Brilliant at turning Chinese and American quirks into side-splitting yet thought-provoking punchlines, Joe Wong is China's funniest export. The biochemist-turned-comedian's unique point of view has landed him spots on Late Show with David Letterman, The Ellen Degeneres Show and recently, Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Before he delivers his jokes at Capitol Theatre on September 19, we find out what sets his stand-up apart from the others, weaving in his experience as an Asian immigrant in America, the next politician he's looking to roast and his thoughts on Trump jokes.
Hi Joe! What gets you excited about Singapore?
Crazy rich Asians! Singapore has gained quite a recognition because of the movie and Kim Jong Un’s visit. Oh, and the food too! I would definitely like to try something new, except for durian. I tried it before and couldn’t take it.
What can the Singapore audience expect from your show?
I’ll talk about what it’s like growing up in China and then moving to the US. What I’ve gone through is probably what a lot of Asians and Singaporeans are also going through in other parts of the world. And of course, it’s a comedy show so the most important thing is that the audience has fun.
From chemical engineer to comedian – what inspired the full-time switch?
I actually started stand-up comedy as a hobby. I went to a comedy show back in 2001 (when I was still a chemical engineer), and even though I couldn’t understand half of the jokes at the time, I was still hurt by the racist ones. I wanted to change that. I also felt that despite the contributions of Asian immigrants in America, their experiences were very hard to talk about at the time, so I decided to use this platform to tell (their) stories.
Most Asian-American comedians tend to pass their experience with identity as comedy, while others play on stereotypes and accents as punchlines. What sets your stand-up show apart from others?
I do talk about stereotypes but I don’t rely on them. Those jokes are very routine and a lot of Asian comics make fun of their parents’ accents. Sometimes I feel like Asian comics rely too much on mimicry to the point that after the show, the bartender will say “oh, I think his mum is funnier than him”. I'll be as funny as I can but also slightly more informative, touching on Chinese immigration history and the shared experience of immigrants.
Race plays a part in your jokes. How do you draw the line between what’s funny and offensive?
People have a concept of who’s the victim in society, so that’s pretty much where I draw the line. Some comedians are equally offensive to everybody, but it really depends on the situation. The minorities are already having a hard time in America – and in many other countries – so it’s not a good idea to make fun of them.
There also used to be a lot of misogynistic jokes and those are not cool either. By delivering it, it encourages a tolerant culture of misogyny that can be a big problem down the road.
From being part of the racial majority to a minority, what’s it like being a first-generation Chinese immigrant in the United States? What have you learned from that experience?
It’s something I always think about. When I moved to America, people will ask me “Hey, do you remember that blonde or that brunette?” I didn’t even pay attention to people’s hair colour because, in China, everyone has the same hair colour.
Gradually, I started to realise a lot of things in America. I started to encounter racism where people would yell stuff at me on stage. What’s amazing to me is that not a single person, including other comedians or the audience members, thought it was wrong. It just made me realise that as a minority, you have to fight your own fight. That’s why I think it’s so important to have a voice for minorities, especially for Asian-Americans who never had a voice in the past.
What’s the key ingredient in blending East and West humour? How do you make sure that the joke lands for everyone in the room regardless of racial backgrounds?
Initially, this kind of bothered me. But think about it – the world is round, people are pretty much the same. I’ve done stand-up comedy in a lot of different countries and we can all laugh about the same things. That’s really amazing to me. It just goes to show how we can all identify with certain jokes and awkward situations.
You roasted Joe Biden at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association annual dinner in 2010 and received a standing ovation. If you could roast anyone right now, who would it be?
I really want to roast Andrew Yang – as the President. He’s the Asian-American Democratic presidential candidate right now, and I really want him to be President so I can have the opportunity to roast him.
Trump jokes: are they still funny or just sad?
It’s very sad because, like what a lot of people have said, Trump is not the problem – Trump is the symptom. For example, after he told four congresswomen of colour to go back to where they came from – which is basically the catcall of racism – his polling numbers were raised by 5 percent.
Good comedy is a mixture of emotions. I think it’s still worthwhile to talk about his words and behaviour because despite being sick of hearing about him, we still want to fight back. His message is reaching more and more people, and a lot of them are motivated by him to go out and attack. And that’s a scary thing. We have to keep talking about him and point out that lives at stake. His words divide people. It’s sad but also necessary to talk about him.
Joe Wong Asia Live in Singapore is happening at Capitol Theatre on September 19 at 8pm. Tickets are available at livenation.sg, priced at $108 and $128.