Dialogue with Joe Wong: things we didn’t know about the comedian

It’s been a while since the audience last watched an English performance by Joe Wong. This Chinese American stand-up comedian is going back to the US in September for a new stand-up comedy tour which will take him to Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Boston.

However, for those who are looking forward to his trademark accented English and clever jokes told from a Chinese immigrant’s perspective, don’t hold your breath because Joe is doing it in Chinese this time.

Joe in action. Photo: Courtesy of Joe

In case you haven’t heard, the man who made his name in America as a standup star has relocated to China and switched gear from English to Chinese. The doubters who didn’t believe Joe’s humor would sit well with the Chinese can be silenced now as Joe, who is known as Huang Xi in China, not only managed to make the Chinese laugh, he did it in the strict fashion of standup comedy, which is increasingly becoming a new favorite form of entertainment for the Chinese.

A year in China

It was not a spur-of–the-moment decision, leaving the US where he had a great career going and coming back to China where he had to start from scratch. To Joe, the motivation has always been his passion for standup.

After a successful performance at the 2010 White House Correspondents' Association dinner to a discerning crowd including Vice President Joe Biden and elite journalists of the country, a top honor for a standup comedian in the US, Joe set his eyes somewhere else where he has greater room to develop. And that was China.

When CCTV (China Central Television) approached Joe in early 2013 with the offer of hosting a TV show, he wasn’t very keen until he learnt that he would be able to do standup on the show. As it turned out, the “talk-show-style” variety show called “Is It True” has been topping the CCTV Economic Channel’s audience rating right from the beginning, effectively making Joe, its host, a household name in China.

Behind the scenes with host Joe, who is a keen Weibo user and loves to interact with his some 977,600 followers. Photo: From Joe's Weibo

After a couple of months of flying back and forth across the Pacific Ocean for the shooting, Joe decided to move back to China with his family. “It was July 2,” he recalled. “I remember that day vividly.”

Joe’s biggest ambition is to make standup a popular art form in China. Though the TV host job takes a big chunk of his time, he manages to find time to organize his own open mic and live talk show “Standup with Joe” where he invites celebrities to join in the fun.

Besides his own gigs, Joe also frequents Beijing’s various open mics. “Today’s show features a special guest.” Words like this always send people swarming to the bars because it is a public “secret” that this special guest is none other than Joe himself.

But to him, his biggest achievement of the year is to be able to stage live shows, 10 of them, all sold out, in Shanghai. “I hope I could bring live shows to more cities. Talks are still underway and I have been looking at theatres, ” Joe revealed. “Hopefully by the end of this year or early next year, I could do it here in Beijing.”

Q&A with Joe

It is always a pleasure talking with Joe, who is down-to-earth, and naturally funny. Through his off-the-cuff answers, much could be learnt about him as a person as well as a standup performer.

Photo: Courtesy of Joe

Q: How good is your English?

A: Very Good. I would say better than 95% of the Americans.


Q: Who is your standup idol?

A: George Carlin. To come to his level would be ideal.


Q:  Who do you admire?

A: I don’t think anybody is a real hero. It’sjust hard work and good luck. Maybe if you save somebody’s life...


Q: What is your favorite word?

A: Cornucopia.


Q: Least favorite word?

A: Those made-up words such as fantastical, or ginormous.


Q: What is your favorite curse word?

A: (Laughs) That’s everybody’s favorite. (The F word?) Yes.


Q: What’s the trait you most deplore in yourself?

A: Hesitance. Sometimes I think too much. It is a disadvantage in China. But in America, that pace is fine.


Q: What’s the trait you value the most in a person?

A: Having a great sense of humor. Being able to conquer me with one joke.


Q: When are you the happiest?

A: When I write something down that I feel is really funny and the audience can resonate.


Q- What is your greatest fear?

A-Dying without having a sitcom.


Q: When was the last time you laughed uncontrollably?

A: With my son. He was imitating somebody which I find very funny. Kids can do something that is very unpredictable.


Q: When was the last time you cried?

A: Oh, (thinking hard) that was a very long time ago. I can’t remember the last time I cried.


Q: What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

A: I used to eat ice cream. They don’t sell it this size here. In America, when things don’t go well, I just buy a big bucket, sit in front of the TV and eat a lot of ice cream. It was great.


Q: What keeps you awake at night?

A: When things don’t go well. I get frustrated. Mostly work-related.


Q: What is the worst thing someone ever did to you?

A: I don’t know. I don’t quite remember a lot of the bad things people did to me. I can’t think of anything. Perhaps my memory is failing (laughs).


Q: What turns you on?

A: Anything good. (laughs)


Q: What turns you off?

A: A lot of the sappy stuff.


Q: What is your greatest achievement so far?

A: Career-wise: correspondents’ dinner. But I want to say my son.


Q: What is the closest you’ve ever come to death?

A: Walking by a graveyard (deadpans).


Q: If you could edit your past, what would you change?

A: I would start my standup comedy career much earlier. I started at 32, too late.


Q: How would you like to be remembered?

A: It’s pretty early to ask this question. Haven’t thought about it. It is not that important.


Q: What music would you like to be played at your funeral?

A: Better be my own composition. Or some jokes. Whatever people want to hear and be happy.


Q: When you arrive at the Pearly Gate, what would you like to hear from God?

A: (Thinks) It’s kind of sad. I thought of my parents, for some reason. He might be saying, hey, your parents are waiting for you.

I don’t know. I don’t have a happy thought. I kind of feel guilty I didn’t spend a lot of time with my parents.

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