Sometimes comic Joe Wong’s punch lines take a moment to sink in. He waits patiently.
“Both in America and in China, I got this comment, ‘Oh, what you’re doing here is not really comedy; it’s humor.’ People have to think a little bit before they can laugh. But that’s the humor I appreciate the most,” says Wong, who grew up in northeast China, learned English in school there, and came to the United States at 24 as a biochemistry student.
“Also, when I used to tell some of the jokes among my American friends, nobody even would laugh or notice, because they would never expect me to tell a joke. That was one of the most frustrating parts,” he says.
It’s funny, but he’s not entirely kidding. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to try my jokes onstage,” he adds: because “people will pay more attention and maybe laugh more.”
Wong, 42, of Arlington, has done well enough since his first open-mike night in Somerville a decade ago that he quit his day job as a researcher at a Cambridge pharmaceutical company in 2010 to devote himself to comedy full time.
His efforts will take an interesting side trip on Tuesday at ImprovBoston, when he performs a sold-out show entirely in his native Mandarin Chinese. The idea was sparked by a visit back to China last November, to promote his autobiography. After the trip, he began to realize how many Chinese speakers he encountered in the Boston area.
“Before that, I never thought about doing comedy shows in America in Chinese,” he says. “When I started doing comedy, 99 percent of the audience are either white or black. Very few Asians are in the crowd. I didn’t even know if my English jokes would go over well with the Asian community. Later on, I found a lot of Asians in America kind of liked my comedy.”
Offstage, he spells his name Huang, the Mandarin spelling. But he used the Cantonese, Wong, from his first open-mike gigs onward, mainly because it was easier for people, he says. Married and the father of a 5-year-old boy, he is an up-and-comer in the comedy world, having made television appearances with Ellen DeGeneres and David Letterman. His biggest gig to date was at the 2010 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, where he took a few comic shots at Vice President Joe Biden, who was also on the dais, and at the administration.
“President Obama is always accused of being too soft,” Wong told the crowd. “But he was conducting two wars, and they still gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.” Pause. “And he accepted.”
Among Wong’s YouTube videos, that one is most popular in China, he notes, precisely because society works so differently there. “That’s why the Chinese are so fascinated about that show: That would never happen in China.”
His onstage persona seems slightly nerdier and more hesitant than he is offstage, but that means the jokes bear even more payload when they land. Like this one: “I decided to stay in the United States, because in China I can’t do the thing I do best here, being ethnic.”
Translating jokes for his audiences in China wasn’t as easy as you might think.
“It’s a very tricky thing,” he says. “If a joke is about wordplay or cultural stuff, it’s very hard to translate. But I have a lot of jokes that don’t rely on wordplay. Jokes about fallacies in logic, those jokes are easy to translate. You can’t always transliterate them, but you use the same concept to write a Chinese joke.”
In China he had to figure out whether it was worth explaining what, say, a biker bar is. “I think the show will go better here, because if I mention something American, they will know what it is,” he says.
But jokes about the immigrant experience and cultural adjustments hit a chord there even with those who had never left China. Vast numbers of Chinese have moved from their native regions to find work, and also from the country to the city, and much of the dislocation they experience is universal, he says.
“In the beginning, you are really challenged,” he explains, “and then you figure out a way to overcome it. You say, hey, I can survive here. And then three months later something comes up and you feel kind of difficult again, and that’s basically a cycle that goes on for a couple of years.”
In 2001, Wong saw his first American stand-up comedy show.
“I had already been here six or seven years,” he says, “but I went to the comedy club and I couldn’t really understand half of the jokes. It’s colloquialisms in the speech, and when you first get here, you’re struggling with school and a job, and you don’t really have a lot of time for appreciating the cultural stuff.”
In Tuesday’s show, that barrier to comprehension will be removed for this niche crowd.
“We’re a 30-year-old nonprofit, and one of our goals is to make comedy accessible to as many people in Boston as we can,” says Zach Ward, managing director of ImprovBoston, who noted that the venue has hosted regular shows for everyone from families to gays and lesbians to geeks, as well as people who want to see their comedians naked. But Mandarin speakers? “That’s a demographic that hasn’t been served,” Ward says.
Wong says he’d like to make a regular thing of it, perhaps moving to venues in suburbs with significant Chinese-speaking populations, such as Acton, Malden, Quincy, and Lexington. In the meantime, encouraged by ticket demand at ImprovBoston, he will also perform an all-Mandarin show Sept. 8 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge as part of the Boston Comedy Arts Festival.
Ward has only one real concern about ImprovBoston’s ability to host Wong’s audience next week.
“I don’t have bar staff that speaks Chinese,” he muses. “We’ll have to see how it goes.”