Phil Wang on engineering comedy, Footlights, and why Brexit is a cock block

“There isn’t a shortage of Asian engineers. There is a shortage of Asian comedians.”

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Phil Wang loves to introduce himself. According to his Live at the Apollo routine, it’s his favourite thing to do. “I love introducing myself,” he says, “it’s my favourite thing to do. Every time I meet a new person – a new person, as in a stranger not a baby – I tell them my name. I don’t tell babies my name. Babies don’t care. Babies are rude.”

When I meet Wang in a central London pub, however, he confesses that while he does enjoy it, there are many things he prefers doing to introducing himself. I’m not shocked, just disappointed that he lied.

But we don’t dwell on that. The 27 year old, in the midst of previewing his new show Kinabalu for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month, has been set on a career in comedy from an early age. “Which is why I chose to do an engineering degree,” he quips.

“No, seriously, I’ve found engineering very helpful," he continues. "People don’t see the parallels, but comedy and science are both about structure and discipline. They’re both about pattern spotting, seeing what works and making predictions based on a previous experience. I might lack the cultural reference points of an English graduate, for example, but I think the fundamental mechanics of comedy and engineering are actually pretty similar.”

Is that how you got the Asian side of your family on board with your choice of career? Wang laughs awkwardly before making a serious point. “I think cultural background is important to take into account when we talk about career decisions. It doesn’t take much of a leap to suggest that entertainment is a much less accepted line of work in a lot of traditional Asian families. I’m lucky in the sense that my mother is English and my father is from a pretty liberal Chinese-Malaysian family. I think that my studying engineering probably satisfies a stereotype – and I did enjoy it – but let’s put it this way: there isn’t a shortage of Asian engineers. There is a shortage of Asian comedians.”

While studying at Cambridge, Wang served as president of the prestigious theatrical club Footlights, which can count among its alumni Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Eric Idle and former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt – “Yeah, he is quite funny to be fair.” Is being in the Footlights necessarily a prelude to comedic success? Wang takes a swig of his pint and shakes his head. “Sorry, I think I’ve spilt quite bit there. No, I wouldn’t say it’s a guarantee. There are plenty of success stories, but there are others who either didn’t make it or chose not to pursue it. You’ve got a balance between careerists and hobbyists. For some people it starts off as a hobby and becomes a career. Admittedly though, for me, I went to Cambridge to be in the Footlights.”

Since its formation in 1883, the Footlights has only had a handful of non-white presidents, of which Wang and Richard Ayoade are among the best known. Why do you think that is? “In fairness, for a long time Cambridge didn’t have more than a handful of non-white students. I think the university is only just starting to address its diversity problem in a big way; it’ll take time before we see that in every aspect of the student experience. The cultural barriers from the black and minority ethnic side also play a part, of course.”

Is Footlights exclusive? Wang appears torn. “There are various tiers of involvement. It’s not like comedy’s Bullingdon Club or anything. It can at least claim to be meritocratic in principle. With the Footlights, you turn up and in the first term you do this thing called the Virgin Smoker. That’s a show open to anyone at the university. You sort of become a satellite relation to the inner club, which is run by a committee. Once you’ve performed as an independent for a while, every year there are two points where you can apply to join the committee proper. You send in an application and you make your case as to why you’re dedicated. It’s inclusive in that anyone can try, but exclusive in that not everyone will get in.”

While Wang concedes that “benefits of a Cambridge comedy education are pretty unique”, he is convinced that the industry is becoming more accessible “and that’s definitely a good thing". He credits the internet for giving comics a platform that didn’t exist in the past and adds: “I think the rise of stand-up in Britain has been really significant online. You can just plug away at it from your own home. In the past to do something like sketch or radio, there were a lot of barriers to just getting into the studio in the first place. There were a lot more relationships you had to form and past wisdoms you had to be aware of. I don’t think that stand-up is hamstrung by the same problems now.”

Although plenty of Wang’s material coheres around his race and ethnicity, he rejects the charge that he makes light of them and insists he intends to educate as much he entertains. Racism, Wang stresses, finds its roots in ignorance. “I think it’s important to make sure that an audience knows what they’re being told and sold. So for me funny comes first, but secondly I’m looking to make the show worthwhile in a social or educational sense. I don’t like the idea that we shouldn’t talk about race or where we’re from or what we are.”

For a comedian so concerned about race, Wang is surprisingly sparing in mentioning Brexit in his material. Another swig, which he looks like he needs, precedes the explanation as to why. “I’m more divided along Brexit lines than I am along Tory-Labour lines. Brexit forms a part of my show, but only insofar as that I think it’s an attack against globalisation. That’s why I hate it. I’d consider myself a globalist and my family background is what informs that. I’m mixed-race so I can’t really understand why someone would want to be closed off or isolationist. The history of human progress has been about gradually increasing the size and definition of communities. So now that we are moving towards a bigger, global community, we need to be looking at big, global issues collectively. Anything that pulls away from that, I just can’t get behind.”

Wang, who is in a happy relationship with a white woman, is a passionate supporter of diversifying gene pools. Kinabalu, he tells me, is about celebrating sex and race. “These are the only two things I’ve ever been interested in consistently. Brexit is ultimately a political and cultural cock block. Like all cock blocks, it must be stopped.” 

Identifying as a “cautious patriot”, Wang says that recent times have made it harder for him to feel proud of Britain, but he recognises that the country, even in its current state, offers a whole host of privileges unavailable elsewhere. “I’m the kind of patriot that only an immigrant can be. Only someone who has experienced what you can lose by living elsewhere can appreciate this country in this way. You can have a high quality of life in many Asian countries, for example, but you won’t have the same freedoms you have here. Look at horror films – a completely first world privilege. You don’t see someone in Syria paying money to be scared.”

Wang finishes a craft beer I’ve never heard of. What’s the long-term aim, then? Where do you go from here? “I would like east Asians to become better represented in the UK,” he says pointedly, “that’s my goal. People ultimately want to see something of themselves in everything they watch. At the moment, I don’t think east Asian people really have that. I want that to change.”

Phil Wang performs Kinabalu at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Pleasance Beneath ahead of a nationwide tour. More information and tickets are available at www.philwang.co.uk

 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.