I am lucky enough to know two talented, bright, and big-hearted women who also happen to be the creative minds behind the formation of our own community’s innovative Asian American improv troupe, Cold Tofu. 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, Irma Escamilla, Denice Kumagai, Judy Momii, and Marilyn Tokuda, 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 two of its 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: “It’s refreshing.”

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

I asked Denice and Marilyn a few questions about why they decided after all these years to focus their time and energy on 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 L.A. 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.

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

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.”

From left: Irma, Judy, Denice and Marilyn today. (Photo by Michael Palma)

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’s 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.

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.”

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 non-professionals and professionals alike.

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.”

The book is currently available at and will hopefully be more widely available soon.


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. I once saw one of their performances at Maryknoll. They were very talented.