Alumnus talks professionally clowning around in stand-up comedy

Sheng Wang/Courtesy

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Born in Taiwan, raised in Houston and educated in the Bay Area, Sheng Wang has always been accustomed to the transient state of the comedian lifestyle. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2002, Wang started his comedy career hitting up the open mics in the venerable San Francisco comedy scene. Wang’s material deals with a diverse range of topics using his blend of self-deprecation, observational humor, clever wordplay and deadpan humor. Influenced by comedians like Mitch Hedberg, Sheng Wang has a rich baritone voice with a slight Southern drawl that complements his understated and natural delivery.

Recently, he made his network debut on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” where he talked about edible panties and bed bugs. From Feb. 19 to 22, he will be at the SF Punch Line Comedy Club for his first album recording. The Daily Californian spoke with Wang over the phone after he arrived in San Francisco to talk about his comedy career and time in the Bay Area.

The Daily Californian: You started your comedy career in San Francisco, where you’re also doing your first album recording. What does San Francisco mean to you, and how has it influenced your career?

Sheng Wang: I started in San Francisco quite a while ago — about 10 years ago. The scene, at the time, was very supportive and nurturing. They emphasized originality and writing, which was what I enjoyed the most about stand-up, so it was a great place to start, and it has a great history of stand-up comedy as well.

DC: Why move to New York City?

SW: I actually did a couple of years in LA before I moved to San Francisco because I was living at Oakland at the time right before I left. I just kind of had an opportunity to move to LA, and I wasn’t super excited about it, to be honest. There was just a general feeling for comics that at some point in your career you have to move to LA or New York …

During that time period, I constantly came back to the Bay, and when I came back, I stayed in San Francisco. At that point, it became so clear to me how much I loved being able to walk everywhere. I fell in love with walking and exploring the city on foot. I would visit San Francisco and New York because I had a sister moving to New York at the time. Again, that’s the walking city. I just kind of toyed around the idea of moving to New York, and I got a couple of my friends who moved to New York. So at some point I was like, “Let’s try to do that.” It’s a big comedy scene with a lot of talent and opportunities. When you’re constantly walking, you’re being stimulated. There’s something about walking that helps jog the brain as well. You’re seeing crazy things on the street constantly, with humanity, drama, life, theater and art right when you step out of your apartment. So it’s a good place to find inspiration and write jokes about.

DC: You went to UC Berkeley as a business major and stated that you wanted to go into poetry, photography or comedy. What made you choose such a divergent career path like comedy?

SW: During my sophomore year, I started exploring more creative things. I joined Theatre Rice, and I was part of the second year of that organization. That was the first time I tried doing stand-up, and I started realizing how fulfilling, fun and what a thrill it was to be onstage and just to be creative. After that, I took poetry and photography classes, and I continued my major at Haas, but it wasn’t where I spent my time in college. Most of my college experience was picketing at Sproul and taking classes outside the department.

I realized I wanted to be creative, so it basically came down to poetry, photography or comedy. Comedy was kind of the easier thing to get into. It’s really instant, immediate feedback. You write something, you present it onstage at night and you know exactly if it’s good or bad — as opposed to something in poetry or photography, where it’s more subjective as far as what makes a good poem or photo. There are parallels for photography and stand-up, I think. You pick a subject, hone in on it, frame it, contextualize it or decontextualize it.

DC: You’ve been in the comedy business for more than 10 years now. What are the most important things you’ve learned that maybe aspiring comedians can learn from?

SW: In general, you want to stay honest and true to yourself. As you’re writing your jokes, you want to keep pushing the joke … You have to live your life, learn who you are, what’s important to you and things that interest you. It’s hard to do the same shows and do the same jokes. Be nice; be an easy person to work with. Don’t burn bridges. And you got to work hard. Some comics work only one hour a night. You got to look at it as a day job because you have to work harder than the people who have a regular gig.

There’s no corporate ladder for you to climb. No one’s going to promote you because you’ve been there for a while … You basically have to love to work. Comedy is fun. Killing in front of an audience is a big thrill, but at a certain point of your career, it becomes a short-term pleasure. There’s no real fulfillment simply in doing that. The fun now for me is growing and creating new stuff — new and better jokes. You can’t do that if you don’t work at it.

DC: As an Asian American comedian, how do you integrate race in your material? Or do you feel it’s better to just do without it?

SW: I started out really trying to not pander to the audience. I’m conscious about race, but I don’t talk about it all that much because I feel that people just expect me to talk about being Asian, my parents being Asian or something like that. I would talk about it, of course, if it were something I wanted to talk about. But I don’t want to go there just because people expect me to go there. Most of my jokes that do talk about race typically are a reflection of other people’s response to my race. So it’s not a lot of identity politics but rather how people react to me.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Sheng Wang as stating, “Most of my college experience was picketing at Sproul and taking classes outside the department.” In fact, he said, “Most of my college experience was kicking it at Sproul and taking classes outside the department.”