Jennifer Wong on Comedy and Reading
I asked writer and comedian Jennifer Wong about books, comedy and inspiration - here's what she said:
|Me with the fabulous Jennifer Wong|
1. Are all bookish people secretly harbouring a desire to be in the spotlight?
What a great question. I like the idea of secret harbouring. That it’s desire is just a bonus.
I think bookish people are usually logical people, who’d naturally shun the spotlight knowing that it eats in to your reading time. But then bookish people are also by nature pretty curious (although it may be entirely possible to be bookish only for econometrics textbooks, or bookish only for technical writing handbooks), so maybe within that curiosity lies a deep need to experience being onstage with all eyes on you, at the absolute centre of attention with no competition, just you and a microphone, a bare stage and the incredible and addictive power and privilege of telling jokes and stories to total strangers, all the while aware that the risk of failure is just a misplaced word or two away. Of course, this is all just speculation.
I’m not sure if I secretly harboured a desire to be in the spotlight, but when I was little I know I desperately wanted to write, and this came purely from a love of reading. As a child I loved that a good book can make you feel comfort, and can make you feel less alone, and can make you laugh. A good book is all powerful, good company, and the best ones are so honest that when you read them again they’re sad, joyous and funny again - and then some.* (For the record, I think that one of the funniest things ever - in books or otherwise - is from To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout is running around in the dark dressed as a ham hock.)
At my most bookish, when I was working at a bookshop during high school and uni (at Shearer’s Bookshop in Cherrybrook and Gordon for five years), I didn’t have the desire to perform at all, or even to write. I just read solidly and touched a lot of books. I worked at Shearer’s Cherrybook when it first opened, and I went home one day and told my mum I’d touched every book in the fiction section because we’d been moving shelves. “That’s nice,” she said. So I had no desire to be in the spotlight then, because there would have been no books to touch.
Later, though, I wanted to write. It’s pretty common for people to want to write and to feel the fear and not do it anyway, but I was crippled with a unique fear after I left high school where I’d always done pretty well in English. The fear was that now without the confines of a syllabus, anything I wrote would be a weak-ass version of The Joy Luck Club...even if it was an essay on Australian politics. It was a strange curse.**
When I started doing open mic in Sydney after uni I found the deadline of having to do new material all the time was the best motivator for writing, so for a long time the “spotlight” was not about the spotlight at all, it was the thing that forced me to write.
Writing for open mic comedy broke the five-year curse: I was only ever writing five minutes of material at a time, I didn’t have to tell a book-length story, and I could write based on what was in the news, not what was in my head or heart (that came later), and all I had to do was concentrate on what was funny. It was entirely liberating.
* The first time I realised the scary magic of it all was when my fifth grade teacher Miss Mitchell, who’d also been my teacher the year before, read Bridge to Terebithia to us. In year 4 she’d cried while reading us the sad part (I won’t ruin it for you if you haven’t read it), which in itself was a huge thing, to see my favourite teacher/an adult person cry and dry her tears on the edge of her very Ken Done-patterned long skirt (it was the 80s). But when she read it to our class in year 5, she cried again. My nine-year-old brain couldn’t handle it. Why is she sad? She knew this would happen. The ending was never going to be different, and she seems even more upset than before.
** It’s not that I wanted to write another Joy Luck Club, but that I was scared that something like it would accidentally spill out on to paper and ink itself just because I was Chinese and wrote in English. I hated it. So every Asian Studies essay at uni was overdue. Some still remain unfinished, ten years on, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything - I now know that AF means Absent Fail, badoom tish. A report I had to write about my experience with a group of overseas Chinese youth-folk and our Guinness World Record attempt at the world’s longest dancing dragon on the Great Wall of China was never handed in. I struggled with every essay all through uni, and doing the subject “Chinese Diaspora” at ANU was a paralyzing 14 week-long identity crisis I’m ashamed to recall because it was pretty much a narcissistic one-note whinge: stupid Chinese women with all their stupid identical Chinese women stories...I’ll never be able to write about anything apart from my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother. Ugh. Charming, huh?
2. How did you make it big in comedy? What kind of apprenticeship did you serve?
I love that you used the word apprenticeship, because it implies a certain steadfast and grudging commitment, no shortcuts kind of approach, and there are definitely no shortcuts in comedy (although some comedians would say the use of props is a definite shortcut, ha-ha). I wouldn’t say I’ve made it big in comedy AT ALL. At the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year I learned two things that define when you’ve made it big in comedy in Australia.
1. When a punter refers to you by your first name, e.g. “Sorry, I can’t go to your show. I’m going to see Wil.”
2. When the ushers at Melbourne Town Hall yell out your name (first name only, of course) every night as part of their job, e.g. “Tickets to ARJ. ARJ. Line up to the RIGHT. ARJ. ARJ.”
And they’ve both been working for almost 20 years, I think.
The apprenticeship I’m serving is writing and gigging as much as possible, and working with and learning from people who are more experienced; reading lots, but not as much as I’d like (e.g. David Rakoff, David Sedaris, everything “New Yorker”, Joan Didion), watching lots (live stand-up, YouTube clips of Pauline Hanson), and listening lots (most recently to Steve Martin’s Comedy Is Not Pretty, and always This American Life and Conversations with Richard Fidler).
But mostly it’s stage time. That’s why festivals are so great. During the festival in Melbourne this year we got to perform six nights a week for almost four weeks, which is the most I’ve ever done in a block. It’s not really possible to gig that much when it’s not festival time, unless you’re Wil Anderson and performing at The Sydney Comedy Store every night for a month. This week as part of Sydney Fringe I’ll do six gigs in seven days...it’s a real treat to have that much stage time in a week. In other apprenticeship-serving, I’m also trying to gently side-step into other types of writing. This week apart from doing the solo show I’ll be reading from my teenage diary at Surry Hills Library (which, conveniently is already written. I’ve never been so prepared!), and telling a story at a Fringe event by Campfire Collective.
3. THIS IS THE ONE YOU MUST ANSWER: Can you give 5 pieces of advice to someone who wants to take the leap and explore their own creativity?
I’ll keep it short and sweet because I was so wordy before, and also I’m not good at giving advice. It comes from an aversion to taking responsibility for my actions, but since you said THIS IS THE ONE YOU MUST ANSWER, and I have trouble not respecting authority and all caps:
1. You’re exploring, so have fun. Enjoy being a beginner, and be kind to yourself when you’re learning something new.
2. Be humble enough to ask for help and strong enough to make up your own mind.
3. Be curious, brave and patient.
4. Be rigorous. Set yourself challenges or deadlines. It makes you work more and the more you work, the more you’re exploring your creativity.
5. Always be exploring.