During the intermission of his performance Wednesday night, comic Eliot Chang switched from a tight T-shirt to a refined grey-shirt-and-glasses combo. The alteration was symbolic: Chang performed two vastly different shows. The first was a spastic, blaring Dane Cook-aping comedy set, while the second resembled a scholarly workshop on racial portrayals, teetering between profound discussion and after-school special. They showed a comic and a communicator brimming with potential but bogged down by lack of unity.
The comedy portion of the Chinese Students Association-sponsored show opened to the guitar riffs of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” a precursor to Chang’s hyperactive delivery and frat-friendly content. The obvious point of reference is Dane Cook: Both acts thrive on outrageous gestures, wacky voices and profane interjections.
Chang’s unoriginal material desperately needs the visuals. On getting drunk: “I’d rather be in a car accident than have sex with an ugly person.” On being Brad Pitt: “How awesome is it to be Brad Pitt?” Chang’s weakest punch line centered on Northwestern, delivering the line “You have to study, don’t you?” with all of the originality of a high schooler quoting Family Guy. Most of Chang’s jokes came off as clunky, obvious statements delivered in a voice resembling Fozzie Bear. Yes, meeting a significant other’s parents is awkward and the Amish don’t use technology, but screaming about it into a mic doesn’t make it comedy gold.
His biggest drawback as a comedian is his insecurity. Chang’s opening jokes revolved around how people perceive Asian comedians as unfunny, painting himself as an underdog worthy of cheers regardless of how weak his material was. Throughout the set, Chang mumbled about the crowd’s lukewarm reaction to his jokes and mused, “I have two fans here tonight.” These complaints reeked of strategy, as the crowd actually cheered Chang after nearly every joke. Worst of all, after painting himself as the victim, he frequently puffed up his sexual conquests. It’s hard to sympathize with a guy scoring as frequently as Chang claims he is.
Though his jokes are more obvious than insightful and he isn’t always comfortable in his own ability, Chang shows great comedic potential. He has a charisma and stage presence that makes his worst material sort-of funny, and his best gags hilarious. And he shows signs of original greatness: One bit about how cheating on a girlfriend with someone who looks like your girlfriend ended with a clever analogy to robbing a bank — but only taking money from your account. He also knows how to play off the crowd, jumping on overheard comments and shouts to keep the show going. Chang needs to perfect his act, but he has a strong, funny foundation.
Yet the most perplexing aspect of Chang’s act was his handling of race. Chang declared early on that he wouldn’t focus on poking fun at his Asian heritage and that such a comedic strategy was “retarded.” Chang comes off as the anti-Carlos Mencia; where Mr. Mencia prides himself on making fun of everyone and not caring about the results, Chang may mention that someone is black or Mexican, but tip toes around any jokes that could be perceived as racist.
He saves his criticism for targets so easy to attack that he might as well be firing a rocket launcher at a rabbit. At one point Chang said, “I hate Nazis,” before making fun of Hitler. Race, to Chang, is nothing more than a modifier, a detail adding to a story — not a joke. But the mentions of his ethnicity and the Asian-pride T-shirts he sells to the side hint that he does have something to say about race.
And that’s where part two of the event comes in: Chang’s workshop, titled “Asians in the Media.” After slipping into more relaxed clothes, Chang sheds his manic comedy act, becoming an academic occasionally making a joke, but mostly staying serious. Instead of rambling about awkward sex, Chang delivers philosophical lines, such as, “life isn’t based on reality, life is based on perception,” and then discussing media portrayals of Asian women, racism and “wannabe syndrome,” a condition where an Asian individual tries to act in accordance with another culture’s values. The workshop, along with a question-and-answer session, saw Chang touching on issues pertinent to his heritage.
Great comedians don’t just tell jokes; they comment on society through their act. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin etched their names into history by weaving their humor and their commentary together.
Chang is not a great comedian. He splits his shows between smirks and smarts, never letting the two intermingle, a move aimed at avoiding controversy. His comedy routine offered no value beyond, “Why don’t we measure the weights of our dicks instead of the length?” The points he made in his workshop were interesting and warranted further discussion – but more than half of the audience had already left, missing the most important dialog of the night. Chang needs to combine the humor with the insight and line his routine with commentary on life as an Asian American — not self-deprecatingly, but curiously, exploring what his heritage means in today’s world.
Chang can fall back on ho-hum jokes about sex and Nazis for the rest of his career, but he’ll never be anything if he doesn’t merge his comedy with his social vision. He needs one unified, daring act — and an outfit to go with it.