"I probably should address more the topics that Asians are concerned about. But on the other hand, there are more and more Asian comics coming up and I would say the vast majority of them are mainly focussed on ethnicity. So maybe not [being] completely dependent on my ethnic background could set me apart." – Joe Wong
Guy MacPherson: Are you in Boston right now?
Joe Wong: Yes, I am.
GM: That’s your home, right?
GM: I saw your first Letterman appearance when it aired.
JW: Oh, really.
GM: Yeah, yeah. And I wrote about it on my blog.
JW: Oh, thanks. That’s very nice of you.
GM: And I interviewed Eddie Brill about it. Because it was such a different thing that you don’t see on late night shows. Or you didn’t, anyway, until that point. Not only you being from another country, but you don’t see very many new comics on late night talk shows.
JW: Yeah, especially with the Letterman show. Maybe two or three every year or something.
GM: If that. And then, just today I saw your second appearance. I didn’t know you’d been back on.
JW: Yeah, second appearance is February of this year.
GM: Were you a little more relaxed the second time?
JW: Yes, a little bit more relaxed. And it’s a little bit busier in my green room, too. Now some people kinda know me now you know. Paul Schaffer would stop by to say hi. Staff would come in and chat with me and stuff. It’s more fun there now.
GM: You’re getting to be a regular now on the show.
JW: (chuckles) I hope so.
GM: So leading up to that first spot, you started in Boston in 2001?
JW: I took a stand-up class toward the end of 2001 but I didn’t really get on stage and try my material until early 2002.
GM: So that was after 9/11 and you figured what the hell; the world’s coming to an end anyway.
JW: (laughs) Yeah, let’s get some laughs.
GM: I understand you also wrote a newspaper humour column, was it? Or was it just a regular column where you were kinda funny?
JW: I was titled a columnist but in actuality I only contributed two articles. The first one was fairly humorous and people really liked it at that time. And that’s when I first found out my sense of humour can be appreciated by other people, too, especially in America.
GM: I’ve always heard that the hardest thing to do is be funny in a second language. Obviously it isn’t for you, but you can appreciate that, right?
JW: Oh, yes. It’s pretty gratifying coming from a totally different country and you can find some common things that we can laugh at.
GM: What are the biggest challenges in making people laugh in a language that’s not your first?
JW: To be honest, it’s more cultural references. The familiarity with both countries. When I first got here, what I found to be the most difficult for immigrants was not the language itself. Because in the language you can somehow get by. But it’s more of the culture stuff. I didn’t grow up with TV or football or Thanksgiving dinners so those things are very hard for me to catch up and understand. Actually, the most difficult part is the nursery rhymes. When people would talk about that, I had no idea, no clue what they were talking about. So I found those to be the hardest part to get over. The language you can always learn. I’m always fond of the English language. I find it fascinating. I don’t mind putting in hours to read or listen to things. But the culture background, so to speak, is the toughest part.
GM: And when you were writing your columns, you don’t have an accent in your written language.
JW: That’s right. When I think in English, I don’t have an accent in my head.
GM: Are you kind of afraid to lose it? Because it sets you apart.
JW: I don’t think I can lose it if I want to. Because I came to the United States when I was 24. There are certain things that are hard to lose. I remember we did a short film back in Boston in 2008 and this actress says to me, “Hey, Joe, why do you always have to [use] the accent? Can you drop it?” I was like, “I can’t.” (laughs)
GM: Some people think your accent is fake or exaggerated?
JW: Yeah. She basically grew up in Boston her whole life and she doesn’t get why people like me cannot pick up a pure Boston accent or a general American accent at all.
GM: You don’t want to do a Boston accent, though.
JW: (laughs) I can do a little bit.
GM: The only other comic I can think of from another country and language, although I’m sure there are more, is Yakov Smirnoff. I grew up watching him and I thought, “Is he really from Russia or is that a put-on? Is that accent real?” But I interviewed him a couple years ago, and it is. And it makes sense. I have Chinese-Canadian friends whose parents have been here 40 or more years and they still have a strong accent. So I can well imagine it’s something that’s not easy to lose.
JW: Yeah, and you have Americans who were born and grew up here but still they have either Chinese accent or Hispanic accent. Somehow, that’s just the way it is, I guess.
GM: The ones that are even born there?
JW: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
GM: Because of their parents, I guess?
JW: Exactly. I remember once I did a show for a Chinatown youth group where the audience was mainly high school students. And a lot of them were surprised to hear me speak English. They just assumed that people from China don’t speak English. Because they grow up in Chinatown, all their parents and uncles just speak Chinese to each other.
GM: Is there a big Chinese population in Boston?
JW: It’s not very big. It’s not as big as San Francisco or New York. But still there are some. And there is a Chinatown here that’s trying to survive.
GM: Have you been to Vancouver before?
JW: No, I’ve never been there. That’s why I’m pretty excited about the trip this time.
GM: There’s a huge Chinese population here.
JW: Yeah, I heard about that. There are a lot of people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, right?
GM: I’m not sure where, actually. But if you go to Richmond, there are malls I can go in and be the only non-Asian person there.
