Of course, there are dramatic artistic differences, too, due, in part, to the fact that Chinese stand-up typically incorporates traditional, pre-scripted routines and ear-splitting Peking Opera. It's not a medium best enjoyed while wasted on too many watered-down screwdrivers, either. "A lot of times," says Wong, "comedy [in China] is done in the afternoon. People are drinking tea and having snacks. It's not as festive as here, in a bar or a club."
Plus, as one might imagine, it's more difficult to joke freely and publically in post–Cultural Revolution/post–Tiananmen Square China. "In China, the government controls media pretty tightly," says Wong. "Everything is squeaky clean on TV. There's no jokes about sex whatsoever. You can't even say 'sex' on TV. You can joke about politics, but not about Chinese politics. You can't speak against the Chinese government."
Laughs in translation
Without sex and politics to anchor their acts, many a mediocre comedian would sink in the recesses of the comedy chum bucket. Wong's material, though, transcends stereotypical comic fodder.
"I read a report saying that a man reaches his sexual peak at the age of 18, but I didn't know this until I was 25," he tells the cackling Letterman audience. "So the world never knew what I stud I was. Nobody took a bite out of this peach when it was ripe."
Why is it funnier to hear a Chinese immigrant tell cheesy jokes about sex than it is a home-grown comedian? Maybe it's a clash-of-context thing. Maybe, as does the Chinese government, Americans see sex as something that Chinese people just shouldn't talk about. What does that say about us?
Interestingly, Wong has only performed once in his native language, and even then, to do so, he needed help from relatives to translate his jokes. "I did stand-up in Chinese, in China, out of curiosity," he says. "I spent three days translating the jokes from English, and, in the end, I got more applause than I did laughs. It's hard to translate jokes, because stand-up has to have images and actions associated with the words. Translating a culture is difficult."
English works out better for Wong, anyway, as he is determined to use comedy as a platform for representing the immigrant community to the rest of the US. "In this country, immigrants are referred to as 'Generation Zero,' " he says. "There is no voice for them. There are a lot of interesting things going on in their lives, but [because of language and cultural barriers] they can't tell their story. I want to be a voice for immigrants. That's the ideal situation."
For now, Wong is balancing his "civilian" life as engineer, husband, and new dad with the barrage of phone calls from casting directors and agents that began after his Letterman spot aired. He's optimistic about these new opportunities, but pragmatic. "As for giving up my other career — that depends on the demand for my comedy," he says. "I'm still not confident about my writing. Most of my comedy is about trial and error. I don't know what the future holds."
At the very least, Wong's future holds a big-screen credit — The Invention of Lying hits theatres in September. Suck on that, Rice University.
Sara Faith Alterman went to China and all she got was this lousy T-shirt. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.