In the first installment of his interview column, “The Cornering,” Ashok Kondabolu of Das Racist chats it up with Comedy Central comedian Sheng Wang. They also traipse the streets of Chinatown. Look out for part deux of this interview next week.
July 12, 2012
You might want to know: Sheng Wang writes jokes and cooks food in his New York Chinatown apartment when his roommate is at work. He strives to write a fart joke that will resolve all of humanity’s injustices. Also, he has pale, bright thighs.
Hey, Sheng. What is your name?
My name is Sheng Wang.
Where were you born?
I was born in Taiwan. Taipei, Taiwan. And I was raised in Houston, Texas. Basically my parents immigrated when I was two, somewhere around there. I stayed in Houston until high school, finished there, and then went to California. I ended up at Berkeley, but I didn’t know that Berkeley was not LA.
Like I thought L.A. was California, and California was L.A.
Right. You thought the planes directly landed on the side of the highway.
Yeah, I didn’t know there was much of a difference. I’m actually happy I ended up there. I feel like that was more my vibe. I don’t know, I mean it was very formative for me to go to college there. Definitely influenced what and how I think.
What was growing up in Houston like?
It was pretty chill for the most part. It’s a huge city. We were out near the suburbs. I mean, the early suburbs. Now the suburbs have way passed us and further continued.
Like it’s more sprawled?
Yeah, much more sprawled. We’re not as far out as other people are now.
Did you have like a diverse friend group?
In elementary school my friends were white, Asian, and one or two black neighborhood kids we hung out with. You know, like neighborhood friendships. It was kind of mixed up. Yeah, elementary school was pretty mixed up. There was Mexican students there too. So it was like Asian, white, Mexican, and a couple of black students in there too. Middle school was a little bit more diverse, I think. I went to Wells [Middle School]. I think Beyoncé went there.
Did any of your friends have gold grills or teeth at that time?
No… no, no, no. Um… actually, well, in middle school. It was already kind of separated as far as classes go. There was already, like, honors, regular, whatever. I would be in a class of mostly Asians and Jewish kids. But it was a school with also black and Mexican students.
I guess I had a similar demographic experience at Stuyvesant High School without the black and Latin kids. [laughs]
[Laughs] But yeah, I remember middle school. It was a little rough. The very beginning—especially the first year or two—I remember going to school and there would be large, like, I don’t know if they were gangs, but large group fights. But I never got caught up too much in any of the violence or whatever. My childhood was pretty mellow. When I got to high school, it was, like, a magnet program. So it was one of those you apply to go, kind of like the Stuyvesant deal. You apply and get into a nicer school than the one you’re zoned to.
“I like reading. Get me out of here.”
Yeah, and once we got there, it was like the same thing—further stratified.
Were you interested in stand up when you were in high school?
No. Growing up, I rarely watched regular TV. I watched mostly PBS. Mathnet, Square One. And I remember seeing late night, like Johnny Carson.
You didn’t see stand-up, like Richard Pryor, and go crazy.
Nothing like that. I remember watching Superman. But nothing struck me as, like, this is a cool thing to try to be. I had very little pop culture exposure growing up in the traditional mainstream sense. Yeah, so I had no aspirations to be a stand-up. The only thing I knew about stand-up I learned from Def Comedy Jam commercials. But when I was in middle school, I wanted to be a bad kid. Because I had a cousin, who was like a troubled kid, who was my idol growing up. Playing with… I don’t know what he did exactly. I knew at one point he had guns. I wanted to be like him. I was bored.
At Berkeley, what were you majoring in?
Officially I got a business degree. It’s a two year program. Because you apply after your sophomore year and you spend two years in that department or whatever. I don’t… I had no idea what I wanted to do. I applied to that school and I just did it and then I got in and I went. It was supposed to be hard to get in, or whatever. It was supposed to be a good thing to do. But as it turned out, I had very few friends in the business school. It just… it just… immediately it just didn’t fit me very well. And I still continued with it.
But basically I had most of my college experiences outside with other friends, like architects. And I would take a lot of psychology. Just other pre-reqs and fun stuff to explore.
Did your interest in standup and comedy develop at that time?
Oh yeah. When I was almost finished my first year, I went to see this production. I don’t remember how or why. I ended up going to see this show, an Asian American amateur show—Theatre Rice.
Is that a play on words?
I don’t know where that’s from. Just from them being Asian. They put on this show, and I thought it was really cool. It was mostly sketches. And then the next year I joined the group. We would try to do sketches. It was very supportive. Whatever you wanted to do, we’ll just put on a show together and give you a space and you can do whatever you want. And so the next year I joined and they were like, “What do you want to do?” And some kid said, “I want to do stand up.” And I said, I was like, “Oh OK, I want to do that too,” but not knowing what that really is. Again, I’m just Def Comedy Jam guru.
“I can scream.”
Exactly. I remember writing or stealing jokes that I had randomly heard. I remember emulating a little bit of a Chris Rock. I don’t remember exactly. But it wasn’t original and it wasn’t really good.
But you got a decent response?
Yeah, I got a decent response! Being in that space, I was just like, “This is crazy.”
And you got juiced off the response.
Yeah. I had very few performance experiences before that. I think, in high school, I was running for the Bel-Air Chinese Club.
I don’t know what the hell that is.
My high school is Bel-Air.
Oh, OK, OK. [laughs]
So my high school had a Chinese club run by Chinese people at our school. They were like, this is what you gotta do for college. You gotta be an officer at a club. I didn’t know what I was doing. If you want to go to college, you have to have something to apply with. So instead of telling the club members why they should vote for me, I did a cover of a Nirvana song. I think I did “Polly” with acoustic guitar but changed the words to it.
Did you win?
Yeah! That was fun, one of the few experiences I got to perform. And anyways, two or three years later in college I did this thing, this show, and it was a thrill. It was a thrill. I realized it was fun to be onstage.
Did you feel nervous the first time?
Yeah, but being a part of the group. I think I was a part of some of the sketches too. And I remember the week of the show, we were walking around campus with signs, promoting the show.