NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
China has been the butt of many a joke lately as the world monitored the Beijing smog and watched the government blast the sky to prevent rain during the Olympics. What few have probably considered is that China may be laughing along with us.
Americans have seen a confusing jumble of images from China – tanks in Tiananmen Square, epic and beautiful Chinese cinema, victims of earthquakes in Sichuan Province, and tough Olympic competitors. We see a future superpower, but we don’t see individuals, and there is no art as individual as comedy.
China has been developing its own comic tradition for decades, complete with busts and booms, just like the American scene. Chinese stand-up comedy developed from traditional routines performed by comedy teams, similar to the American vaudeville tradition.
Joe Wong is a comedian based in Boston, but he didn’t grow up idolizing George Carlin or Richard Pryor like a lot of his contemporaries. Wong’s interest in comedy began in his native China, where he was a fan of traditional Chinese stand-up and sketch. He came to the United States in 1994 to study chemistry at Rice University in Texas and moved to Boston in 2001. He began performing his dry, witty comedy here not long after and has become a fixture of the local scene.
In April, he performed comedy in his native China for the first time in Beijing, a day’s journey by train from Jilin Province, where he grew up. This is his account of that trip . . .
In the early ’80s, I was in my teens in an economically depressed town in China. In the dreary winter afternoons, I’d wander around by myself and found great comfort from the crackling loudspeakers mounted on electricity poles broadcasting stand-up routines. I laughed by myself and even tried to laugh at things I didn’t quite understand. After going home and repeating my recollections of the jokes to my parents, they gave me my first insights into understanding jokes and the art of telling a joke effectively.
Fast forward 25 years: I have become a stand-up comedian in America. When I visited Beijing in April, I was thrilled to catch live Chinese stand-up shows for the first time in my life and managed to arrange for a spot on a show to perform stand-up in Chinese, also for the first time in my life.
I spent two days translating my routines from English to Chinese. I prepared a seven-minute set, consisting mainly of relatable topics, such as travel, childhood, and family. I avoided my routines about Asian stereotypes in America because few people know what these stereotypes are. As a matter of fact, the Chinese think Americans are hard-working, good at math and science, and make fortune cookies.
Upon my arrival at the theater, the first thing the host of the show said to me when I introduced myself is, “Are you here by yourself?” When I said yes, he asked, “Where is your costume?” Turns out that in China, stand-up comedy, or xiangsheng, is mainly performed by comedy duos. Their 15- to 20-minute sets could sound educational or even preachy – elaborating on the four skills in the Chinese stand-up tradition (speaking, imitating, jesting, and singing) and how important it is to laugh. I heard the same talk two decades ago.
If you do traditional routines, you wear a robe; if you do new routines, you wear a suit. No eyeglasses on stage. With some grumbling, they allowed me to go on stage wearing my glasses and a blazer.
After getting used to the comedy scene in America, where people expect laughs every 10 seconds, I found the silence of Chinese audiences grating. However, the audience relaxed with tea and snacks while watching the performance. They are in no hurry to laugh, patiently waiting for the punch lines.
The Chinese audiences don’t laugh as hard as American ones in general, but they applaud more. “If I were to die in a car accident, I want it to be a collision with a cement truck,” I said. “That way immediately after I die, there is a statue of me.” That brought one of my two applause breaks for the performance, which I was quite happy with for my first show in China.
In China you can’t talk about sex or politics or use vulgarities on stage. But one thing the Chinese comedians use a lot is the common insult “I am your father” or “You are my son!” One guy talked about how stupid and ugly the other guy’s father is for about 10 minutes. The audience laughed it up. I could never imagine myself doing anything like that here in the US.
After the show, I chatted with a seasoned performer who told me that people had to think for a few seconds before they got my jokes. “That’s not what comedy is supposed to be,” he said. I was quite amused because after my first stand-up set in America, a guy came up to me and said, “You are probably funny, but we don’t understand you.”
I realized that I had lived in the US for 14 years, and Chinese may have become another second language for me. I guess for my comedy to work in Chinese, I’d have to live in China and start from the beginning, just like I did in America.
He wrote and starred in two comedy sketches that won accolades from audiences. Continually fascinated by the vibrant American culture, he tried to learn about it through rock music from static-laden radio stations and a limited amount of books and movies.
Joe finally made the leap to the United States in 1994 and ended up at Rice University in Texas. In 1996, Joe honed his writing skills by becoming a columnist for the campus newspaper The Thresher. He was thrilled to find out how much people enjoyed his humor.
Moving to Boston in late 2001 to take advantage of the well-established comedy scene, Joe enrolled in standup, acting and improvisational comedy classes. He quickly became a Boston favorite among comedians and audience members alike. Joe has won the Lizard Lounge weekly comedy contest six times, thus standing out in the comedy club in Cambridge, Massachusetts noted for its smart comedians.
In 2003, Joe wrote and produced the short film, “Joe Huang For President,” which won Best Short Film at the 2003 Cambridge Fringe Fest beating out nationwide competition. After the Fringe Fest, he appeared on the local television show Chowdah (Comcast).
Cheered on by his fellow comedians, Joe was a finalist in the 2003 Boston International Comedy Festival, thus making his way to the top eight of some 300 contestants from all over North America. During the competition, scouts from NBC and CBS, as well as reporters from local newspapers took notice. One of his jokes was quoted in the Boston Herald.
