Having Immigrated From China At The Age Of 25, Peng Dang Tells Us Of His Unique Experience Of Trying To Make It In U.S. Comedy.
A couple months ago I was booked for my first casino gig as a stand up comic at the Apache Casino in Lawton, Oklahoma. While it’s not exactly Caesars Palace, a check is a check and I am always a little excited to do some road work — even in Oklahoma. The only downside I saw to the gig was that I was booked with another random comic from the DFW area. While I get along with just about everyone around here, I will say, while some stand up comics are “rich” in personality, they’re also known for having very “poor” hygiene. Meaning, some people you just don’t want to go on the road with.
Fortunately, Peng Dang is not that guy. As I learned, Dang will pick you up in a very clean car, drive you to Starbucks, grab two coffees he already pre-paid for with Apple pay before driving you through Oklahoma while telling you fun facts he found while googling the places we would see during the trip. It was certainly an experience in comedy that was foreign to me, which I promise is not a cheap word play on my friend’s immigrant upbringing.
Not only is the guy just flat out funny and professional, he knows how to have a good time. Naturally, I was excited to sit down with him for the first time since our Oklahoma gig to catch up before his show at Addison Improv on August 15.
I don’t even know where to start. What’s new? How was Addison Improv? You just got done opening up for Jimmy O Yang, yeah?
Yeah. I did a guest spot there. It was awesome. I asked Addison Improv if I could do it because as soon as I found out he was coming — I really just wanted to meet him. He was probably one of the first comedians that I ever watched. There are not that many Chinese people doing comedy here in the U.S. He was actually born in China [but] came here when he was like fifteen.
You immigrated from China, as well. When did you move to the states?
When I was 25.
How old are you now?
Comedy has kept you very busy this year, it seems. I feel like I always see you’re doing a set at Hyena’s, the Improv or some festival.
Yeah, I’m lucky. This year has been my lucky year. I’ve done three comedy festivals so far (Tower City Comedy Festival, Denton Comedy Festival and Dallas Comedy Festival), all within the first three months of the year. I have worked with so many cool headliners from Jimmy O Yang, to Vicki Barbolak and even Darren Carter. This year has been crazy.
So, have you lived in Texas all nine years you’ve been in the states?
No, I went to school at Auburn so I lived in Alabama for five years.
(Laughs) Yeah. It wasn’t as bad as everyone says. But it was boring.
(At this point we were interrupted by a man with an acoustic guitar strapped to his back asking us if he could bum a cigarette. We told him we didn’t have any. I was lying I did in fact have some I was not willing to give but later, when I asked Peng confirmed he in fact had no cigarettes on him. Like I was saying in the intro he’s a real stand-up guy — cheap word play intended this time.)
But yeah… I know everybody thinks Alabama is racist, but I didn’t really have any racist encounters [like that.] Oh wait! Except for one time with law enforcement. A cop once stopped me [while driving] saying I almost hit him, then proceeded to harass me — asking if I was drunk. I told him I wasn’t, then he followed up by asking if I was Korean. I told him no, that I was actually Chinese and he was just like “alright you’re good,” then let me go. (Laughs)
Really? Was he a white officer?
Yeah, he was a white guy. I think it is because in that town, there are a lot of Korean people that work for Hyundai. There is a big plant in Alabama and the employees are known for going out after work, getting very drunk and driving drunk. So not only was I being profiled, but it turns out that is the sobriety test for Asian people in Alabama — just not being Korean (laughs).
How long have you lived in Texas now?
It’s been over a year.
You’re very relaxed when you communicate on stage. Did you speak English often before moving here? Is that common in China?
A lot of people over there, myself included, went to school learning English, but not a lot of people actually know how to speak it, or even really have the chance to practice it. Even our English teachers don’t really speak English (laughs). I’m just lucky, because one of the things I am really into, even while living in China, is skateboarding — skate videos, western music, western movies. All of that was my first exposure to the language.
I remember us talking about how big stand up comedy is over in China during our trip to Oklahoma. I think you mentioned that although there are lot of people doing it in China, there are not a lot of Chinese immigrants doing stand up in America.
Yeah, so we have stand up comedy but it’s not really American style stand up comedy.
What do you mean?
The traditional form of stand up in China has two people on stage, talking back and forth. We call it the “cross- talk.”
So it’s like a duo act? Like The Lucas Brothers or something like that?
Um, maybe. I’m not that familiar with The Lucas Brothers. It’s like one person making fun of the other, kind of.
Like a roast thing?
No. Not really a roast battle or whatever. It’ll be…. sometimes it’s situational. Like, if they do an act out, it’ll be two people up there playing it out in two different roles. Sometimes the whole act can be playing out a [single] story. It can have a lot of similarities to American stand up — sometimes it can be based off observation, or what you call observational comedy. Like ,“oh this is what happened to me today” but it’s two people. There is this really classic two-man act that has two of my favorite comics in China called “Qizhi and Da Bing.” One of them tells this story about living in a condo with bad neighbors, but while he tells and acts out his side of the story ,the other one will act out the [role of] neighbors.
