Eric Wong is responsible for the very popular humor blog, Notes from a Narcissist, which not incidentally is our favorite humor blog. Eric appears regularly on San Francisco comedy stages, and you can find a link to one of his stand-up routines here.
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S&P: Why did you decide to start doing standup, and how long have you been doing it?
EW: I always wanted to do stand-up, but always had excuses not to try it. My father was a huge comedy fan, so I was exposed to a lot of it at a young age. When I was in middle school I used to fall asleep to Jerry Seinfeld’s “I’m Telling You For The Last Time.” The decision to start came after quitting a terrible job and being unemployed for a few months trying to figure out what to do with an English degree. I have been doing stand-up for a little over two years, which isn’t very long at all, but I grew up doing theater, improv and music so performance has been in my life for a while.
S&P: How did you start? Open mikes?
EW: I wrote an experimental novella during the aforementioned bout of unemployment called “The Book of Dave.” In it, one of the characters writes out a stand-up bit for a shy friend to try. I wanted to make sure that the material would actually work as a piece of stand-up, so I went to an open mic and tried it. The bit went over really well, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
S&P: What do you like and what do you dislike about doing open mikes?
EW: It’s one of those things where the things you dislike are the things that you really should appreciate and value the most. It is easy to complain about an inattentive audience in a bar on a Tuesday, but really that is just a perfect situation to test how capitaving you can be as a performer. When you first start out, you play the hardest rooms imaginable. If you can thrive in an environment where all the odds are stacked against you, then by the time you do a real show, you’ll know how to handle yourself better.
S&P: What do you like best about doing standup?
EW: Making people laugh. The joke writing process in general is very rewarding, but there’s nothing quite like changing the way people think about a certain subject and having them be happy about it.
S&P: What else?
Being around other comics. It’s weird finally finding your “tribe” after a quarter century of feeling isolated. Also, I feel very comfortable on stage. It gives me a feeling of being at home.
S&P: What do you like least about it?
When a bombing comic lashes out at an audience for not laughing at their material.
S&P: What else do you dislike?
EW: This is just my personality, but I wish there was more of a structure to the stand-up landscape. Everyone is kind of out on their own, doing their own thing and at the end of the day there is no right or wrong way. It can be very chaotic, confusing and discouraging for a career path that is entirely self-driven. It’s also very free and liberating, which is good,
but being able to see, understand and appreciate that every day isn’t always easy.
S&P: How do you handle it when you bomb?
EW: I will wallow in self-pity for a few days, overthink every aspect of the performance, freak out about my entire existence, and then learn something. You have to be a Saiyan. Get stronger everytime you almost die.
S&P: How do you handle hecklers?
EW: Most of the time I just ignore it, or talk over them. If it gets really bad, I have a specific joke that works, but in general I don’t like being confrontational with the audience. You want to be on their side. Unless everyone hates a particular heckler, and the feeling is palpable throughout the room, you don’t want to risk derailing yourself to try to teach some
stranger an arbitrary lesson. Also, San Francisco has a lot of really smart, funny people. I’ve been at shows where crowd members outsmart the comics. You don’t want to be that guy.
S&P: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever witnessed doing standup?
EW: There’s a comedian named Joe Bates in Chicago, who is a great stand-up in his own right, but from time to time does a set dressed as a robot.
S&P: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen doing standup?
EW: There’s this comedian named Joe Bates…
S&P: What advice would you have for anyone thinking about doing standup?
EW: Do it. The thing I hear most often is “What if I bomb?” You’re going to. It’s not the end of the world. No one cares. No one will remember a lackluster set from a first-timer. No one will be sitting around their office seven years from now saying, “Oh my gosh, I saw this terrible open mic comedian nearly a decade ago. Let me pull up the video I secretly took of him on YouTube and laugh at him with all of my friends! Hey Marsha, look at this guy! Isn’t he an asshole?? I’m so glad I can remember their first and last name after all these years!” That person doesn’t exist. Even if they do and that’s how they spend their time, they’re way more pathetic than you, and their opinion shouldn’t affect you. You’re chasing your dreams. You’re trying new things. You clearly have more going on for you than that imaginary mean Quizno’s employee.