In the 2005 Boston Comedy Festival, Joe participated in the David Letterman Showcase show where his performance won rave reviews from the press. Later that year, he was interviewed by WBUR the public radio station who also broadcast part of his live performance.
In 2006 and 2007, Joe performed and headlined in numerous high profile shows such as the Autism Speaks Show, the ACDC Benefit Show and the Ticket to Asia Show. He was featured and interviewed in three newspapers, two magazines and the NECN and ABC TV stations.
Currently, Joe Wong performs regularly in major comedy clubs and colleges throughout the country, as well as benefits and corporate events. His volume of comedy material, his originality, and his “cut-from-a-different-kind-of-mold” character create a persona that audiences can’t help but love.
Finalist at the Boston International Comedy and Film Festival (May 2003)
Best Short Film award at the Cambridge Fringe Fest (March 2003)
Six-time winner of Standup Comedy Contest at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA
Dream job: work on TV announcing losing lottery numbers.
Music: loves classic rock, but there are no new songs in that genre.
Music theory: Dave Matthews is a poor man’s Paul Simon; John Mayer is a poor man’s Dave Matthews; Paul Simon is a poor man’s John Mayer.
There is a romantic notion of how a comedian gets on a program like the Late Show with David Letterman. A talent scout walks into a crowded comedy club where a hot new talent is killing and puts them on that week. Fame and fortune ensue, and a legend is born.
The reality is, not surprisingly, much different. When comedian Joe Wong makes his network television debut tonight, it will be a five-minute appearance nearly four years in the making, stretching back to when Late Show talent coordinator and audience warm-up comic Eddie Brill first saw Wong in Boston in 2005, according to Wong. Brill thought he was funny, which put him on the radar. Wong sent in a DVD now and then, and Brill gave him feedback.
“Off and on I’ve been watching him do what he’s been doing I guess for about three years,” says Brill. “Then I started getting serious about him trying to put a set together for me that I could work on for Letterman. And I guess that’s over a year ago.”
Brill says he knew Wong was going to be great, but it takes time to craft a television appearance to match the comedian’s talent. “I just felt it instinctually, he was going to be great,” says Brill. “We just had to put him in the best possible scenario. You can tell when people just have it, they really just own the set.”
It took a year to fine tune Wong’s set, with Wong sending Brill about 12 DVDs of different performances, tweaking specific jokes and rearranging bits. And while it was a long process and an argument or two about a particular line, Wong feels he’s a better comic for the experience, and learned a lot. “I used to laugh or smile after my jokes,” he says. “So they put a stop on that one. After that, I do the jokes with more of a straight face, and it actually works better. That’s something I never noticed before he pointed it out.”
“He was very understanding, and anytime we did anything to the set, I’d ask him for his opinion,” says Brill. “I didn’t want to just be like a warlord saying, you must do it. We worked on it together. As a comedian, it’s hard to see what you do. I’ve been doing this over eight years now, I sort of have an idea what it looks like, and what a set looks like, and how I can help others with their set.”
It takes Brill less time to get a veteran comedian on the show, but he still helps most shape their routines for television. Brill took a bit more time with Wong because Wong hasn’t had national exposure yet, and Brill wanted to make sure it was a memorable appearance.
“Guys like Joe who are making their network television debuts, it’s a different kind of scenario,” says Brill. “This is his first time ever on a network television show and we want him to be remembered as this guy who just came out of the box and hit a grand slam home run on his first at bat.”
Apparently, the work paid off when Wong taped his set Monday for tonight’s show. Brill says he is actually looking forward to watching the spot again, something he rarely does. “Joe performed the best set I’ve seen a comic have on the show in a long time,” says Brill.
Despite the year of preparation, Wong was understandably nervous when he stepped out onstage (Brill says plenty of stand-ups who have been doing it for years get nervous on the show). But once he got started, it was thrilling.
“I stepped onstage and the first thing I have to do basically is make eye contact with David Letterman, which I did, and that makes me a little bit nervous,” says Wong. “And the second thing is, I’m supposed to stand right on top of this light blue dot on a blue stage, so I have to be very focused looking at that spot, it’s not the most obvious spot onstage. After that, it was all fun. I just told my jokes. I can hear the audience, the band members are laughing. It was great.”
Wong’s nervousness apparently helped him with the audience. Wong’s set closes the show, and at the end, he is supposed to stand on his mark when Letterman comes over to him, shake his hand, and say goodnight. In what Brill says was an honest and humbling moment, Wong shook Letterman’s hand and started to walk away, and Letterman called him back.
“He told me he had sleepless nights just dreaming of doing the Letterman show,” says Brill. “When it happened, it was the thrill of his life. He didn’t know what to do, he was just panicked. And so the audience went nuts for him when he came back to Dave. It was almost like when Carson would bring the comedian over to the couch. Dave was like, come back, you were great.”
Wong says the appearance was everything he hoped it would be, and now he hopes he gets another chance. “Before the show, I was thinking to myself, wow, if I do the Letterman show and get out on the street and get hit by a bus, I’ll have a big smile on my face,” he says. “But after the show, I was like, wow, I don’t want to die now. If a bus hits me now, I’m going to be really sad because I want to come here again. Just tremendous. It was unbelievable. It was a great experience.”