Sheng Wang: The Hootinist, Tootinist, Shootinist Comedian!
Sheng Wang is a Taiwanese Texan comedian. That’s what every article and interview on the web says about him in the first sentence. You half expect to see Yosemite Sam appear onstage shooting six-shooters. Instead what you get is one of the funniest comics to come out of the Bay Area in the last decade. SUSC found Wang to be incredible honest and forthcoming about how he sees himself at this stage of his career.
Sheng Wang: What’s up?
DNA: I’ve read a lot of interviews online. . .
They’re boring, they’re boring. . .
They all start off with Taiwanese Texan. When I look at your act that’s the last thing I think of. The first thing is, “this guy is fucking funny!” Do you love the press, or does it not matter to you because you cannot control it anyway?
I wrote that in my bio when I first started out and it was a fun alliteration. People tend to use that phrase because they have an image of a Texan and an image of an Asian dude and they have a cartoon idea of a Chinese guy wearing cowboy boots.
Writers in general are always looking to pigeonhole, or find a peg for their hat to rest upon. Trying to describe their subjects in a way so the reader can relate. That’s the bogus thing with any interview about artists—forget the process, look at the art, watch the clip, see the show. The proof is in the pudding. I have a lot of metaphors today.
I like it.
I read that your first show was at The Brainwash (in SF). That show is a rite of passage for any Bay Area comic. Did you find it bizarre to be in a Laundromat doing comedy?
Having lived in the Bay Area for a while it didn’t seem that weird to me. It wasn’t my first gig, it was my first open-mic and my first venture onto the legitimate comedy ladder.
Was Tony Sparks there?
Yes. The godfather of the open mic scene. It was the right way to kick it off, ya know?
Did you buddy up with other comedians?
Yeah. I found my homies early on. I was running around with Louis Katz, Jasper Redd, Kevin Shea, Brent Weinbach, Guy Branum, that was my group.
What year was that?
I believe summer 03.
Did you start grinding it out five nights a week?
Yeah. I was living in the East Bay at the time and they were more disciplined about getting out more often. I started doing what everyone else was doing and getting rides to shows. I went out as much as I could. At first it was 3 or 4 nights a week.
Did you start getting invited onto showcases and abandon open mics?
The whole time I was there I kept doing open mics. Gradually, you do more little showcases or independent shows promoted by your friends. Going out at night and doing shows became a regular thing. It was a weird thing to start doing–your friends are supportive but they want to hang out with you when they get off work at night. I would be hanging with my homies and I would say, “uh, gotta go and do a mic.” They would always be, “C’mon you don’t have to go tonight.”
Did you start separating from your college friends and integrating into the comedy community?
To a certain extent—I have some comedy friends, but those two worlds are pretty separated. I have a couple of good friends who are comedians—we weren’t friends before comedy but became friends after becoming involved doing it. Then I have a whole different world of friends from high school and college and not comedy. I just try to have a healthy balance. Sometimes I feel like I have no friends in either world. (laughter)
Unless you’re in comedy duo, comedy is a lonely road.
It is. That’s good and bad, in certain ways I’m a lone wolf. I’ve grown into not being alone so much. But it wasn’t always like that. I used to enjoy a crowd of friends and hanging out with a lot of people, like a college party.
Do you get treated differently now that you are moving up the comedy ladder?
Not really. A little bit. A friend that I met through a friend might treat me a little different. But I’m not at that point where I’m a household name. People are just curious that I’m doing this thing, it’s not normal. But people aren’t starstruck, or anything.
You need your old school friends because they don’t give a shit and like to remind you of it. Keeps you humble.
Absolutely. Recently I was in the Bay Area for a wedding and thought I would put on a show. A quick last minute thing I threw together at a bar and it was a decent turnout. But I wasn’t sure if I was finally making it, or just had really supportive friends. Maybe too supportive.
It’s the perennial self-doubt of every comic.
I try to stay humble. You don’t want to listen to too much praise or negativity. You just got to do your thing. People will tell me, “I’ve heard people talking about you”, or people will say, “You’ve got heat.” Until something real happens none of that really matters.
