By Jason Tanamor
Fans of stand-up can appreciate funny comedians like Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman. Although the two comediennes’ styles may be a little different, one of the things you can relate them to is a comedienne named Helen Hong, whose act is a mix of both women. Hong recently chatted with us to talk about her career change from TV producer to stand-up comic.
Q – Real quick, tell me how you got involved in stand-up comedy?
A - I was successful as a TV producer but was miserable, knowing it wasn’t what I really wanted to do with my life. I never considered comedy as a legitimate career but I loved making my friends laugh. I signed up for a stand-up comedy class just for fun. The graduation class was an actual performance at Caroline’s on Broadway, in front of almost 200 friends and family. I was SO NERVOUS, but as soon as I got my first laugh, I knew this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It was a high like I had never felt before and I LOVED it. That was in 2005 and I’ve been doing stand-up ever since.
Q – Describe your act for those who have yet to see you perform.
A - I mostly talk about Asian stereotypes, dating, sex and silly observations. My delivery is upbeat and I smile a lot, which I think appeals to most of my crowds. If I had to compare myself to other comics, I would say I’m a cross between Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman with a very personable stage presence. You can see for yourself on my website HelenHong.com.
Q – I’ve been covering stand-up for a long time and following it even longer and there really aren’t that many Asian comics. I interviewed Henry Cho and he said that stand-up isn’t considered worthy in the Asian community. Do you agree with this and if so, why is that?
A - In some ways, stand-up comedy is antithetical to Asian culture and values. Most Asian cultures generally embrace conformity and fitting in, not standing out in the way that is inherent in stand-up. Korean culture is one of the strictest as far as social conformity. Most Koreans are taught from a young age that there are only 2 acceptable professions (doctor and lawyer), so becoming a comedian is pretty unheard of. I have a theory that it’s the strictness of the Korean culture that drives so many Korean-Americans to comedy. Have you noticed that a disproportionate number of Asian-American comics are of Korean descent? Henry Cho, Margaret Cho, Steve Byrne, Bobby Lee, Ken Jeong, Elliot Chang, Esther Ku and myself are all Korean-American. We’re all rebelling against the culture that told us to just become doctors and shut the hell up!
Q – With all the Asian stereotypes out there, including bad driving and being good at Math, how would you “mathematically” “drive” the point that Asian comics are just as funny as say, Jewish comics?
A - Asian comics certainly have as much material to draw upon as Jewish comics do! We have pushy nagging mothers, familial guilt, societal pressure to excel academically and become doctors and lawyers, pressure to marry our own kind. Hell, Asians practically ARE Jewish. Except it’s easier to pick us out of a line-up.
Q – Comedians tend be shy people off stage but when on stage, their personality really comes out. Are you like this at all and if so, why do you think this trait makes a great comedian?
A - I do think the best comedians are shy, somewhat awkward people when offstage. I’m fairly reserved and far less outgoing offstage than onstage, which annoys people who expect to see me being “wacky” in real life. The essence of comedy is observation, and you can’t observe the world around you if you’re the center of attention all the time. That’s why “class clowns” rarely make good comedians.
Q – Playing off the last question, do you think only certain people can be successful comics or do you believe anyone can learn to be a comedian?
A - I think anyone can become a comedian if they work really hard and are able to recognize and overcome their own weaknesses. Those two principles are the key, and they’re much easier said than done.
Q – Being an Asian woman, do you feel like it’s harder for you to be successful and/or accepted in comedy in predominantly an all male profession?
A - Being an Asian woman is both a blessing and a curse in the business. I’ve definitely been given opportunities on TV and certain showcases because of it, but I find it’s hard to be taken seriously by other comedians. It’s always annoying when male emcees introduce me with “Coming to the stage, a LADYYYYYY!” as if my vagina was going to jump out and start telling jokes. What is this, 1962? Thankfully I started stand-up in New York City, where it’s not completely unheard of to be either an Asian or a female comic, so I never felt too ostracized. Anyone who thinks women aren’t funny should come to New York and see all the women that are kicking ass onstage every night here.
Q – I think Tina Fey is the funniest person on TV right now. Which performers do you enjoy watching and which have influenced your career?
A - Tina Fey is amazing; so disciplined, hard-working and creative. Conan O’Brien was at his absolute best recently during the whole “Tonight Show” fiasco. I love Ricky Gervais, he’s so silly and always looks like he’s having so much fun. I recently saw Louis CK and he was incredible; definitely one of my favorites right now. Brian Regan is one of my all-time favorite comics. And Margaret Cho will always be an inspiration and a trailblazer for me.
Visit Helen Hong’s website at: HelenHong.com. “I worked really hard on it and I’m very proud of it so go visit it,” Hong said.
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous." Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jason Tanamor