Today: Joe Wong, an unusual comedian.
If you had a highly successful career that paid you a six figure annual income, would you leave it in middle age to pursue a very risky venture?
That’s what Joe did. A poor Chinese immigrant, he earned his doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University in Houston. He then went on to a brilliant career as a scientist at pharmaceutical giant Aventis, in Cambridge, Mass under his real name, Xi Huang.
But last year, at the age of 40, and with a wife and a 3 year old son, he said goodbye to Aventis to venture out full-time into comedy.
In a sense his comedy career began in China when as a 10 year old boy; his dad took him to see a Charlie Chaplin film. Little Joe laughed and laughed and got hooked on comedy. But like other Chinese children from his village, everyday life was no laughing matter as he worked in the fields to help support his family.
“When I was a kid, every student had to work in the cornfields and scoop fertilizer [manure] into the crop,” Joe told the Los Angeles Times. “Americans can’t believe it but at lunch we’d rinse the same container off in a creek and use it to scoop soup.” *
Joe learned English in part by memorizing portions of the Oxford English Dictionary and when he came to America; he had an extensive vocabulary, though he spoke with a thick accent. When he took up comedy his English teacher told him to stay away from complex, learned words.
“It turns people off,” she told him. “My vocabulary got smaller over the years.” *
In 2002, Joe mustered his courage and made his comedy debut during an open mike night at Hannah’s, a Somerville, Mass sports bar. He’d worked hard to write what he hoped were funny jokes. Already nervous he told those jokes but struggled to have people hear them because of multiple Big Screen TV’s blasting ball games and the noise from two adjacent bowling alleys.
And most of the audience had been drinking heavily and Joe had to shout over the din of all the noise they made. Only several people actually listened to any of his routine and one guy told him it was probably funny if he could have heard it better.
But as discouraging as that was, Joe refused to quit. He took comedy classes, polished his jokes, polished his use of the English language and kept at it, playing any local clubs including Hannah’s that would have him.
As Joe got experience in entertaining audiences, his confidence built, he kept improving and even began getting paid a small amount of money for his comedy.
Meanwhile, his wife Lucy was patient with him, understanding how hard it was to work full-time in the daytime as a scientist while at night Joe would be writing his jokes or on the phone looking for gigs or performing them in front of audiences, often at a late hour.
Joe and Lucy (Yan Jin) had met in Beijing early in 1993 at a Korean language school. He was a student at the Chinese Academy of Science and she worked for a construction company.
“I thought she was very pretty,” he said over the phone with a blush in his voice. “And I began to speak with her. She liked to laugh and was very pleasant to be with.
“We soon started dating,” Joe added. “About a year later we got married in Beijing. She thought she was marrying a scientist and I thought she was marrying a scientist too,” he said with a laugh. Lucy became a CPA and practiced accounting in China and then in the U.S.
Despite the rigors of Joe’s show business career, Joe and Lucy have been married for 17 years. And little Jake is now four years old.
In 2005, as Joe’s comedy career was developing, he met Eddie Brill, a talent scout for The Late Show with David Letterman. “He told me I had a shot at the big time but that I needed a few more good jokes,” Joe told the Times.*
In 2009, Eddie decided Joe was ready for the big time and booked him on Letterman, where he was so good, he “killed,” as comedians say. Joe has been in the big time ever since, returning to the Letterman Show and performing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in Hollywood and on a comedy special she hosted in Chicago.
Joe has also been on national comedy tours and had one of his biggest gigs in 2010 performing for 2,400 journalists and top U.S. officials including Vice President Joe Biden at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, DC.
As his performance at that dinner concluded, he received a standing ovation. If you would like to see that performance, please click on http://www.channelapa.com/2010/01/comedian-joe-wong-will-be-at-2010-radio.html
Why did Joe go into comedy? Aside from his desire to make people laugh, “I wanted to give voiceless immigrants a voice and in my opinion humor is the best way to communicate. When a room full of people laughs together, it builds a strong bond together. People feel connected and put away negative feelings.”
What is the most difficult aspect of entertaining an audience from a much different culture? “My background is so different than theirs. I try to find the humanity in everything. When I tell jokes about my childhood (for example), people can still relate to it.”
What is Joe’s professional goal? “I would like to have a sitcom reflecting the life of an immigrant in this country. A lot of us immigrants came to improve our lives. And we are very patriotic. We came to America by choice.”
Now that Joe is so much in demand, where does he perform? “Mainly in the U.S. and Canada,” he replied. “I was invited many times to tour in China, but (I am) very busy here.” And when you hear or read his routine, you’ll laugh and understand why he is as busy as he is.
Success Tip of the Week:
As Joe Wong’s career reminds us; even seemingly impossible dreams can come true if one has the courage to act on those dreams.
In interviewing Joe by phone, I found him to be personable, funny and insightful. It is wonderful that he is so much in demand as a comedian. It will be interesting to watch his career develop and to see if he can attain that sitcom he is seeking.
In the next KazanToday:
How a man built a corporate giant from a tiny mom and pop business.
Quotes noted with * are from The Los Angeles Times front page story, “Saving his best for laughs,” http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/08/local/la-me-joe-wong-20110708 To visit Joe’s website and to see his touring schedule, please click on http://www.joewongcomedy.com/