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In the Beginning There Was Cold Tofu

From left: Irma Escamilla, Denice Kumagai, Judy Momii and Marilyn Tokuda, ca. 1981.

I am lucky enough to know two talented, bright, and big-hearted women—Denice Kumagai and Marilyn Tokuda—who also happen to be the creative minds behind the formation of the Los Angeles community’s innovative Asian American improv troupe, Cold Tofu. To this day, according to its founders, “Cold Tofu remains the nation’s first and longest running Asian American improv and sketch comedy troupe.” Such luminaries as Amy Hill, Sab Shimono, and Dom Magwili are but a few of those who’ve graduated from its ranks.

Its four founding members, Denice, Marilyn, Irma Escamilla, and Judy Momii, started Cold Tofu way back in 1981 on a whim. They were sitting around in Denice’s living room laughing at one another’s stories, and Marilyn came up with the idea of forming a comedy group.

More than 40 years later, Cold Tofu is still going strong, but it’s the early years that the two founders, Denice and Marilyn, wanted to commemorate. Five years ago, they came up with the idea of producing a book of photos, stories, quotes, and reviews, listing all the names of those who made Cold Tofu what it is today. 


The book, Cold Tofu: The Early Years, 1981-1998, is the result of their hard but joyful work. The back cover quip describes the book and the improv group to a T. Like the tofu it’s named after, “It’s refreshing.”

I asked Denice and Marilyn a few questions about why they decided after all these years to focus their time and energy to doing the enormous amount of work required to produce their very first book together.

Denice recalled, “It started with us collecting information about the beginning of Cold Tofu, then morphed into a book to share with everyone who helped create and make the remarkable group that continues to this day.”

Marilyn added, “I wanted to remember why we began. For myself, I had been thinking about attending The Groundlings, a well-known comedy company that offered classes in LA. They’ve launched many a career. But thinking about it on a deeper level, I couldn’t identify with their sense of humor.” Cold Tofu became the “spicy” alternative.

From left to right, front: Dom Magwili, Marilyn Tokuda, Jerry Tondo, Mark Tang, Patty Toy, Irma Escamilla. Back: Denice Kumagai, Nelson Mashita, Judy Momii.

As actors in real life, Denice is probably best known for her continuing role on the TV show, Night Court, and Marilyn has a list of TV and film credits too long to list. They both admit that without improv, their lives would not be the same.

Denice Kumagai as Ferdi Marcos, Marilyn Tokuda as Imelda Marcos

As Marilyn put it, “Improv has influenced my whole life! It taught me to go with the flow, not to get thrown by anything. It taught me how to deal with the unpredictable, how to problem solve on the spot.” Denice’s career in “many sitcoms,” was “perfect for me because of my improv background.”

As their way of remembering why Cold Tofu was important to them, the book project started with them collecting articles in The Rafu digital archives, checking out past reviews, and collecting photos and videos. It soon became a more serious project when they thought of all the people who were a part of those early years that they wanted to honor.

Despite her desire to feature photographs through the years, Denice discovered in 2000 that she’d managed to lose a valuable box that contained many of the pictures from those early days. In a scramble to find anything she could, she called on old members to help. Fortunately, everyone contributed any photos they could find, some of which included blurry screen shots of old video footage saved by Joey Miyashima.

Hailed as the “world’s first Asian American improv comedy group,” those who have participated in its long history are quoted throughout the book reminiscing about why they loved playing a part in its history. As Amy Hill notes, “The group was as dysfunctional as any I’ve been in, but we supported and trusted each other. I never laughed more than in rehearsals or backstage.”

From left to right, front: Elizabeth Kubota, Marilyn Tokuda, Annie Yee. Back: Irma Escamilla, Joey Miyashima, Denice Kumagai, Tim Bennett.

On a more serious note, actor Sab Shimono recalls, “I was drawn in by the amazing energy and dedication of Marilyn Tokuda, Judy Momii, Irma Escamilla, and Denice Kumagai. They were truly pioneers, and I am forever grateful that they invited me into the fold.”

Under the current direction of artistic director Jully Lee and associate artistic director Michael Palma, Cold Tofu continues to entertain by teaching how to laugh at ourselves. It started with members of diverse ethnic backgrounds and has evolved over the years by continuing to celebrate that diversity with nonprofessionals and professionals alike.

From left to right: Joey Miyashima, Denice Kumagai, Marilyn Tokuda, Jim MacNerland, Amy Hill, and Geoff Rivas.

As Denice put it in the book, “Our goals were to give Asian Americans a vehicle to express themselves as comedians, to explore their cultural backgrounds through comedy, and to present life in America from a new perspective.”

You can only purchase the book at the JANM Museum Store.  


*This article was originally published in The Rafu Shimpo on November 18, 2023 and was modified for Discover Nikkei.


© 2024 Sharon Yamato

1980s 1990s Cold Tofu (book) Cold Tofu (organization) comedy entertainment Marilyn Tokuda performances stand-up comedy
About the Author

Sharon Yamato is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles who has produced and directed several films on the Japanese American incarceration, including Out of Infamy, A Flicker in Eternity, and Moving Walls, for which she wrote a book by the same title. She served as creative consultant on A Life in Pieces, an award-winning virtual reality project, and is currently working on a documentary on attorney and civil rights leader Wayne M. Collins. As a writer, she co-wrote Jive Bomber: A Sentimental Journey, a memoir of Japanese American National Museum founder Bruce T. Kaji, has written articles for the Los Angeles Times, and is currently a columnist for The Rafu Shimpo. She has served as a consultant for the Japanese American National Museum, Go For Broke National Education Center, and has conducted oral history interviews for Densho in Seattle. She graduated from UCLA with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English.

Updated March 2023

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