They are the caretakers of life's laugh track.
Exalted on stage by spotlight and microphone, stand-up comics can hold a mystical sway over an audience sitting in darkness before them, chronicling in unexpected ways the world outside.
Across the years, many ethnic comics -- black and white, Hispanic and Asian, Muslim and Jew -- have used the forums they command to challenge typecasting of race and religion. By throwing verbal pies into their own faces, members of the ha-ha sisterhood and brotherhood not only show to those outside their group the divisive folly of stereotyping, but can also unify their own communities through shared experiences such as culture shock and assimilation.
Enter onto the Boston scene a postcard parody of the ubiquitous ''got milk?" ad campaign -- substituting rice for moo juice. It serves as an invite from the Asian Community Development Corporation in Chinatown to its fund-raiser at the Hong Kong Restaurant in Cambridge this Thursday evening. Rather than putting on a boring banquet, the community group is hosting an Asian comedy night, its second annual.
''There's a great quote: True understanding between two people is really the sum of their misunderstandings," says Jeremy Liu, ACDC's executive director, paraphrasing the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. ''Life is funny. There's lots of things that are absurd and ridiculous and laughter is a way of understanding."
For some, one sign that members of an immigrant group are comfortable in their own skin -- and this country -- is their ability to laugh at themselves in public, and to draw upon a pool of cultural comics willing to crack wise.
That Asian edginess can be heard in the humor of national comedian Margaret Cho, and the Boston's Weekly Dig comic strip Secret Asian Man. It's a confidence that has recently run through Chinatown as a group of young progressives bent on increasing political participation has solidified its position as community leaders. In November, that power helped catapult to the City Council the first Asian-American elected to public office in Boston: Sam Yoon, ACDC's former housing director -- who is expected to appear as special guest at Thursday's show.
So, without further ado, here's 35-year-old Joe Wong, part of a cadre of young local Asian comedians working the Boston-area circuit, a China-born Cambridge biochemist by day and stand-up comic by night who is scheduled to headline the ACDC affair.
City Weekly: So, are you a comic who's Chinese or a Chinese comic?
Joe Wong: I would consider myself as a comic who's Chinese.
JW: First and foremost, you should be funny. Comedy is entertainment.
CW: Do you use comedy to attack racial prejudice?
JW: If you can make it funny, and relevant, that would be good. I have said this on stage before, ''When I saw so much of people making fun of and stereotyping Asians, I said to myself: 'I want to be part of this.' "
CW: Why? Is it just to be funny or do you feel that part of your role is to poke fun at that and help stop it?
JW: I'm not sure if I can stop it. But one thing I can do is make people recognize it and see it from the immigrant's or the minority's point of view. I can't go on stage -- I guess I can -- but it won't be funny to say, ''Hey, don't call Chinese names."
CW: What is the racial mix of your audiences?
JW: I would say 90 percent are white Americans.
CW: Are they allowed to laugh at your ethnic jokes? Isn't the danger that they're going to say, ''He's making fun of the Chinese, why can't I?"
JW: If I do it on stage, and there's people more aware these are stereotypes, people will know: If a white guy goes out and does that, you're stereotyping Asians. It's not an innocent joke.
CW: What are some of the stereotypes you poke fun at?
JW: Like Asians they run stores or restaurants; Asians have to be good at math and bad at driving. Some guy actually told me after a show, it's called, DWO or something. Driving While Oriental.
CW: What is some of the shtick you might work around those stereotypes?
JW: I just got my driver's license. I decided to be an organ donor when I got it because it makes me happy to think that some guy wakes up from a coma and goes: [He lets loose a stream of Chinese]. The white guy wakes up with an Asian brain and starts speaking Chinese. He's like a hard-boiled egg -- white outside and yellow inside.
CW: What about being good at math? Got any of those?
JW: You know, I didn't do much during the day. I basically just stayed at home and enjoyed the ethnic life. I spoke some Chinese, ate some dumplings, and did some math exercises.
CW: How does the white audience respond to that?
JW: They love it. It's kind of like a surprise hearing those kinds of stereotypes coming from an Asian dude. It's more understanding and empathy. Put people in your shoes. Everybody has this experience of being isolated or alienated at some point in their life, even if you are white.
CW: How is that a better medium than just getting on the stage and having a serious talk about prejudice?
