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Yeun and Done: Steven Yeun's Best One-Off Roles

Yeun brings considerable charm and talent to every one of his roles, no matter how small.
  • Steven Yeun in The Twilight Zone, I Think You Should Leave, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, and Drunk History. (Photos: Paramount, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video)
    Steven Yeun in The Twilight Zone, I Think You Should Leave, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, and Drunk History. (Photos: Paramount, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video)

    The experience of scrolling through Steven Yeun's resume is a bit like embarking on a cross-country road trip. There are identifiable markers along the way, such as his breakout role as Glenn in The Walking Dead or his acclaimed performance in Minari, for which he became the first Asian American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Even his recent voice work in Tuca & Bertie and Invincible make for interesting pit stops that remind us of Yeun's ability to elevate a show with his voice alone.

    But Yeun's career is also marked by a series of one-off roles, which dot his filmography like local joints along Route 66. These appearances may seem unassuming, and some have become victims of the shifting headwinds of streaming, but each highlights a different aspect of his diverse skill set. Together, they point to the Beef star's gift of making the most of his screen time, no matter how limited it may be. Lest the world need more proof that a little Yeun goes a long way, we present his five best one-and-done roles:

    Drunk History: "Hawaii"

    Streaming on Paramount+

    In 2014, at the peak of The Walking Dead's popularity, Yeun briefly escaped the zombie apocalypse to lend his talents to Drunk History, then in its second season on Comedy Central. Aided by tequila-fueled narration from radio personality Phil Hendrie, Yeun dramatizes the true story of Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran who went on to become the first Japanese American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. The actor, who came up in the Chicago improv scene, nails the lip-synching required of all Drunk History participants, and it's a joy to watch him put Hendrie's outlandish retelling into action as he navigates the tongue twister that is the name of the 442nd Infantry Regiment or the loss of Inouye's arm in battle. (As he tells another soldier, "I'm getting my f*cking ass out of here!") If Yeun's animation work emphasizes the expressiveness of his voice, his five-minute stint as the war hero turned congressman proves just how much he can convey with his face and body alone — and the total confidence with which he approaches such a challenge.

    Bajillion Dollar Propertie$: "Disaster Drills"

    Streaming on Amazon Prime Video

    It's impossible to look away from Yeun in Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Seeso's (R.I.P.) parody of real estate reality shows like Million Dollar Listing. The actor appears in "Disaster Drills" (Season 3, Episode 4) as Eric, a millionaire stoner working with Platinum Realty agent Amir (Dan Ahdoot) to purchase a luxury property. Amir thinks he has the sale in the bag, but when he arrives for the closing, Eric is too high to sign on the dotted line. He demands Amir find a home with a "stairway to heaven" and reveals that unless he passes his biology exam, his father won't pay for the house. Later, Amir attempts to teach Eric biology, but he and his druggie friends, who have made themselves at home in the house Eric doesn't yet own, derail the proceedings, to maximum comedic effect.

    While Yeun leans into the ridiculousness of Eric's schtick — with his eyes half-closed, he explains he performs "pap smears for the local neighborhood" — he still manages to find the character's vulnerability underneath. His face darkens when he discusses his tense relationship with his father, and it becomes evident that Eric's drug use stems from his father's unreasonable expectations of him. It takes serious skill to dig out a backstory in just a few minutes, but in Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Yeun makes it look easy.

    Weird City: "Chonathan & Mulia & Barsley & Phephanie"

    Streaming on YouTube Premium

    2019 was a banner year for Yeun's one-and-done filmography: From February to April, he appeared in two anthologies — Weird City and The Twilight Zone — and sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. The first of those anthologies, Weird City, takes place in Weird, a near-future society segregated by economic class: The Haves live Above the Line, and the Have-Nots Below the Line. In Episode 5, "Chonathan & Mulia & Barsley & Phephanie," Yeun finds himself Above the Line as Barsley, a Have who, along with his friends (Gillian Jacobs, Hannah Simone, and Malcolm Barrett), decides to sponsor a Have-Not child. When Barsley suggests taking their so-called altruism to the next level by making a "personal" connection, they head Below the Line and kidnap a boy from his home.

    All four stars effectively skewer "well-meaning" rich people and their many blindspots, but Yeun is particularly good as Barsley. His take on the character is pathologically chipper, but he turns on a dime when the organic cantaloupe he's been toting around in a BabyBjörn is shot. As it explodes in his hand, Yeun unleashes a tidal wave of emotion, letting out a primal scream and falling to the floor. The moment stands in sharp contrast to Yeun's understated performance in Minari, but it's just as enthralling, and it proves to be one of the funniest scenes in a show that otherwise faded from the collective memory.

    The Twilight Zone: "A Traveler"

    Streaming on Amazon Prime Video

    Widely considered one of the best episodes of Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone reboot, "A Traveler" (Season 1, Episode 4) stars Yeun as a mysterious stranger who appears in a small Alaskan town looking for a pardon from the YouTube-famous sheriff, Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear). After charming Pendleton and the townsfolk (with the exception of skeptical policewoman Yuka, played by Marika Sila), Traveler begins fomenting distrust within the community, and he uses that fear and paranoia as a means to exert control over them. The episode, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, makes for fertile ground: Yeun is equal parts magnetic and frightening as the enigmatic Traveler, making his character's eventual reveal — he's an alien leading an invasion of Earth over Christmas — all the more believable.

    Sadly, despite originally airing on CBS All Access, Yeun's episode of The Twilight Zone isn't available to stream on Paramount+. The anthology was recently removed from Paramount's service, a trend that has become frustratingly common among streamers looking to cut costs. Fans looking to watch "A Traveler" can purchase the episode, as well as both seasons of The Twilight Zone, on Amazon Prime Video.

    I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson: "Gift Receipt"

    Streaming on Netflix

    It's fitting that I Think You Should Leave's first episode ends with "Gift Receipt," in which Yeun plays a man whose life is forever destroyed by a friend (Tim Robinson) desperate for validation. Perhaps more than any other sketch in the premiere, "Gift Receipt" embodies the show's spirit: It requires a guest star to play the straight man as Robinson's insecurities unspool around them, slowly poisoning whatever situation they find themselves in. In this particular sketch, Robinson's Lev realizes that the birthday gift he purchased for Jacob (Yeun), a decorative wreath, is lame, but rather than keep his concerns to himself, Lev demands Jacob give him back the receipt as proof that he actually liked the gift. As Lev's behavior becomes more erratic — he eats the gift receipt, and when he begins to feel sick, he blames Jacob for not wiping properly after making a "mud pie" in the bathroom — Jacob's birthday party devolves into chaos, tearing the friend group apart.

    While Robinson's antics drive the sketch, it's Yeun's transition from stoicism to utter confusion to despair that sells it. His measured reaction both serves as a counterbalance to Robinson's over-the-top performance and makes Jacob's undoing that much more tragic: This is someone who has been brought low by another man's overwhelming anxiety. If only Jacob hadn't been so concerned about saving toilet paper.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Steven Yeun, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Drunk History, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, The Twilight Zone (2019 series), Weird City