Hawaii born, Asian American comedian Paul Ogata has contended with more than his fair share of hurdles over the years- from failing to live up to his parents' dreams of him having a computer engineering career, to going bankrupt, to having his jokes stolen. But he's turned many of those tribulations into comedic gold, unspooling frank, heartfelt and bluntly honest bits that have fueled his reputation in the L.A. standup community. Ahead of his Apr 15 set at The Bookworm, the comedian tells us about crafting side-splitting sets while also trying to keep his life together.
During a Ted Talk that you did a few years back, you described doing comedy as"the last of my options." What made you say that?
I like to joke that it was the last of my options, but really it was the first. As a kid I coded my own video game and my parents thought I should be an electrical engineering major. But having taken a couple of years of classes, I realized my brain wasn’t wired for that. So instead I majored in speech, managed a gay bar, then opened a comedy club. When that forced me into bankruptcy, I shut myself in for a few months with dark thoughts, but comedy was the one thing that kept me going. It had always been there, but this was the first time I made it my life. Trust your inner voice.
You have a vivid joke about Asians aging well until they reach 80, and then it looks like "god pulled the spine out of their bodies." Tell us about growing up as an Asian American, and how that might have helped your humor or given you a special point of view.
Growing up in Hawaii was very helpful for comedy. As a former plantation society, many different peoples from around the world were forced to live and work together. Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Portuguese, Samoans all had to find a way to communicate. They got along through humor and making fun of each other. So humor in Hawaii is racial as opposed to racist. In other places, the tired tropes of “Asians can’t drive” or “Asians do math” and other similar nonsense are the basis of jokes about Asians. But in Hawaii you dug deeper.
You did an interesting Q&A with Kung Fu comedy the last time you were in Shanghai about joke theft. Did you confront the joke thief you were talking about? How did that go?
[Laughs] Oh, that guy. He’d been stealing jokes from comics and assembling a show in Singapore with all of the material. The local comics were unable to convince him to stop. He merely offered to put their names in the show program as suppliers of “Additional Material.” Then one of them sent a friend to the show- the comics weren’t allowed in- to record it. It was forwarded to me and I found a bunch of my stuff in it, and put him on blast in a Facebook post, which went viral. The show was shut down and he stopped stealing. To my knowledge, anyway. Last year he messaged me to demand I take down the post as prospective clients in his new business were turning him down because of it. The post is still up.
Many comedians complain about the uptick in political correctness these days, and how often people get offended by comedians. What challenges does that pose for you?
The problem with is that comedy is marketed as “comedy.” Restaurants don’t have signs that say, “Tonight: FOOD.” There are too many styles of comedy and food for that to make any sense. So sometimes the wrong people come to the right show and get offended. Well, do your homework, audiences. That way you won’t get your panties in a bunch because you hate tomatoes and noodles but went to a spaghetti joint.
What was one of the funniest things that happened the last time you were in China?
On a particularly polluted day, we passed a power plant while on the high-speed train. The cooling tower was painted sky blue with some white clouds on it. The juxtaposition of concrete-colored sky and sky-colored concrete was hilarious. Dress for the weather you want, I guess, not for the weather you have.
Lastly, you have a great bit about how millennials drive you crazy. So: what have millennials been doing these days that annoys you above all else?
If you send me a text message, then I call you back and you don’t answer but send me another text message instead? I will hit you in your man bun with your kombucha bottle.
Paul Ogata will perform at The Bookworm on Apr 15 at 8pm. Tickets are RMB 158 presale, RMB 188 day of. For more information, click here.
Photos: Tempe Improv, Twitter
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