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Breaking Ethnic Barriers through Comedy: An Interview with Joe Wong4 min read

7 October, 2010 2 comments

By Jenny Uechi

Joe Wong, who we blogged about earlier here, dropped by Vancouver recently to show the local Canadian crowd what good, smart comedy was all about. While he’s a long way from being a household name, Wong is nonetheless one of the biggest rising stars in comedy today and has already appeared on shows like Ellen and David Letterman.

At the Lafflines Comedy Club in New Westminster, Wong tore up the audience within the first few minutes of taking the stage. His jokes took aim at his geekiness, at his “child labor” experience in a Chinese school, at Mardi Gras and at the absurd heights of technology in daily life. A few things that set him apart from other comedians is the near-absence of profanity or sexual allusions: in an industry known for its rampant use of four-letter words, Wong keeps every performance squeaky clean and G-rated. Despite being a recent immigrant to the US (he came to study at age 24), Wong never uses his Chinese identity as a crutch, and focuses most of his jokes on musings that are based on more universal themes.

“My New Year’s resolution was to learn how to become more passive-aggressive,” Wong intones. “So now, instead of telling someone, ‘Go to hell,’ now I just say, ‘Hey, I hope you go to heaven…soon.”’ Watching the audience throw their heads back and clutch their stomachs laughing, it was obvious that Wong was in his element onstage.

After the show and subsequent picture-taking frenzy with his fans, Wong took a few moments to speak to Ricepaper about his trade:

Your humour is incredibly clean. Is this something you consciously do?
JW: Two reasons: I want to challenge myself, because cleaner jokes are harder to come by. A lot of the audience is Asian, and they tend to bring their kids to the show. A lot of the kids are 7 or 6 years old. So I have to be very clean. Now I have high-school kids on my Facebook site, so I have to keep everything clean.

I guess now that you’re a father, too, you’re doing this for your son?
JW: Oh no, I don’t care about that (laughing).

You’re often described as an “Asian” or “Chinese” comedian, but is it your goal to break ethnic barriers?
JW: Well, I prefer to be known as a good comedian first. My ethnicity will add to the comedy but I don’t want to that to be my main thing. It sets me apart a little bit. Most Asian comedians talk about the Asian experience and I tend to touch on the broader experience.

Who are some of your favorite comedians?
JW: I really like Mitch Hedberg – he passed away recently – and Woody Allen. I also really loved George Carlin, I think he was the best stand-up comedian.

How did it feel to make the switch to a full-time comedian?
JW: I wanted to do this for a long time. It was a difficult decision. But I am busier now than I was when I had my day job. There’s the business side of it as well. Collaborating with different comedians, and with sitcoms. It’s a 24-hour job.

Show business is very tough not just for Asians, but for anybody. But in the end, it’s your own life. You can’t blame your parents for anything, you can’t blame anybody for it. If you really want to do it, you have to do it. I think one person said it best — You shouldn’t want to be a comedy star or a movie star. You have to be it. And you have to be smart about it. If you do stand-up comedy at 16, you usually fail because you don’t have any life experience. You should get a job first, and be stable…it will also provide material for your jokes.

What was it like performing in front of Joe Biden and the prominent media figures at the RTCA [Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association] Dinner?
That’s the most pressure I ever felt. There was like 3,000 people, and right in the front row, there are familiar people from CNN, Fox News, Supreme Court Justice. I have to say in the beginning of my performance it didn’t go as well, but you have to keep working on it. By the end they gave a standing ovation.

What’s the most satisfying thing about doing comedy?
JW: One of the most gratifying things in stand-up is so many people from many diverse backgrounds are brought together. Just recently I started to bring in stories from my childhood. It’s kind of an experiment. I just want to see — when I talk about my experience in China, I wonder, can (Caucasian) people relate to it? But you know, in some ways, I guess they actually can. They were all laughing, and I’m glad to see that it all just works out.

For more information on Joe Wong, visit www.joewongcomedy.com.

2 comments

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2 comments

Tia 7 October, 2010 at 2:57 pm

That’s awesome that you guys were able to get an interview! You can tell that he has comedy down to a science… he’s hilarious 🙂

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Jenny U 8 October, 2010 at 4:27 pm

It’s great that you know about him, Tia! (Or perhaps he’s just a lot more of a celebrity these days than I imagined). Wong was just great, he has the kind of high-caliber jokes that cut across ethnicity, which is refreshing. It’s also interesting that he has a Ph.D. in molecular biology — though I’m sure that’s fertile ground for comedy, any jokes on that subject would probably be over my head.

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