No longer the punch line

Updated: 2011-09-09 08:33

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Chinese comic still getting big laughs in America

When the Chinese biochemist-turned-comedian Joe Wong debuted on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2009, he was an immediate hit with both American and Chinese audiences. In China, bloggers and Internet commentators clamored to discuss what it was about Wong's stand-up act that seemed to resonate so strongly with Americans.

"I'm not good at sports, but I do love parallel parking," Wong says on the show. "Because unlike sports, when you're parallel parking, the worse you are the more people you have rooting for you." The audience broke into applause.

A video of Wong's 2010 appearance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner has received more than 10 million hits in China, and he has since quit his job as a biochemist in cancer research to do his comedy routine full time.

His momentum continued this month when he appeared on The Late Show.

 No longer the punch line

Comedian Joe Wong says the secret to his success revolves around making fun of a broad range of topics, and not just about being Chinese. Provided to China Daily

If you ask Wong, 41, who is from the city of Baishan, Northeast China's Jilin province, and still speaks with an accent after 17 years in the United States, his success is due in large part to the fact that his humor doesn't revolve specifically around being Chinese.

"My humor comes from everyday life," he says. "There are so many comedians doing Asian stock jokes, and to me, that kind of joke is a little too easy. I love a well-crafted joke, and if your jokes are grounded in a common reality, they usually pack a bigger punch."

But as a diminutive, spectacled Asian man, his audiences often need an icebreaker, he says.

"You have to address being Chinese at the beginning of the set," he says. "You always have one or two jokes about being Asian, and then you move on. It's a good opener, and it helps open the audience up too."

On The Late Show, he made a joke about language comprehension, framing the famous American court case Roe v Wade as a question asked by an immigration official.

What is it? "Uh, two ways to get to the US?" he said. The audience loved it.

Eddie Brill, a talent agent for The Late Show, says he thinks that Wong's talent will eventually outweigh his ethnicity.

"People are idiots and like to label people," Brill says. "The best comics are not the best because of what they are on the outside, but because of what they are on the inside. If Joe continues to become more famous, he won't have to make jokes about being Asian anymore."

Brill discovered Wong at a comedy festival six years ago, and knew immediately he was special.

"It's like music," he says. "If you listen to Nina Simone, you just know there's soul there. It's a sense you get, and Joe had that right away.

"I'm a very stubborn judge of talent, and I would say that Joe is in the first percentile of great comedy artists," he says. "His appearance on Letterman was one of the best network debuts I've ever seen, and he'll only get better and better."

Wong came to the US at the age of 24 to take part in the doctorate program at Rice University. He always enjoyed comedy, but never considered himself a performer, he said.

During college he wrote a few sketches for friends to perform, but only decided to give stand-up a shot after seeing a comedy show in Houston in 2001. Initially, he was bombed.

"Every immigrant faces the language barrier," he said. "After my first comedy show in 2002, someone approached me to say, 'I think you're probably funny but no one can understand what you're saying.' Then, four years later, I auditioned for a festival and the organizer said 'You're pretty funny, but no one in America is interested in an immigrant's story.'

"After you get over the language barrier there's a cultural barrier and a question of whether mainstream audiences will be interested in an immigrant's perspective. To me, what he said was a pretty heavy blow. Fortunately, that didn't turn out to be true."

After his appearance on Letterman, the same organizer e-mailed him to say he'd done a great job.

"I watched the Letterman set three times and it gave me goosebumps," the organizer wrote.

Brill believes that contrary to what one might assume, the type of intelligence that applies in biochemistry is entirely applicable to comedy.

"I'm not surprised at his transition because most comedians are very, very intelligent," he said. "It's hard to describe, but the abstract math and logic that works in science and music also works in comedy. The smartest people I know are often comedians."

Although Wong, who is now an American citizen, doesn't claim to face racial discrimination, he acknowledges that there are stereotypes about Asians that he learned only after immigrating.

"After I came to the US, one of my host families once said something like, 'Please don't laugh at my math skills!' and I thought to myself, 'How did she know I was good at math?' "

During college he published a humor piece in a campus newspaper and one of his English teachers said, "Who knew? A Chinese guy with a sense of humor!" The same teacher later introduced him to Woody Allen.

"I realized that Americans had this perception of Chinese people as being serious and unfunny," Wong says. People often assume that if Chinese humor does exist, that it doesn't relate to American humor.

"If you dig deep enough the sense of humor is the same," he says. "I think the main difference is with cultural references, but there is definitely overlap. If you point out flaws in logic, people in both countries will always laugh."

Co-worker Suphaphiphat says that Wong's Chinese background does give him a unique perspective on comedy.

"But he doesn't build his set solely around the stereotypical Asian persona, which is what many people expect Asian comedians to do," she said. "It's refreshing to hear Joe tell witty jokes that do not involve race or ethnicity at all - that makes Joe not just a good Chinese comedian, but simply a good comedian."

Wong is now living with his wife and child in Boston. His autobiography will be released in October.

(China Daily 09/09/2011 page20)