Stand-up comedian William Paik (NU class of ‘20) chats about performing comedy in Korea, running a show in Chicago, and what “Asian American comedy” means to him as a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric, Media, and Publics.

Judy: Hi everyone, my name is Judy.

Rachel: And my name is Rachel and you're listening to AmericAZN Girl, a podcast that explores Asian America, one conversation at a time.

Judy: Today, we’re with stand-up comedian William Paik and his career in the Asian American comedy scene.

Judy: William graduated from Northwestern’s class of 2020 with a double major in English Literature and American Studies, and a minor in Asian American Studies. Most notably, he performed stand-up in South Korea for a year through a Fulbright research scholarship. Now, he’s back in Chicago pursuing his Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Media, and Publics.

Judy: What do you consider to be Asian American comedy?

William: I would consider it to be a comedy that takes inspiration from a politics that is against Orientalism, is what I would say. That's the academic answer. In reality, it doesn't work like that because you have your definition and then everyone else has their other definitions, and then you have to make a show together and so on. But yeah, that's the kind of definition that I would kind of hold on to myself and I know it's very individual, for me, at least, especially coming out of Northwestern's Asian American studies program and, and stuff like that. And so when you when you, you know, you'll meet other people when you're doing these mics and shows and doing a scene they'll have completely different understandings of what Asian American comedy is. You know, some people are like, some people just like 'yeah it's just Asians doing comedy'. Other people are like, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about being Asian at all, because I'm just, I just don't find that generative for me'. Yeah, and then also there would be like a popular definition of like, it would be comedy that I feel like appeals to an Asian American audience. So there's many different definitions that work here. And some of them are more active at certain times than others, you know, so if I'm at an open mic, I'm not going to be thinking of like, okay, anti-Imperial Orientalism, whatever, it's just like you're just trying to make a joke. And trying to get that laugh.

Rachel: As a stand-up comedian, there’s a great deal of understanding who you are, who your audience is, and how they might relate to your material.

William: Just thinking about what different audiences can get out of what you're saying is just how you think through that. You know, one of the favorite bits that's stuck for way too long. It's been it's been in here for it's been, you know, the sets that I do for a while, it's just about like talking my parents walking through how to like, deal with bullies, and they're giving like very bad advice and stuff like that. And so like, kind of on the Asian American experience level, you can be like, okay, this is like an experience that I resonate with of like, you know, of like, a cultural difference with your family and stuff like that.

William: And them not necessarily understanding you because they're of a different society and, and that kind of thing. But then also, if you're not Asian American, you know, it's a very, it's a pretty wide experience to be like, Yeah, my parents just are just... So, so yeah, I that's how I kind of think of now the beginning of like, okay, this is what an Asian American audience would get from this. And then okay, this is what like a kid of immigrant audience would get from this, and this is what a white American audience would get from this. Just giving attention to those kinds of things is how I would how I would do that.

Rachel: When he went to Korea, his world flipped upside down. He had to find his identity again in a new country.

William: The most difficult thing for me when I was there was that I just had no sense of self anymore. And not even in like, kind of like, "Oh, am I Korean or American? I don't know?" kind of way. It was just like, it was just like, I'm in this new place. Like I am now a Korean American living in Korea, and that comes with all these stereotypes and baggage and things that people are saying about me that I've never heard about me to begin with you know something like some people are like, "Oh my God you speak English that's so awesome." And and other people are like, "Oh, you didn't do military service. You're like, not Korean." In some ways it's refreshing because you're like, Okay, I'm like a new person and and not having to deal with American racism. All the time was very refreshing.

Rachel: Performing stand-up in Korea had a learning curve. His audience and his relationship to this audience had completely changed.

William: On the other side of that, if you're writing from this sense of who you are, and that who you are is different. It's so hard to write anything. I just had to do to like dick jokes for a year, you know, because that's the only thing that I could make work. Like I tried a lot of stuff based on like my experience, but then people were just like, Oh, that's nice. We don't feel that way. But that's cool that you feel that way, you know. So yeah, that was the biggest issue.

Judy: Recently, William hosted East of California, West of New York: A Midwestern Asian Stand-up Show at Chicago’s Lincoln Lodge. This show started in November 2021, and it’s since been held on the second Thursday of every month, except for the year when he was in Korea for his Fulbright.

William: Honestly, like at this point, I've done the show so many times that it's not even registering for me that I have to do it.

Judy: As the host, he has to think about the larger vision for the show, and one of the things he’s been recently accommodating is the changing audiences.

William: There's some things that I need to tweak about it just because because people's interest in stand up changes. Like when the show first started out, it was packed almost every time we did it and it was phenomenal. It was mainly 20s- something Asian Americans all coming through and laughing and it was really such a great time. But now the audiences have kind of changed a little bit. There are like, yeah, there's also more not like white people coming to the show. And I'm like, you know, how do you deal with that? Not that you have to deal with it. But, you know, it's like, you don't want the show to become something where it's just like Asian people performing for white people basically.

Rachel: William has two upcoming performances. One of them is on May 7th for New York City’s Asian Comedy Fest, which is the largest and longest-running AAPI international comedy festival. His other show is right in Chicago at the iO theater on May 26th for the Asian Persuasion Comedy Showcase.

Rachel: As a whole, the Asian American comedy scene is growing very quickly.

William: There's a lot more Asian comedy going on than people would think. People will get famous pretty quickly, actually. way quicker than I thought they would be.

William: I was doing this show in LA, and it was like this Asian American comedy show in front of a casting producer for America's Got Talent. I swore too many times  because I didn't have clean material. So she was like, "You can't swear on America's Got Talent. And I was like, "Okay, got you." But yeah, I remember Atsuko was there and so was Jiaoying Summers, even though you know, bit of a controversial figure but yeah, the two of them are doing pretty well. So yeah, in about four years, five years, new people get huge. It's a very fluctuating environment.

Judy: Thank you for tuning in to AmericAZN Girl. I'm Judy.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel, and we'll see you in the next episode.