JW: Oh, wow.
GM: Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?
JW: I speak Mandarin.
GM: Yeah, it’s a huge Chinese population. I believe it’s the second biggest Chinatown outside of San Francisco in North America.
JW: Oh, I see. Wow.
GM: Do you find you’re becoming a hero to your people? Are you getting a larger Chinese audience?
JW: Yeah. It’s interesting because Boston’s predominantly white and up until 2005 I would say 98 percent of my audience were white. And then 2005, 2006 I started to do some charity shows for some organizations in Chinatown and I got some recognition there. And after the Letterman appearance I got lots of e-mails from Chinese, either born here or came over here from China. And the most common theme is, “Oh, now I’m so proud of being a Chinese here because what you have done on TV” and stuff. I got a lot of recognition from the Chinese community.
GM: Seeing your sets on Letterman and on Ellen, you don’t do a ton of ethnic material. There are some ethnic comics who make their ethnicity all they talk about. You have great jokes on all sorts of topics.
JW: I just feel that if you only talk about your ethnic background, that’s not challenging enough. I want to come up with jokes with a certain level of depth and complexity, so that’s my main goal. I consider myself a comedian first and a Chinese second. So that’s my take on comedy, basically.
GM: Do you find that the more Chinese-Americans or nationals are getting behind you, the bigger the pressure to start doing more jokes about your ethnicity?
JW: A little bit. Sometimes I feel that when I’m talking to a crowd of mainly Asians, I probably should address more the topics that Asians are concerned about. But on the other hand, there are more and more Asian comics coming up and I would say the vast majority of them are mainly focussed on ethnicity. So maybe not [being] completely dependent on my ethnic background could set me apart.
GM: That’s a good point. So they’ve got that covered; you don’t need to.
JW: Yeah. People who grew up here, they do that a lot, probably since their first show.
GM: When you started back in 2002, what kind of material were you doing? How was it different from what you’re doing now?
JW: I still remember my first set. I can’t even remember any of the jokes from my first set back in 2002 except one joke that worked really well. I think my jokes changed a lot. At the time I was pretty much trying to imitate comedians I really liked, and that kind of thing, and trying to find my way, basically.
GM: Did that joke stay with your act?
JW: Yeah, one joke stayed with me. Basically, the one joke about, “I just got a green card. I decided to stay in America instead of China because in China I can’t do the thing I do best here: being ethnic.” That was the only joke that survived from my first set.
GM: What I like about your jokes is you have great tags. You think the joke is over then you get two other really great jokes on top of it.
JW: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do. I have still a long way to go to be kind of perfect at that kind of game, you know: easy set-up, great punchline and great taglines. I’m still working on it. I just hope with time it will get better and better.
GM: How long have you been a headliner?
JW: Since 2006 off and on.
GM: Were you working since then around the country? Or just since Letterman?
JW: Between 2006 and maybe, like, 2009, it’s mainly New England and New York. And after the Letterman appearance, I’ve been to, like, Chicago and Texas and Nebraska, the midwest. I’m travelling more and more now.
GM: Will this be your first time in Canada? I mean, other than looking for bears.
JW: (laughs) This will be my first time performing in Canada. I’ve been to Montréal before but just to do some sightseeing.
GM: You haven’t done the Just For Laughs festival?
JW: No, I haven’t done it.
GM: That’ll come, I’m sure.
JW: Yeah, well, we’ll see. It’s not up to me.
GM: Why did you go to the States? Was it to study?
JW: Yeah. I was a biochemistry major and I wanted to become a professor when I came here.
GM: Did you get a PhD?
GM: Have you used it? Did you work in that field?
JW: Yeah, yeah. I worked for... let me see... almost ten years in the field.
GM: In molecular biology?
GM: Was it tough to give that up? Do you still love that?
JW: Yeah, but I worked for a company. I love cancer research and molecular biology but on the other hand it’s just a job, too.
GM: But comedy’s a way of life.
JW: (laughs) Comedy’s my Tao. Remember Taoism? The way or the path of life. Comedy’s just how I see life.
GM: What about your family’s expectations? Are your parents in China still? Are they still around?
JW: My parents are still in China, yeah.
GM: They must have been very proud when their son got a PhD in molecular biology. Then he decides to go into show biz. How did they feel?
JW: I think my mom is probably secretly worried but she didn’t say too much. But in general I think I got a lot of really good publicity in China, especially after March when I headlined at the Radio & TV Correspondent’s Dinner. That was really popular in China. It got ten times more viewers than in the United States. And I was on some national TV news programs so my parents figure I’m probably doing something right. They’re not sure, but you know.
GM: So you performed for President Obama?
JW: No, unfortunately Obama had decided to pull out two weeks before the show. Joe Biden was there.
GM: Well, that’s something.
JW: Ninety-five percent of the time the president will be there. Like, Clinton was there seven out of the eight years of his presidency. I was kind of annoyed that Obama wasn’t there. But Joe Biden was a lot of fun, too.
GM: He seems like he’s got a good sense of humour.
JW: Yeah, yeah. His timing was great when he tells jokes.
