VIDEO: Joe Wong on The Late Show with David Letterman
"I'm an immigrant," says Joe Wong. "And I used to drive this used car with a lot of bumper stickers that are impossible to peel off. One of them said, 'If you don't speak English, go home.' And I didn't notice it for two years."
Fourteen years ago, Wong emigrated to the United States to pursue a career in biochemical engineering. Two weeks ago, on April 17, he made his television debut as a comic on The Late Show withDavid Letterman.
The 39-year-old Arlington resident and Chinese national — who also appears in Ricky Gervais's forthcoming film, The Invention of Lying — is the latest in a prestigious line of Boston comics to make it onto the national stage. And he's doing it in a second language, his first being one not always associated with two-drink minimums.
Wong's journey to the stand-up mic is more unusual than most. Raised in the northeast province of Jilin, China, Wong first came to the United States to study at Rice University in Texas. Despite penning a few humor columns for the school paper, he was subsequently rejected from a creative-writing class because of what he was told were weak sample submissions. It was at that point that this Chinese student living in Texas decided to give up trying to write things that would make Americans laugh.
But after graduation, Wong caught a show by performance-art/comic legend Emo Philips, and was inspired to try stand-up himself. Upon moving to Boston to take a job with the Sanofi-Aventis Genomics Center, he enrolled in a stand-up class at the Brookline Center for Adult Education, taught, at the time, by Mottley's Comedy Club owner Tim McIntire. He got his first "break" telling jokes at what is now the On the Hill Tavern in Somerville, in the winter of 2002. "In the beginning, it was tough, because people didn't want to give me stage time," says Wong, who has since appeared at local clubs like the Comedy Studio, Dick Doherty's Comedy Vault, and, of course, Mottley's. "I don't look like a go-getter. I look timid. People don't have a lot of confidence in me."
Letterman comedy scout Eddie Brill would beg to differ. After first spotting the comedian onstage in 2005, Brill asked Wong to send him some tapes of more material. Three years later, he came to see him perform in Boston again. Wong says that he takes a "Darwinian approach" to writing jokes: writing 100, ditching 99. He and Brill worked together to hone a Letterman-friendly act, and it paid off — audiences love Wong. (Insert inappropriate joke here, kids.)
"I didn't pay that much attention to the crowd response while I was there taping," says Wong of his Letterman appearance. "But, when it aired, and I watched myself on TV, I was really surprised. I didn't expect the amount of applause breaks that I received."
That first break came literally two words — "I'm Irish" — into Wong's set, which mostly orbits around his immigrant status and observations of American legal, social, and cultural edicts. Surprisingly, Wong says that China somewhat parallels the US in comedy trends, both countries having experienced a boom in the popularity of stand-up comedy in the 1980s, then a subsequent lull, and now a crescendo fueled by the Web. While the Western world relies on YouTube and comedy blogs for a daily dose of funny, Wong says that the latest trend in China is viral distribution of dirty jokes via text message — which helps to skirt the notorious "Great Firewall" that the government uses to monitor Internet activity.
Of course, there are dramatic artistic differences, too, due, in part, to the fact that Chinese stand-up typically incorporates traditional, pre-scripted routines and ear-splitting Peking Opera. It's not a medium best enjoyed while wasted on too many watered-down screwdrivers, either. "A lot of times," says Wong, "comedy [in China] is done in the afternoon. People are drinking tea and having snacks. It's not as festive as here, in a bar or a club."
Plus, as one might imagine, it's more difficult to joke freely and publically in post–Cultural Revolution/post–Tiananmen Square China. "In China, the government controls media pretty tightly," says Wong. "Everything is squeaky clean on TV. There's no jokes about sex whatsoever. You can't even say 'sex' on TV. You can joke about politics, but not about Chinese politics. You can't speak against the Chinese government."
Laughs in translation
Without sex and politics to anchor their acts, many a mediocre comedian would sink in the recesses of the comedy chum bucket. Wong's material, though, transcends stereotypical comic fodder.
"I read a report saying that a man reaches his sexual peak at the age of 18, but I didn't know this until I was 25," he tells the cackling Letterman audience. "So the world never knew what I stud I was. Nobody took a bite out of this peach when it was ripe."