Sheng Wang on New York and San Francisco’s Standup Scenes
Over a decade into his standup career, Sheng Wang has amassed a list of credits that includes Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, and his own Comedy Central Presents special. Wang, who came up via San Francisco’s comedy scene, currently resides in New York, where he plays both alt rooms and clubs. Wang is one of several comedians, alongside Janeane Garofalo, Eugene Mirman, and Michael Che, featured in A Night at Whiplash, a Splitsider-produced standup concert movie based on Leo Allen’s long-running live standup showcase Whiplash. I recently had the chance to talk to Sheng Wang about his beginnings in comedy, when he knew he would actually have a career as a standup, and performing in both San Francisco and New York.
When did you start doing standup?
I did a talent show or two in college, but I started doing open mics after I graduated, so around 2003.
What city were you in at the time?
It was San Francisco.
Who else was coming up at the same time in San Francisco? Any comedians that we would know?
Yeah, at the time, it was Louis Katz, Jasper Redd, Ryan Stout, Moshe Kasher, Brent Weinbach. Those are people kinda close to when I started.
Do you remember what your first standup show was like?
I did like a little joke writing class. My first set was in a bar, which was fine. It was a group of friends. Jokes were okay. Yeah, that was my first set.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to wholeheartedly pursue standup?
It just kind of happened. When I started, I liked doing it. It was a very thrilling thing to do. It felt like I could maybe do this. I was going to do something creative. I was not gonna get a job. I was hoping to be either a photographer or a standup, but standup was going to be easier to practice. I was doing open mics four or five times a week at that time. It took a while before I was like, ‘I guess I’m doing this and I don’t think I have any other backup plans, so just keep going.’
Was committing to it a scary moment?
No, it wasn’t a scary moment. I didn’t understand the urgency of needing to make this happen as a career. That kind of came a little bit later, in the last three years. I didn’t realize that it’s not just gonna happen. It’s not like a job with promotions or whatever. You’ve gotta make it happen. It took me a while to realize that. You’ve gotta make sure you’re really growing.
You went to New York next from San Francisco, right?
I took a little time in Southern California. I never got a good feel for what living in LA was like, but I moved from the west coast at the time to New York.
What was it like, being a standup who comes from San Francisco’s comedy scene, navigating New York shows? Was it pretty easy to get your footing, or did it take a little while to figure out what’s going on?
It wasn’t too hard. I’m still trying to get more footing. When I first got out there, there’s just tons of shows. There’s tons of places to do comedy at all the levels. I did a bunch of open mics when I first got there. I was just happy getting stage time. I, only in the last two years, was dedicated to building a relationship with the clubs. You have to make sure the joke works for both the clubs and shows, as well.
What are some of your favorite shows or rooms to do in New York?
I enjoy all the shows that I do. As long as there’s an audience, I’m happy. As long as there’s a good, English-speaking audience, I’m happy with that.
How do you feel like your act and your stage persona has evolved since you started?
I’m trying to figure that out. I feel like it’s changed in general. Early on, my delivery was much drier and lower energy. That’s kind of my natural tendency. I’m not super energetic, but I have a little bit of an animated side that I try to incorporate more on stage in the present. In addition, I think I’m telling longer jokes. In addition to the jokes that I’m telling, I’m also including more anecdotes, little moments from my life. I love writing jokes — one-liners and stuff — but I also like the relationship with the audience a little bit more. I feel like I connect with the audience in the moment more if there’s more stories. I feel like I’m having a little bit more fun on stage lately.
Are there other comedians you look to, whether they be your peers or people who have come before you, when it comes to telling stories well on stage?
I can’t think of any comedians in particular who have inspired me when it comes to storytelling, but as far as interacting with the audience or just having more fun on stage, I’ve recently been watching videos of my friend Rory Scovel. He just has so much fun on stage. It’s something that I’m inspired to do. If you’re fun on stage, that’s the best. You’re working, you’re having fun, and it makes the show even better. It’s kind of ideal, I guess.
How often do you do standup in New York? How many times a week do you go up these days?
I go up six-seven times a week. I guess that’s kind of what New York did to me. When I first moved here, I didn’t do every night or multiple times a night. I was more careful. I wanted to write jokes before I tried them. I just didn’t value stage time. Now, I’ve gotten into the mindset of it’s not weird for me to do 14 nights in two weeks. I’ve been telling my friends about this Blake Griffin commercial. He quotes his coach as saying that he has to fall in love with the process of becoming great. I sort of apply that to myself. If you can just make the process of doing it normal, and ideally, really enjoyable… Once you get the ball rolling, once you’re in a good groove, you feel good. It just kind of builds upon itself. You can do a set — it might be good, it might be bad — but you learn from it. You make adjustments for the next day or the next night.
You hit strides every now and then where you feel like you’ve figured out comedy. And then, you feel like there’s no way you’re gonna stop writing all these great, funny jokes. You’ve got the formula now in your head or something. You know how to write jokes. And then, either something happens — you stop for a little bit or it’s just not funny anymore, and you have to build the momentum up again to get into that groove. But once you get into that groove, one day inspires you to work harder for the next day.
How did the Whiplash taping go, and how did you go about picking the material for your set?
To be honest, I don’t remember how my set went exactly. [Laughs.] I remember having a good time. I remember it was a fun show, and I was happy to be part of the project. But I haven’t watched it. That’s another thing: I need to watch myself more. A lot of comics don’t like to watch ourselves, which is a mistake because you have to learn from seeing you do what you do. But I haven’t seen the movie yet. As far as the material, I think that was just fun stuff that I was doing at the time. Material that was newer or new, just stuff I knew I was going to have fun with.