GM: Are you as funny in Mandarin as you are in English?
JW: It’s hard to say. I never performed comedy by myself in Chinese. I did some sketches when I was in college. I wrote some sketches and acted in it, one or two of them. But I can’t say for sure because I didn’t practice comedy in both languages. But I just feel the sense of humour deep down is kind of similar between different cultures. It’s just with the cultural background and the language, comedy looks different but when you get down to it, the sense of humour is more or less the same.
GM: You’ve gone back and performed in China since then, haven’t you?
JW: I performed only once back in 2008. All I did was translated some of my English jokes into Chinese. I was visiting my family at the time. I figured I would just give it a shot.
GM: What kind of venue was it?
JW: It’s a theatre but it’s not very packed. It’s on a Sunday afternoon at like 2 o’clock or something. It was not a great show but I just figured I would find a place and try it out.
GM: I’m thinking there’s got to be a sitcom out of your act.
JW: Yeah. Actually I am working with Worldwide Pants, which is David Letterman’s production company. We’re trying to develop this sitcom right now, actually.
GM: They did great things with Raymond.
JW: Yeah, yeah. So it’s basically the same team, you know. The same executive producers and so forth.
GM: That’s very exciting. You don’t sound like an excitable kinda guy but deep down you must be very excited.
JW: Yeah. It’s a mix of feelings. You know, I’m excited about it and I’m honoured to be considered to have a sitcom on TV, but on the other hand most sitcoms don’t survive so it’s kind of a risk, too. But it’s worth it, though.
GM: Yeah, I’d say. Especially when you get a good and proven production team like they are behind you.
GM: I know you did a short film, but have you done any other acting?
JW: Not much. I had a speaking role in The Invention of Lying.
GM: So you have some experience. Have people started treating you differently since your success?
JW: One thing I noticed was, of course, every once in a while I get recognized at comedy clubs or even on the street. Among comedians, the biggest difference is right now it’s very hard for me to complain about anything. Because I live in Boston and very few comedians here have the same amount of exposure as myself and if I complain about something they will just say, “Wow, even you have to complain.”
GM: Is there resentment because you took that next step and they maybe haven’t yet?
JW: There may be, but not in my face, at least. In general, the comedy community in Boston is very supportive. I remember the first time I appeared on David Letterman show, because I have a family I can’t stay up at the comedy club that late, one comedy club was packed with comedians. They turned off all the sports channels and tuned into David Letterman and people were celebrating and drinking and stuff. Somebody actually videotaped the thing on their phone and showed it to me later on. It’s pretty moving. People were so supportive.
GM: Do you get out to the weekly rooms as much as you used to or you just don’t have time anymore?
JW: Oh, yeah. I still go out at least two to four times a week. Sometimes it’s like, you know, five minutes. A short set. Or seven minutes. But I definitely have to try new material.
GM: It’s going to be great seeing you in Vancouver because on TV all we can see is a 5-minute set. How long will you do here?
JW: Forty-five minutes.
GM: So you can really stretch out. It’s a different kind of thing, isn’t it?
JW: Yeah, with 45 minutes you have some acting out, maybe some audience interaction every once in a while, so it’s slightly different. The feel is different. Right now I’m trying to add new elements to my act. I will try to have a 3- to 4-minute power point presentation or a small speech in the middle and this-and-that just to add more variety to my show.
GM: Hey, a power point presentation in stand-up! I haven’t seen that before.
JW: Yeah, I just started doing this back in July in small theatres and people really liked it. And then I tried it out in some colleges and the students love it, too, so I figure I’ll probably just, if they have a good AV system in Vancouver, I’ll definitely do that.
GM: Is it that you’re teaching us something? What’s the pretext?
JW: (laughs) Oh, yeah, I’m teaching mathematics. No, just kidding. It’s basically pop culture stuff and some sarcasm in it. It’s basically jokes but together with some pictures and some quizzes and stuff.
GM: I wasn’t joking when I said teaching. Because I think comedians, whether they’re standing there talking about observational humour or political or whatever, they’re always teaching something, even if it’s only indirectly, just by the way they look at life. So I thought if you did it in a power point presentation, it would obviously still be funny but you’d be imparting your knowledge somehow.
JW: I can’t boast myself as knowledge, but I go for the funny. That’s first most of all. There’s a little bit of knowledge in it but not that much. Mostly entertainment.
GM: How many kids do you have?
JW: One. I have a 3-year-old son.
GM: You have to travel more now. Is that tough on the family?
JW: Yeah, it’s tough on the wife and myself, you know, but it’s something you have to deal with as a comedian.
GM: Is she American?
JW: Yeah, but she’s from China, too. She’s an American citizen now. We have very similar backgrounds. I met her in Beijing before I came to the States.
GM: That’s nice. So she’s really seen your success from the beginning.
JW: Yeah, yeah.
GM: I look forward to seeing you at the festival in Vancouver. I’m sure you’ll kill.
JW: Oh, thanks. I hope for the same thing, too.
GM: It was nice talking to you. We have something in common because I used to be the youngest baby in the world, too.
JW: Oh! That’s great. Common ground. Yay.