By Jenny Uechi
We’ve all seen over the last several years how many “ethnic” comedians have been coming into mainstream consciousness over the years: South Asians have an enviable lineup that includes Russell Peters, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari and Arj Barker (the incomparable “Dave” from Flight of the Conchords). Middle Eastern folks have Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed and the whole gang of the Axis of Evil comedy tour. For years, though, a lot of people have been wondering where the Pacific Asian comedians were at: clearly, there’s a big talent pool, and there are a lot of excellent comedy groups, just no one quite like Margaret Cho in the last decade or so.
But now, it looks like Pacific Asians have a bit of a renaissance coming in the comedy realm — American Joe Wong and Canadian Peter Chao, two equally hilarious comedians whose approach to making people laugh couldn’t be more different.
Wong, on the one hand, is a serious-looking Chinese immigrant — a 东北人, or north-easterner from Jilin province no less. He speaks in a thick Mandarin accent of someone who just landed in America two hours ago, yet tells hilarious jokes that show off the sophistication and savvy of someone who has spent all his whole life in America.
A former biochemical engineer, Wong honed his English skills as a columnist for his school newspaper at Rice University in Texas and slowly began working the comedy clubs in Boston in 2002. He’s made his way into mainstream consciousness after being invited to perform on shows like David Letterman and Ellen.
Don’t be fooled by his deer-in-headlights expression — this is someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and can hold his own in front of a big crowd. Just look at the way he works the media and politicians (including Joe Biden) at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner in March:
He’s brilliant, and doesn’t let a small thing like an accent get in the way of his show. Many of his jokes aren’t race-based and would be funny coming from anyone, yet people seem to be caught off guard when they come from a Chinese person. In this interview, Wong says that he noticed many people didn’t expect him to tell witty jokes, so he set out to break the stereotype that Asians can’t be funny.
And then there’s Peter Chao, a Canada-raised Vancouver/Richmond guy who rose to notoriety by playing an insanely foul-mouthed, politically incorrect faux Chinese immigrant. With his constant casino/prostitution references and general butchering of the English language, he’s the kind of guy you won’t ever be seeing on the cover of Canadian Immigrant or a S.U.C.C.E.S.S. newsletter (though you may find him on the Georgia Straight), despite his considerable promotion of local Chinese Canadian businesses.
Unlike Joe Wong, 98 percent of his jokes are not sharable with older family members (unless you have a rather special family), which is probably a calculated move on his part. His niche is in firmly anchored in the youth audience, and he milks it for all it’s worth with his “Chinese guy” take on touchstone topics like Justin Bieber and the Twilight series, touching off a storm of feedback from fans who stumbled upon his videos while searching YouTube for their favorite celebrities. There are plenty of Peter Chao skits that focus on more universal topics like food and love, but these, too, are best kept out of view of people who take themselves seriously.
Some segments of his videos might lead sensitive viewers to accuse him of being the Cantonese equivalent of a self-hating Jew, but it’s clear that this guy is proud of heritage and has more self-love than Betty Dodson. Whereas Joe Wong’s humour lies in in beautifully-written lines that survive his wooden delivery, Peter Chao’s real gift is in physical comedy, with facial expressions and hand gestures that turn even the most random expressions into funny punchlines. Think what you want of his comedy, but this is a guy who oozes joie-de-vivre: the way he guzzles bubble tea and stares at womens’ bosoms is enough to make any self-repressed Asian turn dark green with envy.
If you think he just makes YouTube videos, think again — he does do standup. He also inspires shockingly literate (considering the usual juvenile comments on his channel) debates about whether his success is a good or bad thing for the Chinese community at large. If we’re lucky, he’ll turn out to be the Chinese answer to Dave Chappelle, and at worst, he’ll probably have corrupted a generation of honour-roll students into wearing sunglasses indoors and ending each conversation with “Chao Zai, MFs!”
Perhaps both Joe Wong and Peter Chao will eventually drop out of comedy to turn into high-achieving engineers and CEOs, but until they
come to their senses switch priorities, please do support their careers by checking out more at JoeWongComedy.com and TheChaoNation.com