Ahead of his show as a part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival we caught up with a rising star of British comedy.
In his new show “Wang In There Baby”, Phil Wang is getting sillier. That seems like a pointless ambition for a comedian, but Wang has had this idea for some time. “I just looked back at my old stand-up and thought… I’m not really goofy with it. The last time I was properly silly was [my] first Live at the Apollo set.” Wang’s comedy does seem somewhat dependent on getting sillier and sillier; it relies on a sort of amicable middle ground, where his prodding and poking at cultural difference loses its possible sting.
This plays into the prominent branding of his surname, too: “I think it might be the most common name in the world,” he explains. But he realised soon after he moved from Malaysia to the UK, that it sounds silly rather than familiar to some; “When I moved to the UK… people were astonished that my name was Wang”. The result is plenty of Wang-based puns, the deliberate mispronunciation (“first off, it’s pronounced Wung, originally”), and that Live at the Apollo appearance where he repeats “Phil Wang, I’m Phil Wang”, initially to “help people remember who I was”. It accidentally kickstarted something of a brand; a calling card that immediately plays with silly, small-scale culture clashes.
His show will be playing at King’s Theatre as part of Glasgow Comedy Festival, for which he has kind words: “There is something to be said for a comedy festival that doesn’t have all the baggage of the Fringe… [it] isn’t so gruelling… [it’s] more about the shows and isn’t tied down by the pressures of reviews”, as well as some bizarre late-pandemic recollections. “I don’t hold on to fond memories… [so] I remember the last time I was in Glasgow… the main Scottish pastime for a year was… goofy-ass Covid devices. They made us walk through – I’ve never seen anything like it – a sanitising gateway you had to walk through, like Star Trek.”
His admiration, however, does extend to Scottish audiences, whom he describes as “honest”. “A Glasgow laugh is worth a lot” he explains, “I’ve performed in America and the UK. The Americans want you to succeed, and the British want you to prove yourself.” While I’m certain the punters at King’s Theatre will be plenty enamoured with their evening entertainment, there is definitely a case for a more discerning audience. As Wang goes on to say, “The Scottish especially really pride themselves on their wit, and their ability to be funny in conversation, so if you’ve interrupted their conversation for an hour, it better be worth it.”
We then talk about one of Wang’s more popular side ventures, the Bud Pod podcast he records with friend and fellow comedian Pierre Novellie. This again flags the point of being goofy, in that Bud Pod has gained a fanbase by being totally absent of baggage or drama. “It has somehow taken on a real scatological theme,” laments Wang. “I wish [it] would stop but that horse has bolted.” It’s a throwback to the less formatted, personality-driven earlier days of the podcast format, but Wang is aware of its outsider place in the medium. “I think we are hitting a saturation point [of podcasts] which is fine… But if a podcast should survive then it usually does. I would say the better formatted, better edited ones tend to do best, and that’s very hypocritical because Bud Pod isn’t.”
I come away with the impression, then, that the niche Phil Wang is carving for himself is one where the day-to-day excesses of comedy that you might find all over social media are largely irrelevant. So much of modern stand-up attempts to make a point, to say something profound, or treats comedy as necessarily a motor of social change. By contrast, Wang’s ventures feel tailored towards a kind of insular craft-making, perfecting the light-heartedness that draws people to the medium in the first place. “It sounds counterintuitive but comedians are want to take comedy too seriously,” he says, having already outlined the ways in which this rule of thumb applies to himself. “Brevity is the new black… cut out the umming and ahhing, keep it tight.” This is comedy for its own good; this is the new(ish) Phil Wang.