JW: It's a much better vehicle than serious speeches. It's like taking vitamins versus Flintstone tablets. There's flavor to it, different colors, it's fun to chew on it, but in the meantime it's doing the same thing.
CW: Have you been the victim of stereotypes or prejudice?
JW: Yeah, but to which extent is really hard for me to decide. One question a lot of Asians want to ask is: ''If something bad happens to us, is it because I'm Asian or just a bumbling guy making mistakes getting punished for it?"
CW: Were there overt things?
JW: I would do a great show, walk down the street and some kids would say [a racial slur]. This happened once.
CW: What did you do?
JW: I turned around and stared at them. You can't call them names. That's even uglier.
CW: Can you tell them a joke?
JW: No, I'm not in the mood.
CW: Do you think it's the coming of age of the community that it can have comedians of Asian backgrounds poking fun at themselves?
JW: Oh yeah. The Asian community is coming to that point right now. It means you are comfortable in this country. When you are feeling alienated or struggling to fit in, you probably don't have the time to reflect on your existence here.
CW: You said you were nervous doing stand-up before an Asian audience last year.
JW: I wasn't sure how they would take the jokes. I didn't want them to think I was making fun of the Asian community. They really liked it.
CW: They say that stereotypes are based partly in truth.
JW: I think there is a lot of truth in stereotypes.
CW: So, are you good in math?
JW: I'm OK with math.
CW: What about driving?
JW: Driving, it's OK. If I need to break a sweat, I just parallel park. Unlike sports, with parallel parking, the worse you are, the more people you have rooting for you. People come out of the barbershop and go, ''Come on, you can do it."
CW: What about making fun of . . . I'm not being offensive, I hope, I'm just asking because we're talking.
JW: Go ahead. Freedom of speech.
CW: Some Chinese, when they speak, turn an L into an R.
JW: I make fun of that. I think that's very funny.
CW: Okay, gimme one.
JW: I lived in Texas for 7 1/2 years. That's why I decided to stick with a Chinese accent. I tried a Texas accent before. I used to invite people to dinner by saying, ''Y'all come on down. We're fixing to have some fly lice. Yee-haw!"
CW: How did you end up in America?
JW: I came here to study. Rice University. It's not a joke.
CW: How did you become a comedian?
JW: I wrote for the campus newspaper. People are saying, ''Oh, that's really funny." After I graduated from college, I went to some comedy clubs in Houston. When I moved up here [for a job in late 2001], I figured I'd try some out myself.
CW: Where do you get your material, from your own experiences?
CW: Tell me a story that you turned into a joke.
JW: I was at this deli in South Boston. The guys are behind the counter and they're like, ''Hey, Jackie Chan, your order's ready." But those guys are immigrants, too.
CW: Is that offensive?
JW: This could be racist for me to say, but if a white guy deliberately said this to me it could be offensive. But those guys, they're probably very new to this country, and they probably don't exactly know what is appropriate. I wasn't offended at all. I kind of turned that into a joke.
CW: Let's hear it.
JW: Once I was at this restaurant and this clerk said to me, ''Hey, Jackie Chan, your order's ready." I think that's a very unique Asian experience. They would never say to a white guy, ''Hey, Michael Jackson, your Happy Meal's ready."
CW: How do you get from what happened to you, to that?
JW: You just have to stretch your imagination a little bit.
CW: So when do you do that, when you're doing biochemistry?
JW: Sometimes after a hard day's work, when I'm decompressing, all of a sudden my mind gets more active and I can think of funnier stuff. Sometimes, during the weekend, when I'm really relaxed, nothing funny will come to me.
CW: Do you have another joke that flows from reality?
JW: I went back to China two years ago and I brought everybody I knew gifts.
The joke is, I bought everybody the gifts, unfortunately I could only afford the stuff that's made in China. My nephew was like, ''Wow, thank you so much for this pair of shoes. I made them."
CW: Do you feel pressure to do ethnic humor?
JW: You should do some Asian material, to address the issue of being an Asian guy on the stage. And then you can go into other types of humor.
CW: Isn't your very presence on the stage a symbol against the stereotype that you're a model minority home doing your math?
JW: That's true. I never thought of it that way.
These questions and answers were edited for space reasons. Ric Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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