December 2, 2011

CHINA: "I find people more interesting than chemistry," says comedian

SHANGHAI, China / The Shanghai Daily / Feature / Vibe / December 2, 2011

Funny man makes serious points

Students queue up as chemist-turned-comedian Joe Wong appears 

at Fudan University on Monday night, not for stand-up but for what was 
billed as an inspirational lecture about his life.

JOE Wong was living a Chinese immigrant's dream in America: a PhD in molecular biology from a prestigious university and a high-paying job with a pharmaceutical company. Then, to everyone's shock and dismay, he decided to do stand-up comedy.

His parents in China and Chinese friends in America thought he was crazy to "throw away" achievements, status and security and insane to try to amuse Americans by poking fun at them. American comedians told him Americans weren't interested in Chinese immigrants and their take on America. They said the language and cultural barriers were too high. They predicted he would bomb.

Today Joe Wong, who became a US citizen in 2008 and riffs about it, is a successful comedian in America, though less so in his homeland where US cultural-specific jokes (like one on parallel parking) are difficult for most people to understand. If his jokes need footnotes to be understood, then they aren't very funny, some Chinese say.

But here's one that works everywhere:

"Like many other immigrants, we want our son to become president of the United States. We try to make him bilingual, Chinese at home and English in public. But he said, 'Hey Dad, why do I have to learn two languages?' I said, 'Son, once you become the president, you will have to sign legislative bills in English and talk to debt collectors in Chinese." Big laughs.

"One of my motives for being a comedian is to tell immigrants' stories," said Wong who spoke to students at Fudan University this week, delivering an "inspirational lecture" that got a lot of laughs.

Bespectacled, 41-year-old Wong, who is somewhat geeky looking (a stereotypical Chinese scientist), was a hit on the David Letterman show in 2009 and again in September this year. He got a standing ovation at the White House Correspondents' Dinner for 2,400 guests last year and has appeared a number of times on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Last year he placed first in the Great American Comedy Festival. His heavily accented English is not a turn-off.

The native of northeastern Jilin Province struggled in comedy for years but last summer finally quit his cancer research day job at a pharmaceutical company in Boston and devoted himself full time to comedy.

"I find people more interesting than chemistry," he said.

Wong's strength is his immigrant's perspective and insight - he landed in America when he was 24, with a huge vocabulary and fear of speaking aloud. After he got used to the culture shock and overcame the stage fright, he used his ethnic take on things to poke fun at America and American culture. He also challenged the stereotype of Asian immigrants as diligent but awkward and lacking in humor.

Wong describes his comedy as intelligent and observational, he doesn't do much physical comedy (though he did put on a show for photographers). "A lot of ethnic comedians in America make fun of their ethnic roots - Asians make fun of Asians," he said in his talk. "My comedy is slightly different. It's more about observing American culture from an immigrant's point of view, which US comedians may not think of."

In his newly released Chinese autobiography "The Tao of Humor," he writes: "My comedy is like a mirror. Americans can see their own society through the mirror."

On Monday night, there was a long queue outside as the chemist-turned-comedian appeared at Fudan University not for a show but for what was billed as an inspirational lecture about his life - part of his book tour. It was packed and standing-room-only as he walked to the lectern, wearing jeans and a dark red T-shirt. People started to laugh before he said a word, and the event turned out to be pretty funny, with lots of laughs, exchanges and applause throughout his 90 minutes. Wong spoke to reporters beforehand on the last stop on an eight-university tour in China.

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