EW: Also, don’t take stand-up classes. Just go do it. If you need to take a class to be funny, you’re probably not cut out for it. I think the idea of the “comedy college degree” in a higher education institution is ridiculous. Open mics are free. Beer is a cheaper, quicker, and more effective confidence booster than a graduate degree. Getting a degree in comedy will disappoint your parents. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford college in this day and age *and *that serious about pursuing stand-up, take the tens of thousands of dollars you would be spending on tuitition, and use that to travel to different cities to actually do comedy.
S&P: Who are some of your favorite comics, and why?
EW: My favorite comedian is Emo Philips, just for his writing. But as far as today’s rising unknowns, one of my favorite comedians is a guy named Elvis Muljic. He travels around the country in a van, goes into bars, coffee shops, yoga studios, Hooters, really anywhere and just does these little spontaneous pop-up shows. Right now, I think he is in a waffle house in Atlanta.
S&P: You write for both “Notes from a Narcissist” and your standup act. What’s different about writing comedy that’s meant to be read versus writing comedy that’s meant to be performed in front of an audience?
EW: Very little. There are tweaks you make here and there. I’d say that with live performance, I probably add one or two lines in the set-up, just to establish the premise and cleanse the mental pallate from the last joke. Maybe during a show, I’ll do a little act-out to solidify everything. But when you write, you’re trying to develop a concept. If the
idea is good enough, it shouldn’t matter what form you put it in.
S&P: Do you just write when inspiration strikes, or do you have some sort of writing routine? If so, what is it?
I write everyday, but I don’t hold myself to any strict regimen. There are just guiding principles. Just “show up” and put in a few hours. I give myself permission to write terribly. My thinking is if you want to produce great writing, there has to be a large volume of awful writing to define that greatness. One thing I’ll do before trying to write a joke is write a
page or two of “I” sentences. This produces a bunch of whiny, self-absorbed nonsense and I can get it out of my system.
S&P: All of your recent posts have been short, essentially jokes. You used to write longer pieces for your blog? Is there any reason you stopped doing that?
EW: At the start, the blog was just supposed to be a diary. I posted very infrequently, and mostly did it because a self-help book I read suggested positive affirmations. This was around the same time I started doing stand-up. Then one day I took my dog to the vet and had a really weird, kinda bad experience. I got all riled up and planned out an insane Yelp
review. By the time I wrote it out and had fun with writing some jokes in it, I cooled off and realized that this wasn’t worth damaging the reputation of a local business. Instead of posting it on Yelp, I put it up on my blog. It got a good response from people and I realized that it was a good place to test out new material. I just never bothered to reformat
everything, or delete the old posts because the self-help book was trying to get me to accept all aspects of myself, and I’m very lazy. This I accept.
The overall shortening of length was also informed by a weird documentary about stand-up. It said the “industry standard” suggests that a headlining comedian should be getting laughs every 6-12 seconds, or twenty-five words. There are computer programs that will analyze a comedian’s set and tell you what percentage of time has laughter present. Headliners are supposed to score above thirty percent. I’m pretty sure all these measures were made during the 80’s comedy boom while consuming lots and lots of cocaine.
Regardless, I wanted to practice writing by those metrics, and became enamoured with the challenge of word economy. Really puts that minor in poetry to use.
In addition to that, I find the process of writing a joke more fun than writing a long personal story. It’s more of a logic game, and for me, it’s a great form of escapism. With a story, you have to convince people to care about who you are, which means you have to believe that you are someone worth caring about. I know “narcissist” is in the title of my blog, but I just don’t take myself that seriously. You don’t need to allocate brain space for my life story. I’d rather you memorize facts about science instead.
S&P: What advice would you have for new bloggers?
EW: Don’t take advice from people. Just be yourself and do exactly what you want. Don’t rob yourself of the learning opportunities inherent in errors. Embrace mistakes and grow from them.