Smoky Hill High School teacher played role in 'SNL' member’s rise

Adrian Holguin coached Bowen Yang in high school improv troupe

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Like other kids at Smoky Hill High School’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program, Bowen Yang showed many talents and was expected to attend a prominent university.

And he did, scoring a spot at New York University as a microbiology major, according to the Cherry Creek School District website. But his true professional calling wasn’t in a lab coat — unless, of course, the sketch calls for it.

Yang, who graduated from Smoky Hill in 2008, debuted as one of the new cast members on “Saturday Night Live” in fall 2019. And even in high school, people around him seemed to know where he was headed: He was voted “most likely to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live” by his senior classmates.

One of the proudest onlookers to Yang’s career is Adrian Holguin, a former math department chair at Smoky Hill who started the school’s improv comedy troupe, Spontaneous Combustion, about two decades ago.

“Bowen was always funny, but the ability, in improv, to see the funny in a scene in the moment and find that through the character you’re playing or through the relationships that are happening on stage is something very difficult to do,” said Holguin, 49, who ventured into improv after some college friends in theater got him into performing. Holguin coached Yang in Smoky Hill’s improv troupe.

High schoolers inherently have a limited amount of world experience to draw from, Holguin said, but the fact that Yang excelled as a student and his background as the son of immigrants allowed him to have a wider lens.

His experiences broadened his creative scope even further when his podcast, “Las Culturistas,” began, Holguin said. The program discusses “the hottest pop-culture moments of the day,” according to its webpage.

In that podcast, Holguin saw Yang come into “this idea of starting to embrace being a voice for diverse communities — for the LGBT community — and not only being a voice but being able to play within that community,” Holguin said. Media coverage has described Yang as one of the first openly gay male “SNL” cast members.

To incorporate that identity into his improv was growth for Yang but also a sign of a moment for comedy in general, Holguin said.

Yang’s hiring at “SNL” hasn’t largely affected the popularity of Smoky Hill’s improv troupe — Spontaneous Combustion is well-known at the school and performs a show in auditorium every month — but it’s “more of a confirmation of the fun we’re doing here,” Holguin said.

He sees more popularity of improv in general among high-school and college students now, compared to when he started the Smoky Hill troupe long ago. There’s even evidence that improv can help reduce anxiety in young people, Holguin noted.

These days, Holguin still has a photo of Yang the former student gave him in 2008.

“He’s always been very gracious about keeping in touch — my wife loves him,” Holguin said.

On the back of the photo, Yang wrote: “Math … and improv have been amazing, and thanks for helping me get that 5 on the AP test. Thanks for being an incredible teacher.”

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