Let’s hear from G.L.O.C. JEN KWOK (hey, that rhymed) about her comedy roots, her viral video magic and her musical inspirations.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in in the Mojave Desert in Palmdale, California. It was a nice suburban upbringing, but there was definitely a dark side to the town. I was a hospital volunteer in high school (i.e. candy striper) and I saw tons of pregnant teens my age or younger. Eek!
Was comedy in your blood at a young age?
Yes – I was always cracking jokes at the dinner table. And my dad is a big jokester. I also clocked an enormous number of hours watching comedy on TV, whether it was stand-up, SNL reruns or The State.
Who inspired you to go into comedy?
Margaret Cho was a huge inspiration. I almost cried the first time I saw her on TV because she was so brash and so funny – and literally the first Asian girl I saw on TV not playing a hooker or some other stereotype. When her specials came on I had to turn the volume down superlow and watch six inches away from the TV so my parents wouldn’t hear all the sex talk. On the flip side, my family was really huge on PBS and I just lived for Victor Borge concerts during the pledge drives. I grew up playing classical piano, so seeing this dapper old Danish guy doing comedic classical music just blew my mind. Those were my two influences: the raunchy Asian chick and the geriatric family-friendly pianist.
What was your first experience with making someone laugh?
I don’t really remember, but the first time I realized I loved making people laugh was when I got a piece of gum stuck in my hair in school. I deadpannedly worked that piece of gum out of my hair and plopped it back in my mouth like it was no big deal, and everyone around me was laughing hysterically. Afterward, a couple people were like, “Oh my God, I would have been so embarrassed if that were me.” That’s when I knew that I could turn a situation around with humor – and that making people laugh trumped any personal shame.
Where was your first performance?
I performed piano a lot from kindergarten through college, but my first stand-up was actually at a staff talent show when I worked at Jazz at Lincoln Center. My stomach was in knots the entire day leading up to it – I don’t think I got ANY work done. At the end, Wynton Marsalis came up onstage and was like “Jen Kwok – have mercy!”. It was totally surreal.
How about your first NY/LA performance in a semi-/professional setting?
It was kinda crazy, but I had only done stand-up for a few months when I got chosen for NBC’s Stand-Up for Diversity. I got picked for the semi-finals in New York and then about a week later, I found out they were flying me out to LA for the national top 10.
What is your creative process when writing a song?
Oh man. There really isn’t one, but I wish there was! I guess it usually starts with noodling around with a concept, a hook or a chord progression. It’s probably like an artist and her sketchbook – just a lot of weird crud being thrown up into the air and only a small percentage that actually gets developed. For me to pursue and keep pushing a song in its early stages, it has to have that “special something” and a completely natural flow. Almost all my songs so far have “written themselves” and there is very minimal editing. I’ll perform the song in front of an audience a few times, tweak it here and there, and then I leave that shit alone. I try not to force anything.
Your “Date An Asian” video blew the roof off things. Can you talk about what that was like? Did anything good come from that? Was there negative reaction you didn’t expect?
Thanks, girl! It was a great – and long – experience to get the video made. It was about a year from the song being written to the video coming out. I had always had this idea floating in the back of my mind to do a song or bit that addressed negative stereotypes about Asian guys. Then I randomly came up with the chords on the ukulele one day – kind of a funky R&B Mariah Carey-ish thing, though I didn’t know what to do with it at the time. One day, about three hours before a show at Gotham Comedy Club, I got the light bulb to combine the chords with the “Date an Asian” concept and I performed it later that night!
After seeing the audience reaction from live performance, I knew I had to make a BOMB music video, so I enlisted the help of my friend Soce, The Elemental Wizard, who produced the track and rapped on it. Then I called up fellow ukulele player and director Ballard Boyd. We decided on a superglossy hip hop look and I started putting out the bat signal to all the Asian actors, comedians, improvisers and other sexy men about town. The turn out and support was amazing, and we had a superfun time shooting it!