How long did you sit at The Punch on Sundays before you got on stage?
Quite a while. Like every other budding comic, I was pretty intimidated by Molly the booker. My general approach is patience. For me there is no rush. I want to make sure I’m completely prepared for any opportunity that comes my way. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But now there is more urgency, but not on behalf of the industry. I just need to work and live. I try to take advantage of the moment as time is limited. It’s easier to waste time when you don’t have a boss. I waited 9 months to get on stage at The Punch, which I guess now is normal, but back then it was supposed to be six. Or shorter if people put in good words for you.
Did you find the stage to be incredibly accommodating and one of the best stages in the world?
I did, I had a great time there. Now that I have performed at various other venues—well, I was there in February and the week before I was in Sacramento. When I first started doing comedy clubs I preferred San Francisco, and in my mind I thought that’s where I started and where people prefer more nuances. To be honest I had more fun in Sacramento. I recorded the San Francisco shows with the intention of putting put an album that I’m still working on. Maybe it was the combination of me being apprehensive about recording the shows, but the weekend before in Sacramento the people were so much more—it was more loose and fun.
There’s not so much entitlement in Sacramento since they’re in the middle of nowhere.
Yes, less options, so when they go out, they let loose. People think that small towns are not good places to do comedy, but they really appreciate when you show up.
Quick timeline—you got shows under your belt and moved to LA and then NYC. How nerve-wracking is it doing your first television appearances?
My first TV appearance was Live at Gotham, which was a thrill. I super excited to do it and to come to New York for the first time. Everything was smooth. I was totally nervous onstage, but it is a comedy club—so I think it was an ideal transition to a TV setting. You still get nervous, I try to call it excitement. But it’s a quick 5-6 minute set and I had been telling those jokes for a while by then.
Jimmy Fallon was a much more high-profile gig—same level of excitement?
By that point I had done a couple of tapings already. I did Live at Gotham, my (Comedy Central) half hour special and a set on Jon Oliver’s show and Kamauu Bell’s show. So the cameras weren’t so much of an issue, but I was aware that it was a much higher profile show—that was fuel for excitement/anxiety. I don’t watch TV so I wasn’t conscious where Fallon stood in the late nite arena. But he’s the guy now with the largest viewership and is most like me and my fanbase. Things hit me when I was backstage at the young comics dressing room. You could tell it was the young comics dressing room because as soon you enter the tiny room there’s another door that says Electrical Closet. I was pacing in there, going over my set in my head and trying to calm down. I looked at across the hall and on the door of that dressing room it had Jennifer Connelly’s name on there with nice wallpaper and artwork. It didn’t bother me.
Sounds like it might have bothered you a little bit.
Well. . .I figure one day I’ll be in that room. This is where I’ll start and one day it will be a cool story about the electrical closet. What hit me was before the performance, Fallon’s co-host wasn’t there to do the announcements so Black Thought introduced me. He said my name. That was a huge exciting thing in my career. I have been a fan of The Roots since college, It was so badass. The greatest lyricist in hip-hop said my name. That really brought it home for me.
Do you get solicitations from studios for shows, series and other acting offers?
There’s not much outside of just doing stand-up. I’m not the most eager to branch out into TV/Movies and acting. Focusing on stand-up is my main thing. I know its important to do other things so you can get more exposure and then pursue your stand-up. At the moment, I have had a few close calls at the beginning of this year for acting and writing. But I am very selective, unless it’s a perfect fit, I’m not putting energy into it. I’m just trying to put out a new album and rally around that campaign, and then retire that hour and work on a new act. Move forward. I just want to grow. I was at Roosters a year ago and that was the beginning of a good run. Comedy is an up and down thing. You go through bursts of incredible productivity and creativity and then regress here and there. I work better when I have a schedule. If I travel too much, or I just got back from a family vacation. It takes a minute to get back into it. I’m excited about Roosters, it was a great time there last time and I want to get back into that mindset. I am trying to do as much new material as I can for that crowd.
Catch Sheng Wang at Rooster T. Feathers on July 17th through the 20th.
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