Interview with Joe Wong
Boston-based comedian (and Chinese national) Joe Wong is the envy of his peers. Hand-plucked from relative obscurity by notorious Late Show with David Letterman scout Eddie Brill (who worked painstakingly with Wong to craft the perfect ready-for-prime-time set), Wong made his network television debut on Letterman on April 17, and absolutely slaughtered. Since then, Wong can do no wrong, appearing everywhere from Ellen to Ricky Gervais’ new flick The Invention of Lying.
He hasn’t gone all silver-screen diva on us yet, though. Wong is, of course, still doing stage shows, headlining at the Punch Line in San Francisco on October 6 and 7. And while this new dad is still figuring out a balance between family life and the fame game, there’s no question in our minds that he’s the next Big Thing. But no pressure, Joe.
ROOFTOP: It’s been an exciting year for you! What does it feel like, to suddenly be a Letterman vet and to be Ellen’s new favorite comedian?
JOE WONG: It’s been a very exciting five months since my appearance on the Letterman show. Tons of emails from literally all over the world saying how much they liked the Letterman set. I garnered attention from industry people, as well as highly respected comedians such as Mike Birbiglia, Louis CK and Ellen Degeneres. The Letterman show makes me more certain as to which direction my comedy should go.
I have always been a huge fan of Ellen’s standup comedy. I can remember her routines by heart. After meeting her in Chicago, I became a fan of her as a person. She went out of her way to say hi to me at the Chicago theatre and I still remember feeling so star struck at the moment. She is such a warm and charming person to deal with. And she wasn’t fazed by my obscurity at all. The world is definitely a better place with people like her.
I was really thrilled to be on her daytime show last week and I had a great time there. After that appearance when I had a show in Plymouth, Massachusetts, some woman yelled, “Do that Jerry Springer joke!” And I got e-mails like, “I was watching you on Ellen show while chopping vegetables. I laughed so hard I dropped the knife and almost cut myself.” It makes the daily struggles as a comedian less painful.
ROOFTOP: Mitch Fatel told us that one of his goals is to just write a new joke every day. As a comedian, what are your goals?
JOE WONG: The goal I set was to write five jokes or tags/changes to existing jokes every day. However It took me years to actually be able to write three to five lines every day. I can’t write a new joke that would work every day. But I try to write how I really feel about things and then let the writing live or die on stage.
ROOFTOP: Can you talk a little bit about writing jokes in English, and whether or not English-language (or Western) humor translates back to Chinese?
JOE WONG: I write everything in English. English is my second language but I love it with a passion. The English language has the reputation of being more direct than Eastern languages, but its subtlety and nuance are boundless and more interesting because it’s supposed to be direct. And subtlety and nuance are two major sources of humor.
Last year when I was in China I translated some of my jokes from English to Chinese and only two short jokes worked. One of them is “If I were to die in a car accident, I wanted it to be a cement truck. That way immediately after I die, there is a statue of me.” I think the “play on logic” jokes tend to translate well between languages. One popular Western writer in China is Mark Twain. Most of his satire used what I call the “play on logic”
ROOFTOP: What do you find to be the most satisfying thing about writing and performing stand-up?
JOE WONG: Stand-up is form of communication. When it’s done right, it brings people together. As an immigrant it’s especially gratifying to know that my experience and sensibility can be shared and understood by Americans.
ROOFTOP: Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with comedy.
JOE WONG: I dabbled in a lot of different things, violin, guitar, badminton, competitive swimming, golf, tennis, baseball, flag football, hiking, running, camping, charades, poker games, bowling, pool, speaking Korean, religion, volunteering at homeless shelters, seeing a psychiatrist, smoking, ballroom dancing …
But I tend to give up on things. I think my true hobby is giving things up, or dabbling.