A lot of good came “Date an Asian” – more than I could have hoped for! First of all, the outpouring of love from people who found it uplifting was the best, whether it was Asian dudes or women who loved Asian dudes. We also got great coverage from MTV Iggy, Buzzfeed and YouTube #1 Spotlight. Negative feedback was in the minority, but there were definitely haters out there who just did not get the video. Some people argued that the video perpetuated negative stereotypes just by virtue of addressing them, but a lot of it was the usual rabid YouTubers who did everything from call me a tranny (like Gaga!) to use the video as a jumping off point for racist rants.
Can you talk about how you moved out of your day job to a more soul-satisfying environment?
After I did NBC Stand-Up for Diversity I was super gungho about pursuing comedy as a career, so I quit my job and started temping and freelancing. Looking back, this was probably not the smartest move. However, it allowed me to make art a priority, and I could really say to myself: “Cool, I’m a comedian now.” After awhile I transitioned to a permanent part-time job, and then two – and both jobs were super flexible when it came to auditions and stuff, which was amazing! After a year of that, I’ve recently cut back down to one part-time job again. It feels really good not to be burning the candle at both ends.
What was the indicator that you needed to leave your day job?
A big “Ah ha” moment was my first time really bombing at a show. It hurt like hell, but afterward I realized I’d still rather spend five minutes bombing than five minutes making photocopies. This most recent time was a more practical thing – I started getting college gigs, which both required me to have more time for travel and allowed me to make enough money to quit one job.
Can you talk about the college circuit? What are the pros/cons? How did you get involved?
I got my start with campus Asian groups contacting me directly. Then “Date an Asian” came out it and that further boosted my bookings. I also just started working with a college agent and doing the whole NACA circuit.
Playing colleges is awesome because college kids can be such an enthusiastic audience, and they’ve got this untainted idealism that just lingers on them like the scent of baby powder! I’m like an idealism vampire – I gravitate and feed off of it. For me, the hardest thing about these gigs – even though it’s the also the biggest pro – is that you’re getting paid. That means a) “Yay! I’m getting paid!” and also b) “I have a responsibility to entertain these people”. It’s your job and there’s a lot of pressure to be good at it. It forces you to be a good entertainer.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a solo show right now with my friends Juliet Jeske, who’s an amazing clown/comedian/director, and my friend Leah Winkler, who’s a badass playwright. It’s gonna be a multi-genre show and hopefully I will get to do a lot of cool stuff I’ve always wanted to do onstage!
What past projects of yours are you most proud of?
My first solo show at Ars Nova’s ANTFest was a huge accomplishment. I had to get over a lot of fear and do something I wasn’t entirely sure how to do: create a long form show with character work, choreography and music from several different genres. It was a huge learning experience and stepping stone for what I hope the next show will be.
I am also still superproud of “Date an Asian”. My secret agenda for doing comedy has always been to challenge the stereotypes and the status quo, and it’s more than I could ever ask for to hear how excited people are about the video. I’m also really proud of the fact that it’s been taught at several colleges across the country as part of Asian American studies. That is just crazy.
What’s your favorite NY venue for comedy?
I always feel at home at The PIT. Comix (RIP Ochi’s) and UCB also always have amazing shows, and performing at Ars Nova was like being in the Ferrari of NY variety venues.
Who is your dream collaborator and why?
George Takei. He’s the man on so many levels. He’s my Betty White.
If you could star in a remake of a movie from your childhood which would it be?
The Muppets Take Manhattan!!! I used to watch it everyday after school on a VHS of a TV airing (I even edited out all the commercials when I made the tape – holla!). I could play Jenny – I already have her name!, but the dream role would be Miss Piggy rampaging through Central Park on Gregory Hines’ rollerskates. George Takei could be Kermie.
Who are you inspired by on a large/small scale?
I am super-inspired by anyone who dances to the beat of his/her own drummer. All the fellow comedians on the scene who are just so fucking true to themselves are the best to watch. People I love but don’t personally know who are doing really cool stuff are: Reggie Watts, Tina Fey, The Citizens Band, Tom Waits, and Lady Rizo. I really love people who combine opposing forces in their work, whether it’s new/old, high/low brow or music/comedy.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Thank you for doing this website! It’s so awesome to be part of a community of such kind and talented female performers, and now we have a place to share our stories and get inspired by each other!
Now watch JEN’s video, Date An Asian.