So it’s almost like a blend between traditional American stand up and American improv?
Yeah! That’s a really good way to put it.
So you’ve named Jimmy O Yang, Qizhi, and Da Bing. Would you say your style is primarily inspired by other Chinese comedians?
Yeah, it’s what I know.
So are you more inspired by the comics that have come from China and do traditional American stand up? Seeing as how that is what you seemed to be doing now.
Yeah, exactly. There is a Chinese comic named Joe Wong. He actually went to school in Texas, but he has a PHD in doctoring, philosophy, and some kind of science I forgot — chemistry or something. But he started doing stand up in Boston, got on the Boston Comedy Festival and kind of just went from there. He got famous when he publicly spoke on C-Span at the RTCA Dinner for the White House, which I thought was cool, especially for an immigrant to be able to pull off. Jimmy O Yang [and Wong] were not only my inspiration, but my introduction to doing stand up. I didn’t know it was possible. Back in the day, one of my struggles at Auburn was just talking to people. With the day-to-day interactions as an immigrant, I didn’t think it was possible for me to be funny on stage. For example, if I was at school or let’s say I am having a conversation with one of my co- workers, in real time, I would try and think of something funny to say back. But, by the time I figured it out and had rehearsed it in my head, they had moved on to another subject already. It was hard for me to be funny on the fly, so I didn’t think it was possible. But seeing them do it, I now know it is.
Is that why you like stand up? The fact that the act is premeditated allows you to almost be able to communicate through humor on stage better than you can on the fly?
Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it for sure. Because I’m a shy person [so] I don’t really talk too much. I guess I just want people to know my — our — life as immigrants. We rarely get the chance to talk about it, and I think the audience is just generally curious about it, too. It’s [also] easier to convey a point [when] translated under the guise of humor.
You mentioned your interest in skateboarding, something we share in common. Do you still skate often? You even brought your board to Hyena’s the other day. You ever stop to think about how comedy itself is a lot like skateboarding? How figuring out how to do a joke and how to do a trick go through the same process? You know, a lot of falling down and getting back up.
Yeah man, for sure. The activity itself is a lot like stand up because it’s a creative expression. It’s a free expression. There’s no rules. The only standard for skateboarding is whether [or not] you land a trick, while the only standard for comedy is whether [or not] you land a joke. Also like skating, while there is competition, there’s so much more camaraderie in it than most things. The camaraderie between skaters and the camaraderie between stand up comics is very similar. Whether you land a joke or a trick, we just genuinely feel happy for each other. As soon as a person gets off stage I am going to shake their hand. Same with landing a trick — it’s so similar to the skating world.
So what hurts more? A hard fall from a skateboard or bombing miserably on stage?
Oh man! I think bombing on stage hurts more. It’s just that if you ever bomb real hard at an important show, that thing will follow you for months (laughs). That hurts.
Bombing sucks so much more too, because people at the skatepark aren’t going to judge you for not landing a trick your first try, but a room full of people will avoid you like you’re contagious if you don’t land a certain joke on stage.
(Laughs) Yeah at that point you just have to figure it out yourself. You have to internalize it. Yeah, that definitely hurts a lot more and in comedy you can’t scream, you can’t cry.
That leads to my favorite question. Give me your biggest shit gig. The worst gig. I know you’ve got something. And don’t say it was ours!
Not ours, but it was in Oklahoma. The first time I went to Oklahoma, the venue was shitty. When we went it was nice. The casino was nice.
Where was this shitty venue? Was it like a club?
It was like a trailer. (Laughs) It was in the middle of nowhere in this town called Mead, Oklahoma. There were no lights. It was just dark and we couldn’t find the place. We had to stop at a gas station and they pointed us to a trailer. (Laughs) It was so scary. But yeah, the trailer was some dive bar [and] it was all redneck, white people. As soon as you opened the door it was all smokey and behind it was just people with no teeth. It was just really scary because other than us — Carey Cool Tripp, who is black and Michael Posvar, who is Iranian — it was all white people. The three of us just in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma (laughs). We were… I mean I was scared, but it turned out to be not that bad — they actually liked us [and] were very nice. Even the people working at the gas station were trying to close down early so they could catch the comedy show all of Mead had apparently been talking about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joey Johnson is a comic based out of the Dallas/ Fort Worth metroplex. In 2016, he won “Best Comedian” at the Denton Arts and Music Awards. In 2017, he did not win “Best Comedian” at the Denton Arts and Music Awards. He has opened for prominent names such as Godfrey, Brian Posehn, Chris Porter and the guy who took Sarah Silverman’s virginity.