By Jason Tanamor
You may not recognize Henry Cho by looking at him, but once he talks it may jog your memory. That’s because the comedian, who looks every bit Asian, has a southern accent. The two kind of make a person shake his head at first. But once Cho gets-a talkin,’ you’ll soon remember him any time his name comes up. That’s because he’s one of the funniest comedians working today. Cho recently sat down with Zoiks! Online to talk life, comedy, and Asian stereotypes.
Q – You’re an Asian with a southern accent. The reason I ask this is because I’m an Asian with a Midwestern accent. Do you think it’s harder being an Asian comedian with a southern accent than an Asian comedian with an Asian accent?
A - It's not easy being a comedian in any case, but having a southern accent sets me apart from not only all other Asian comedians, from all comedians. I remember Garry Shandling a few years back saying that I stand out so much, in people's minds after they see me, I don't have to be super famous for people to remember me. The added plus, in my opinion, on having a southern accent is it's easy to listen to. Folks in the south sit on the porch and tell stories - easy to sit around and listen to someone from the south, as opposed to an accent from Brooklyn.
Q – So, there are Asian stereotypes like bad driving and being great at Math, and southern stereotypes like lack of teeth and incest. What stereotypes would you say you fall into?
A - I didn't know about the driving thing until I moved to L.A. years ago. Some loser asked me from the stage if I was a good driver. I told him where I come from me and my dad were the only Asian guys driving there. Neither of us had ever had an accident, and all the bad drivers I knew were white. I'm smart cause I'm Korean, I'm not so smart cause I'm from the south. They cancel each other out, so I'm even.
Q – Does your material change based on the area in which you perform?
A - Not really, there are a couple jokes I can do in say San Francisco that I won't do in Chicago or Atlanta, but I don't go about it any differently just cause I'm in a different region.
Q – The only other Asian comics I know are Chinaman, Esther Ku and Margaret Cho. Is there just NOT a stand-up comedy booth at the Asian career fair?
A - I only know Margaret of those three. There are a few more but only a handful. There will be no booth ever at the career fair, it’s just not the art form considered worthy in the Asian community.
Q – What types of things do you like to do on the road?
A - Golf and more golf. If I'm booked anywhere up north in the wintertime the money must be really good cause if I can't play golf it's not a good road trip. It's almost like the shows are my excuse to go to a town to play all the nice golf courses. It has been that way for decades.
Q – You’re in the process of developing a television series based on your life. How did this come about?
A - It's my fifth TV deal in the past twelve years. That's the cool thing, even after all these years I'm blessed enough to have network executives still take a meeting to listen to my ideas. It's a long road to get a show on the air, I'm going old school - an adult comedy that your kids can be in the same room and watch with you.
Q – Which comedians did you learn from the most?
A - I grew up listening to Cosby and Newhart albums, but personally it's been Seinfeld, Shandling, Leno, Bill Engvall, and Jeff Foxworthy. When I first started my big break came when I got to open for Jerry Seinfeld. I'd been doing stand up for about six months. This was years before his TV show but he was still one of the biggest comedians back then. I got the gig cause I've always been clean and he insisted on a clean opener. He liked what I did and took me to other places afterward and told his pals in L.A. about me so I got to open for them. My first year or two of comedy I got to work with the cream of the crop, so I learned from the best. Dave Coulier was also a big help in my early days.
Q – You talk a little bit about being an Asian comic with a southern accent, but it’s not the focus of your act. What made you decide to stray away from the obvious?
A - I wanted to be a comedian, not just the Asian comedian with a southern accent. I have a great hook but I didn't want to be a one trick pony. I knew to gain the respect of my peers I had to be a comedian and not always rely on my hook.
Q – How difficult is it to keep a clean act when a lot of the acts today are purely based on language and sex?
A - I've never cussed on stage in 23 plus years. I'm a Christian so being dirty isn't what I wanted to present. I have other “Christian comedians” ask me to join their conferences and who want to open for me. I tell them I'm not a Christian comedian, I'm a comedian who's a Christian, big difference since 99.99% of my gigs are in the mainstream world.
Q – I mean, don’t you just want to say the f-word?
A - N/A
Q – What do you want your audience to take away with them when they leave your show?
A - I like it when folks say that they thought I was funny and they really appreciated the fact that my entire hour was clean. I’m not up there to influence anyone's view on politics or religion. I'm not curing cancer or doing any heavy lifting. Don't get me wrong, I loved it when Seinfeld said, "The hardest thing to do is be a stand up comedian.” He reminded me of that fact and I try to wear it as a badge of honor like he and the other top guys do. It's a great gig and I love it. I'm just hoping the audience laughs for an hour, but I'm not going to offend them to get laughs, it’s just not my style.
Q – Anything you want to add?
A - Phil Nee is an old school Asian comedian. Known him for 20 plus years. Between he and I we've written and/or done every funny Asian joke there is, so I know it's difficult for the young Asian comedians to dip into that well. We've milked it dry years ago. My advice to them is always to try and find their voice, but I tell every young comedian that, and not just Asian ones.
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous."
By Jason Tanamor