Phil Wang is previewing his next solo show "Kinabalu" at the Vault Festival on Friday 3 March.
British Malaysian stand-up comedian Phil Wang shares his career highs and lows with Resonate. He tells us why comedy opens up conversations on difficult subjects.
Phil Wang, rising star in comedy, has an impressive CV:
Winner of the Chortle Student Comedian of the Year Award in 2010, Comedy Central’s Funniest Student Award in 2011, and was president of the infamous Footligts at Cambridge University between 2011-2012 (past presidents include Hugh Laurie, Richard Ayoade and Simon Bird).
He can be seen in mainstream media brandishing his sharp wit and cheeky stage persona. In person, he is a humble and considered young man who thinks “cultural races are won by ubiquity”
GW: You’re a Wang and I’m a Wong which would be the same character in Chinese, can we ascertain if we are related? What’s your origin story?
PW: I was born in Stoke on Trent. My mother’s English from Stoke. She met my father in Malaysia but I was born here. After a week of being a baby in Stoke, I flew with them to be a baby in Malaysia and I was a baby there until I was 16 basically. A huge baby, a huge very clever baby. At 16, we came back to the UK when mum got a job in Bath so that became the family home. I did my A-levels there and subsequently went to university at Cambridge. When I graduated, I moved to London to pursue my comedy career.
GW: So is that where your comedy career started? At Cambridge?
PW: Pretty much. I did 3 gigs in Bath, 2 of them were at my school. Cambridge is great for comedy because pretty much every college has a comedy night. There was Footlights as well. I was involved in that and was president between 2011-2012.
GW: That’s really impressive!
PW: It was only because I was doing a long degree that gave me a fourth year. I got the position out of a sense of experience and seniority more than anything. It’s mainly an administrative job, lots of e-mails. The title is payment for e-mails and admin.
GW: Did holding this position give you more scope as to what you got involved in?
PW: Cambridge University has its own theatre, the ADC, which is home to all the theatrical societies. Footlights is only one of them. So I had to deal with the other committee members and performers. It was all very democratic. All the shows are cast from open auditions, even the president has to audition. I would still have to resume duties to ensure the success of the shows even if I had been rejected from them. So if nothing else, it was an excellent training ground for rejection, which is the most important skill to have in this line of work. I don’t know if you’d agree?
GW: I can certainly sympathise with that. You’ve worked with some really big names on the comedy scene, what would you say is your biggest achievement?
PW: I think my proudest single moment is being on Have I Got News For You and getting to know Ian Hislop. That was great because that was one of the first British comedies I saw. As a kid, mum would bring home DVDs, or they may even have been VHSs, of Blackadder, French and Saunders and Have I Got News For You. To then be on that panel and watch those boards spin behind me at the end of the show was a fantastic feeling. Live at the Apollo was also a dream come true, it was one of those shows that got me into stand-up.
But there have been all sorts of incredible experiences that have been very surprising, like a tour through Japan, Melbourne Comedy Festival, Montreal. I feel very lucky.
GW: And any challenges?
PW: All comedians pay their dues when they’re starting out, like not getting paid for ages, travelling around and just trying to get gigs. That was when it was really tough.
GW: How did you overcome that?
PW: You just keep going. I never waited tables but I did tutor Maths and Physics for a bit. I’m very lucky that I have very supportive parents. As part of my degree I had to work at an engineering firm for a bit which was very boring. That incentivised me to make sure I hit the ground running in comedy. When I won the Chortle in 2010, it was half way through my degree. I got an agent off the back of that, she was one of the judges. So I came out of university with a foot in the industry and was able to circumvent the open mic circuit. A lot of people are not lucky enough to do that. I think a lot of my success have been paved on the bricks of options and luck.
GW: I saw a preview of your new show last weekend and some of your material draws on your ethnicity which I found hilarious. I might have cheered the loudest.
PW: It’s always the people of colour I’m least worried about. If I do a joke about black people, I’m never worried about the black people in the room. I’m more worried about the white people looking at the black people for approval/permission to laugh.
GW: How do you get round that?
PW: I think you just have to be open and honest and address it. For example I do a joke about my black friend Jason saying ‘I only mention he’s black because you (the audience) imagined him white.’ A line like that can throw people into an awareness. Acknowledging that white people might be nervous can actually settle the nerves for an hour in that room before they go out into the world and get nervous again. The important thing I’ve learnt is never to apologise. If people pull back, you have to go even further and harder on the next line. The audience is always testing you on your commitment to the idea. If you do it right you win them over.
GW: Have you ever experienced racial discrimination?
PW: I mean I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of the usual Ching Chong ridicules, the ‘Neehao’ which I don’t mind at least that’s correct. Even if it was a ‘Konichiwa’ I don’t mind so much because I suppose I can’t tell the difference between a German person and a Dutch person by sight. I just wouldn’t chance it and say ‘Gutentag’.
GW: And has that discrimination ever factored into your career?
PW: I think it’s been equally beneficial and detrimental. It’s cancelled itself out. On the downside, there are no parts really written for East Asians. Black artists still have to fight for representation and they have so much more of a cultural hold than East Asians. Look at the Oscars, where are the East or South Asians nominees? It’s much harder to be an actor though because you have to count on parts being created or wait for a casting director to be open to casting a traditionally white part otherwise. As a stand-up who makes his own work, I am in a much stronger position because my ethnicity sets me aside. I am honest with myself that many of the breaks I’ve enjoyed have been helped by the fact that I am different from middle-class white boys. If you’re a creative professional, your work is inevitably informed by your life experiences, race and culture.
GW: Why do you think there are so few East Asian comedians?
PW: I think it’s very telling that the BBC Asian Network features only South Asian people. They don’t consider East Asians as Asians. It’s just the initial terminology. Britain sees India as the greatest colonial asset. There’s also a much less East Asian cultural history in the UK because East Asians tend to keep to themselves, and where there are communities they tend to be quite isolated. There are quite a few of us though; there’s Evelyn Mok, Ken Cheng, Nigel Ng, Joanne Lau, Broderick Chow, Yuriko Kotani. There’s also Rick Kizewetter who is ethnically Japanese but was adopted by German parents so he has this mad German name but looks completely Japanese which is pretty neat. A couple of years ago he started the East Asian comedians Christmas drinks when we all get together once a year, and there are some new guys I’ve met too. There’s actually a lot more than I thought there were.
GW: Do you think if you all came together for a power-in-numbers comedy gig you could reach out more to the mainstream?
PW: I think that would segregate and we come back to the original problem of East Asians keeping to themselves. Also I think having similar people would detract form each other. Not that people would think we are all related but we might end up covering similar topics. You want more of a franchise model, with representatives in many parts of the country. It’s a war of attrition isn’t it? Gok Wan here, Alexa Chung there, Evelyn Mok on this, Phil Wang on that. That’s when the cultural relevance comes through. If it’s seen as a conscious effort to present yourselves as one, people would be consigned to just that one display.
GW: What’s next for you?
PW: I’m working on a new show called Kinabalu which is where I’m from. It’s about globalisation, nationhood and culture but the theme’s not quite coming through yet, it’s still just lots of bits. It is a more solid show than when you saw it last weekend. The main work now is like assembling a car; putting the bits in the right place, link them together in the right way and decide what voice and pace I’m telling it in. This is my fourth solo show, first two went ok but the third was a disaster so I really want this to be the best I’ve ever done.
GW: The gentleman who sat next to me at your preview last weekend, we didn’t know each other, was very excited. He said he had been following you for a while.
PW: Oh good, he wasn’t put off by the third show. Well, I’m doing another work-in-progress for Kinabalu at the Vault Festival in Waterloo on Friday 3 March. They’ve given me their biggest space! The next big marker on the progression of this show. I’m doing the show at Edinburgh Festival then going on tour from September to November. I’m too London centric, I used Brexit as my excuse to stay within the M25 but I think it’s time to venture out. On top of that, I’m working with my sketch group Daphne. We’ve been commissioned for a second BBC radio 4 series so need to get that delivered in June. There are other developments behind the scenes as well but I will talk about those when I can. Some of them are secret-ish but others I’ve really just forgotten about.
GW: And finally, if you could give your younger self 3 pieces of advice, what would they be?
1. The big one is to to calm down. I have a very loving girlfriend who is much cooler than me. She has taught me to relax which can be hard to do if you are a naturally anxious person like me.
2. Take more chances and live in the moment. I always think opportunities will come up again later but a lot of the time that’s not true. So Carpe Diem but also whatever Latin for ‘within reasons’ is. I think there’s a balance because sometimes you really just need to sleep.
3. No one’s looking. Because of my half-white blood, I was the tallest person in my family by the time I was 13 so I was very self-conscious. Truth is everyone’s too busy thinking about themselves to be judging you.
You can book for Phil’s Kinabalu (Work-In-Progress) on Friday 3 March 2017 at the Vault Festival Here.