@IrvingRuan on Being Both a Comedian and an Asian-American Comedian
Irving Ruan is a writer and performer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s written for McSweeney’s, Funny or Die, and other places on the internet (more info can be found on his website). He performs with his troupe Comfort Zone despite the fact that he still sometimes feels uncomfortable on stage. Ruan also loves macaroons.
This week, Ruan spoke to me about his experience as an Asian-American comedian as well as some of his funniest tweets!
Got my 23andMe report back. I’m 99.1% Chinese.
Mom, dad…I didn’t get a 100%. I’m sorry.
— Irving Ruan (@irvingruan) May 25, 2017
I grew up in a traditional Asian immigrant family, which meant that I had to get A’s in my classes or else there might be particular consequences. Of course, I was never really a good student, but I tried nonetheless. So, when I got my 23andMe results back, I was surprised by the fact that I was 99.1% Chinese because, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever scored that well on any test. You can sure as hell bet I was pretty damn proud, even though this score had been predetermined since I was a fetus.
LOL. Did you ever actually tell your parents this joke? Did they like it?
Not yet, I totally should! Though, I’m pretty sure they’d tell me to study harder next time.
#FF interviews are usually pretty chill, but since we’ve talked before about being Asian-American and doing comedy, I’d love to chat about that with you. Is that okay?
Yay, thank you! I always worry about discussing something like this publicly because I totally know the feeling of being boxed in by others as an “Asian-American comedian,” and not just a “comedian,” like it’s somehow lesser or different. But I get stuck, because I am proud to be Asian-American, so I don’t want to deny the adjective, either!
Totally. My personal take is that comedy can come from anywhere, irrespective of the comedian’s background. But, in my opinion, a comedian’s background does play an important role. My family and I immigrated to the United States from China when I was five years old, and while most of my life has been here in the States, I grew up around traditional Chinese values. Sure, I may have disagreed with a few of them, but like you, I’m proud of my heritage. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see myself as a comedian who happens to be Asian-American. But I don’t let that adjective limit nor define me. It just merely informs some of the stories I tell.
Do you feel pressure or discomfort from the adjective? Is it something you embrace or try to ignore?
To be honest, I don’t really think about it. At the end of the day, I do my best to write about stuff that’s relatable. Sometimes, it’s something Asian-American immigrants can easily empathize with. Other times, millennials. Does that then make me a “millennial comedian?” Is that even a thing? To me, they’re just labels, and I try to not let them distract me too much.
Have you ever used tweets or comedy in general to discuss matters of race?
Not really, though it’s definitely something I think a lot about, especially in today’s divisive climate. I did write a McSweeney’s piece recently that dealt with what it was like growing up in a traditional Asian family. It was humbling to see other Asian-Americans relate to it, making remarks such as “I totally went through the same thing!” That was pretty cool to see.
What’s something that inspires you when you feel down regarding opportunities and lack of diverse voices in comedy?
Though there is still a lot of room for improvement, I do think diversity in comedy is improving. Seeing comedians like Ali Wong and Hasan Minhaj is very inspirational. I love how courageous they are, sharing their unique stories of ethnic hardship in a world that still, to this day, struggles to embrace people of color with open arms.
looking forward to watching the solar eclipse on my friends’ instagram stories
— Irving Ruan (@irvingruan) August 20, 2017
I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. On one hand, it’s a giant time sink, but on the other hand, it’s a great way to stay up-to-date with my friends’ lives without having to do anything except tap the colorful camera icon on the first page of my home screen (what you’d do for your friends, am I right?). Since I’m fairly lazy and prefer the great indoors, I figured that Instagram Stories would be a perfect way to catch the recent solar eclipse without having to physically get off the couch and step outside, which — might I add — is a herculean undertaking. Plus, if it isn’t recorded on Instagram, did it really happen?
Social media is such a blessing and a curse. Are you also funny on Instagram? Which platform do you find is best for making jokes?
I hope so, though I’m pretty sure my friends often wonder if I know how to properly use Instagram. That said, I prefer Twitter because it’s geared more towards text-based comedy. Instagram Stories, however, is a fun way for me to misappropriate captions onto pictures, which I enjoy for some weird reason. I also think Twitter’s 140-character limit is useful for crafting jokes, a feature that Instagram doesn’t have. It’s a neat forcing function for reducing a joke down to its bare minimum, and thus encourages me to be more disciplined. On Instagram, I just word vomit.
improviser: can we get a suggestion from the audience?
me: post-modern existentialism in 20th century china
improviser: fuck, this guy again
— Irving Ruan (@irvingruan) August 18, 2017
I love to do improv, and one of my favorite things about it is when an improv troupe asks for suggestions from the audience at the beginning of a show. Usually, an audience member will say something simple or benign, like “tupperware.” But every now and then, you’ll hear a suggestion completely out of left field from some weirdo in the back corner, an idea so absurd that it makes some improvisers on stage grimace because it doesn’t make any sense. And since it’s improv, they have no choice but to “yes, and” it. I’m usually that guy in the audience. Sorry.
How often do you do improv versus writing/planning comedy?
Not nearly as much as I would like to, that’s for sure. I’ve always identified more as a writer, but I try to do improv as much as possible because it’s a good excuse to leave my apartment and put on pants.
Have you ever taken a tweet and turned it into something longer, like a sketch or a humor piece?
It’s likely, but I’m having a hard time remembering. For me, these types of things tend to blur together. My mind’s pretty messy unfortunately.
Thanks so much for this interview, Irving. And I super appreciate your willingness to discuss racial matters! The solidarity and support I’ve seen amongst comedians of color is legit my favorite thing. I’m so grateful for your time.
Thank you for having me, Karen! This was super fun.
Karen Chee is a writer/performer who contributes regularly to The New Yorker and McSweeney’s.