does Karen Know?” Created by fellow writer Matt Goldich, the segment pokes fun at Chee’s young age, as she joined the writing team at only 23 years old.

“I’d write a joke about SpongeBob or Neopets and everybody at work would say ‘Karen, no one will get this, it sounds like a lie,’” said Chee, shaking her head. “That shocked me to my core.” In her new non-scripted segment, Meyers presents Chee with a variety of iconic cultural touchstones from his generation, and she attempts — often unsuccessfully — to guess what each of them are from her millennial frame of reference.

“The segment was really nerve wracking for me because I had to hopefully be funny enough without getting to prepare in any way,” said Chee, recalling her first time on air for the live segment. “But then once I was up there I realized I'm just with Seth, who is one of the funniest people in the world, and it just felt like hanging out. While also being filmed.”

Despite being significantly younger than many of her fellow writers, Chee expressed a thoughtful appreciation for the support she received when she joined the “Late Night” staff, especially as a young woman of color.

“There’s a generation or two above me that genuinely felt really uncomfortable when they first joined the comedy scene so now when they see somebody like me looking very lost, they're like, ‘we're gonna be there for Karen!’” said Chee, grinning.

In her time at Harvard, Chee was her own force of inclusivity in the comedy scene, taking part in the Immediate Gratification Players improv group, Satire V humor publication, and On Harvard Time comedy news show.

“The comedy community when I got to Harvard was extremely white,” said Chee. Despite befriending a diverse group of people, Chee couldn’t shake the feeling that the school was “built for wealthy white boys to have a good time.” However, this sentiment didn’t stop her from uplifting other people of color, all while still pursuing her passion for comedy.

“My friend and I put on a show where we tried to get every comedian who wasn’t a straight white dude to perform,” Chee said.“That was a really nice moment, just knowing that there were a lot of us. And we were all in the same room laughing together.”

Slowly Chee grew comfortable in Harvard spaces, even ones “where all the paintings were white people, and in the very old libraries that didn't have women's bathrooms on the floor,” she recalled. By the time Chee graduated, she left behind a more empowered Harvard comedy scene in her wake.

“It kind of felt like I defeated the final boss of white people,” said Chee, smiling.

Since graduation, Chee has continued developing her craft, attributing her comedic voice to a variety of inspirations — from her own mother and grandfather to British comedian Bob Mortimer, and even DW from PBS’s ‘Arthur,’ who she called her personal idol.

The result of this wholesome blend of comedic influences is Chee’s uniquely positive voice. Although she used to write a lot of political satire, Chee has recently settled into a particular brand of silliness she referred to as “Gooftown, U.S.A.”

“I just want to be a big goofball and say funny, silly, random things,” said Chee. “Things that aren't coming from a place of weight, just a place of lightness.”

Chee wielded this type of lighthearted comedy during the pandemic as well. While she was quarantined in Korea with family, her grandmother had to spend some time in the hospital.

“I remember thinking very clearly: ‘My job right now in Korea is Morale Team Captain,’” said Chee, recalling how she tried to be “gently funny” throughout that time. “Once Grandma and I were so giggly that the nurses came in and asked us what was going on because we sounded like we were having so much fun!”

Karen “Big Dog” Chee has cracked the code on combining comedy with kindness, making people smile by prioritizing the silly parts of life. For that, she’s certainly lived up to her noble title.

—Staff writer Stella A. Gilbert can be reached at stella.gilbert@thecrimson.com.

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