Comedian Phil Wang is not a fan of horror films. Nor does he understand people who actively seek out such movies in cinemas.
“I don’t understand that impulse at all. I’ve never been frightened in real life and go (mimicking terrified noises), ‘Yeah, I’ll pay for that’.’’
The absurdity of scary movies is just one of several topics tackled by the Malaysian-British performer in The Comedy Lineup. The stand-up comedy showcase series – now streaming on Netflix – highlights a diverse group of up-and-coming comedians.
Wang, 28, is one of eight comedians who perform 15-minute sets in the series. Others in the line-up include Michelle Buteau, Ian Biteau and Taylor Tomlinson.
Wang, whose father is Malaysian, lived in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, until he was 16. He moved to Britain (where he is now based) to further his studies and started doing comedy at the age of 18.
According to Wang, the first comedian he watched live in Malaysia was Harith Iskander.
“I went to see his show again at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival, which I really enjoyed. It was a strange flashback to that first ever bit of stand-up I saw him do all those years ago,” said Wang in an e-mail interview with Star2.
Wang names Dave Chappelle and Stewart Lee as his other comedy influences.
Thus far, the bespectacled up-and-comer has racked up two national student comedy awards and performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Montreal Just For Laughs Festival. Wang has also performed in Malaysia; he was one of four comedians featured in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow at PJ Live Arts in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in 2016.
“If given the opportunity, I’d love to come back to Malaysia to perform. Hopefully, within the next year,” said Wang, who describes his style of comedy as “smart but cheeky”.
On why he enjoys performing stand-up, Wang mused: “It’s one space where you can go up on stage and be honest even if your honesty is ugly, offensive or strange. We all lie to one another out of politeness, or for personal gain or whatever, but to have someone be honest, that I find really exciting.”
Besides stand-up, Wang writes and records material for a sketch comedy series on BBC Radio and has starred in British sitcom Top Coppers. He was also the president of Footlights, the comedy and drama troupe at Cambridge University in Britain, whose past members include comedians and actors John Cleese, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
On his involvement in The Comedy Lineup, Wang enthused: “It was an exciting series to be a part of! It’s an amazing opportunity for a comedian to be on Netflix as it exposes you to a global audience.”
He added: “At that time, I was unaware of just how diverse the line-up was, but I guess it was bound to be if they were asking a Malaysian-Brit to fly over to Atlanta, Georgia (where the show was filmed in front of a live audience).
“The most memorable aspect of that audience was how mixed it actually was. They were just classically enthusiastic Americans.”
Asked whether it was challenging to condense his material into 15 minutes, Wang replied: “No, not really. My material is pretty short-form and dense, so overrunning is rarely a problem for me. Fifteen minutes was perfect.”
During his set, Wang riffed on his growing-up years in Malaysia and his mixed parentage. “In the UK and America, I am the Chinese guy. In Malaysia, I was the white guy.”
On how his parents met, Wang shared that his mother was a visiting archaeologist from Britain. Upon her arrival in Malaysia, she wanted to take up martial arts – and her kungfu teacher was none other than “Papa Wang”.
In regard to his childhood in Kota Kinabalu, Wang recalled: “It’s a much slower pace of life, with nothing much happening. My early years were spent running around the garden and splashing in the rivers and streams of Borneo. And doing a lot of homework.
“I ate a lot – as Malaysia has the best food in the world – and got very fat. With my weight gain, came a very frustrating early teenage period as I was too fat to be confident around girls, whom I had just started to notice.
“That drove me to eat more food to comfort myself. The cruel cycle continued for years until I left (for London),” added Wang, who last visited his birthplace in January.
On which Malaysian dish he misses the most, Wang answered: “I guess char kuey teow; it’s near impossible to find a good one outside of Malaysia. And Sabah’s mee basah. No one here can make the ‘basah’ sauce. What is even in it?”
Now, back to Wang’s fear of scary movies. What was the last horror flick he saw – intentionally or otherwise?
“Carrie, the 1976 classic based on Stephen King’s book. It wasn’t too scary, just quite weird. I liked it.”
Is he more fearful of Asian or Western ghouls? “There is no Western ghost that is as disgusting as the Pontianak. And certainly, none as creepy as the toyol.
“Western spirits are comparatively pleasant. A Roman soldier who walks about a bit but doesn’t bother you? Sure, whatever, who cares?” jested Wang.
The one thing not scary is Wang’s seemingly smooth career trajectory. So, what does he hope to accomplish next?
“I’d really like to do stand-up on an American talk show like Conan (hosted by Conan O’Brien). That would be really cool!”
Wang also hopes to perform in China at some point. “My interest in performing in China is not market-based, but cultural. I am interested to see how much I have to change to appeal to the Chinese sense of humour (if it is even that different!).
“My command of Mandarin is still pretty bad (which he makes fun of, in The Comedy Lineup), but I’m taking evening classes in London. Let’s see how that goes.”
Jia you (You can do it), Philip!