Defying Culture Clash

Comedian Eliot Chang is all about taking the road less traveled when it comes to his approach to his craft, even though his career is all about traveling anywhere he has the opportunity to share his approach to the world around him.
Chang has something in common with fellow comedian Jo Koy — their respective cultures expected them to choose pre-determined career paths. For Koy, of Philippine descent, it was to become either a nurse or mailman. In Chang’s case his family would have preferred his path led him to either medicine or finance. But fate often has other plans and when following your arrow takes you in directions even you didn’t see coming, sometimes you have no choice but to see where it leads you.
Chang’s fresh approach is a fun, positive energy that comes from a genuine place, and his YouTube followers and fans, a.k.a. “Changsters” would agree, if his viral videos reaching millions of people are any indication.
Chang’s “Comedy Central Presents” half-hour special was voted No. 2 in the Comedy Central Stand Up Showdown in 2011. Other TV appearances include E!’s “Chelsea Lately” and Showtime’s “Minority Report.” Chang tours all over America, Europe and Asia, and has performed at more than 400 colleges.
He’s also an up and coming actor with appearances on “Looking” (2014), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (1999) and “Indian Cowboy” (2004). He studied improv in New York at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and then with Armando Diaz at the Magnet Theater, where he was on the house team “Jungle! Jungle!”
For those who are not familiar with his material, Google “Eliot Chang 90 Second Trailer,” which will link viewers to his other videos on YouTube.
Here’s more about Eliot Chang…

Talk about your background and how you got into comedy.
Chang: I’m originally from New York City, I was born in Queens. I actually started doing standup in New York City at the Gotham Comedy Club. That was the first open mic I went to. Growing up I never thought I was funny. I knew I could make my friends laugh and my family laugh, but that doesn’t mean I’d be funny to anyone outside that circle. When I was in high school and college all my friends told me I was really funny. They all said, “You should be a comedian.” But I never took that seriously because it just sounded so insane. I never thought I was gonna be a comedian when I was growing up, I didn’t even think it was a thing that was possible because there’s no school for standup comedy. You can’t actually study it in college.

The defining moment?
Chang: I was doing the typical Asian boy route. I was supposed to become a doctor and I was going to medical school. After that, I actually worked on Wall Street for a bit and I accidentally fell into comedy. A friend of mine told me he had gone to an open mic and he said it was a lot of fun. I was like, “if he could do it, I could do it.” It became something possible. Also I went to a comedy show by myself, and the show I went to was really, really bad. Every single comedian was awful. I remember just sitting there going, “I could do this. I’m funnier than that guy.” One day I was passing by the Gotham Comedy Club and there was a sign in the window that said, “Today Open Mic, 4 o’clock.” I was by myself and no one there knew me, no one would find out I’m doing this. So I went in, I signed up, I went on stage, I totally bombed, I was not funny at all. It really humbled me, ’cause when you’re not funny and you’re bombing for five minutes, that’s a long five minutes. The one thing that did happen when I was bombing on the stage, I just had an epiphany. It just clicked in my brain, and I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.” It was just so clear that I was meant to be there. Even though I was bombing, a little voice in my head told me, “Go back, keep trying, keep going.” That’s how I started in stand-up comedy.

Who were your influences?
Chang: Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. Obviously I’m a big fan of all the other greats like George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, etc., but I would have to say Richard Pryor and Chris Rock are the two comics that influenced me the most.
Richard Pryor, for me, was the first comic I ever saw that talked about his personal life. He had the courage to be vulnerable on stage, but also devastatingly funny — and Chris Rock, I always felt that he had strong beliefs and he wasn’t scared to talk about them passionately. Also what I liked about both of those comics is that they were both irreverent. They were willing to take risks and not go down a safe path.

What is it like to be an Asian comic?
Chang: Being an Asian standup comic has been a plus and a minus. On the plus side, there’s less of us so there’s a novelty there. I stand out a little bit more. But it was definitely a minus in the beginning, and still sometimes now, because there are a lot of people out there that still don’t think Asian people are funny or even if they think Asians are funny, I might not get booked because they don’t think Asians create interest. They think non-Asians won’t be interested in seeing an Asian being funny.
I believe the only way for me to combat that is to be just as funny as I can possibly be. Excellence exceeds everything. If you’re undeniably funny, it erases all those negatives. If people think you’re really, really funny, they won’t care what you are. They won’t care if you’re Asian, black, white, straight, gay, in a wheelchair, or whatever.

Describe your comedy for people who may not be aware.
Chang: My act is about everything. I don’t consider myself to be an Asian comic, or a political comic, I just like to talk about everything, the way you would in a normal conversation. If I had to describe my act, I would say it’s silly, and also smart and also scandalous at times, but it will definitely be a good time.
Do you tell a lot of Asian jokes?
Chang: I don’t do a lot of Asian jokes in my act. But I mean, I don’t avoid it either. If I’m doing an hour, I might do 10 to 15 minutes about being Asian, I don’t like to do my entire hour on my ethnicity because personally, I just don’t think that’s funny. There are comics who do that, whether it’s an ethnic comic doing an hour on his ethnicity or female comics spending an hour just talking about being a woman. But for me I find that kind of boring. It’s like a one-note performance the entire hour. I definitely touch upon it a little bit, and then I just talk about everything else because my personality is defined by so many things outside of just being Asian. I talk about dating and family and marriage and kids and the news, etc.

What do your parents think about your career?
Chang: I wouldn’t say my parents support my comedy, I would say they tolerate it. I think they would love it if I was doing something else, something more stable like medicine or finance, but for me, this is what makes me the happiest. This is the thing I think I’m the best at and I’m glad that right now they tolerate it. Sometimes you don’t find your calling, your calling finds you and you have no choice but to follow it.

The strangest place you never thought you would perform?
Chang: I did standup in a bus once for a corporate gig while they were transporting employees from one location to another and they wanted entertainment on the one-hour ride. It ended up being more fun than expected.

Why are you on YouTube?
Chang: YouTube has been fantastic because I put out videos on a regular basis and not only am I able to find new fans who may have been unable to find me otherwise, but I’m actually able to give something to my current fan base that I have. A lot of times someone might see a comic on TV or somewhere live, but once that person leaves town, they’re like, “Oh, I guess I’ll never see that person again,” unless maybe they come back a year from now. But with YouTube, every week, if people want to check me out and see what I’m doing, there’s comedy clips, there’s “vlogs,” so YouTube has been awesome as far as being able to stay in touch with my fans. I give them something on a weekly basis and find new fans at the same time.


Avi Grand Ballroom

Friday, Jan. 12 (7 p.m., doors open 6 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets