Phil Wang on the trouble with politeness and why comedy flourishes in a serious world
It’s like something out of the Ipcress File, I tell him. (Listen, I’m a man of a certain age and so are my cultural references.) Turns out it wasn’t his choice. “The last family, this is the kids’ bedroom,” he explains. “I’ve not changed the wallpaper yet.”
And he’s not going to. “Now I can’t. I don’t know if you can have Stockholm Syndrome with wallpaper, but I think it’s here to stay now.”
It’s possible that a future in one of those television renovation shows may not be on the cards for Wang. No matter. The Malaysian-British comedian has been getting on fine without angling to be the new Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen anyway.
Now in his early 30s, he’s already had a Netflix special and written a memoir, Sidesplitter, which suggests his low-key yet clever brand of comedy has found its audience.
If anything, he’s moved beyond appearances in comedy panel shows such as Outsiders to the “things I’ll do for TV” period of his career. Only the other week you might have seen him rappelling down a waterfall in Lesotho on Dave, which was, he admits, “atrociously frightening because I’m afraid of heights”.
He was appearing with his friend and fellow comedian Pierre Novellie on the TV show, The World’s Most Dangerous Roads. “One day we were told to rappel down a waterfall – essentially, a 204-metre drop into a canyon,” he recalls with maybe a shiver of retrospective horror.
“You look over the edge and every fibre of your being is telling you not to do this. It’s not natural. Your genes have survived this long because your ancestors knew not to do this. That’s the only reason you have your genetic code in you today; because your ancestors didn’t do this. And now you’re supposed to do this.
“But once you overcome the mental block … Well, for one, you’re trapped, you’re dangling off a rope and the only way out is to go down.”
He pauses. “I’m getting PTSD thinking about it now actually. Suffice it to say, comedy allows you to have some pretty varied and wonderful experiences.”
Indeed, the night before we talk, Wang was at the 02 in London with a bunch of other comedians. They were wrestling each other for Just For Laughs. “I was thrown through a table, so I think it’s fair to say that I have acquired a taste for danger and stunts.”
He’s still doing the day job, though. Back shift, obviously. He comes to Scotland for the Glasgow International Comedy Festival at the start of April as part of his ongoing Wang In There Baby! Tour.
“I guess this show is probably my silliest,” he suggests when I ask him to sum it up. “It’s got quite a silly title and I’m trying to allow myself to be sillier. I feel like the last few years, politically speaking, have been very unserious. And I think comedians became serious in response in an unserious world. But now the world seems to be getting serious again, which is good. That means comedians can be silly again.”
You may feel that misplaced optimism is at work in that answer.
Born in Stoke-on-Trent, then raised in Malaysia, Wang is a mixed-race comedian whose comedy voice is inspired partly by his outsider status. But the fact that his father was a civil engineer and Wang himself studied engineering at Cambridge – when he wasn’t being president of the Cambridge Footlights – may also have a bearing on the way he approaches humour.
“I was never the class clown,” he says. “I was a very well-behaved good student, but I saw comedy as this interesting intellectual exercise. How do you piece together a series of words and physical movements in a way that makes a room of people laugh?
“And it’s a puzzle you never completely solve. That’s what keeps you going. You never really get on top of it. You never stop dying on stage. They get less regular, less frequent, but you never stop. Michael McIntyre will still die maybe once a year. It never ends. It’s kind of like gambling, right? What gamblers get addicted to is not the winning. It’s the danger of losing. And comedy is the same, it’s the threat that this might not go well … That’s what’s addictive.”
More than that, he says: “I thought it was the only form of entertainment where honesty above all was valued and it seemed to be the only kind of performance where getting to some kind of candid truth about life seemed to be the main purpose, the main point.
“It’s a very unique form. It’s the only thing where you can get up on stage and say something you thought of that day to a crowd and see if they agree with you and try to make it entertaining in the process.”
Why is honesty so important to him, I wonder? Don’t we all lie at some point?
“It wasn’t so much lies I had a problem with, but pretence,” Wang suggests. “I always hated pretence and politeness for politeness’s sake.
“Part of it is I’ve never been offended in my life, I don’t think. Whatever it is in your brain that allows it I just don’t have it. So I have never understood the idea of being dishonest about things not to offend anyone. I’m not trying to say I’m some edgelord, but stand-up is the only job where you’re paid to speak in a way that would get anyone else fired from their job. I think that is what is so intoxicating about stand-up.”
Back to the outsider thing for a moment. Wang believes he wouldn’t be a comedian if he wasn’t mixed-race.
“I’ve never felt home anywhere. I always feel a bit of an outsider because I’m half-Asian. I was forced to sit outside and look in, because I felt different from everyone. And I think a comedian always sits on the outside and observes.”
When do you feel most Malaysian, Phil, and when do you feel most British? “I’m at my most Malaysian when I’m eating. A red mist just descends. I remember when I was a teenager and we moved to the UK, I had a British girlfriend. She came to eat with the family and afterwards she said, ‘You know you don’t talk when you eat.’ And I said, ‘What really?’ ‘Yeah the second you started eating no-one said a word.’
“Most British? I think … It sounds old-school, but the value the British put on rule and order and fairness and queuing and, yeah, at least trying to organise life. I mean that has not been the spirit of Britain for the last six years but I think that soul is still there and I think we will get back to it.”
Sorry, are you saying you like queuing? “I value queuing a lot and I know it’s a hack thing to talk about the British and queuing, but I grew up in a country where queues do not exist. It is survival of the fittest in Malaysia if you’re trying to get to the check-in desk.”
There are nearly 60 dates between now and the end of October in Wang’s diary. That’s a lot of nights in hotels, a lot of downtime in places other than home. Turns out he doesn’t mind.
“I love downtime. Downtime is my favourite thing in life. It’s my first career. I moonlight as a comedian. I like exploring cities, I like going to museums and galleries. The toughest thing for me is, I’m a real restaurant addict and what’s difficult about doing stand-up is it is on at the same time as dinner. And also I know myself well enough to know that I can’t eat too big a meal before a show. I completely ruined my appearance on Would I Lie to You? with a big fried rice from Wagamama.”
Let’s finish with the idea of ambition. “I think ambition to me is never being satisfied,” Wang tells me. “I think it’s actually quite a dark word because it means you’re never happy with where you are at. You’re always looking for the next thing. That’s how I’ve been with things I’ve done. I always find it hard to enjoy my achievements. The main thing is relief and then the next feeling is, ‘OK, what next?’ I think that’s what ambition is for me, ambition is the phrase, ‘What’s next?’”
What’s next, Phil Wang?
“The Glasgow International Comedy Festival.”
Phil Wang: Wang In There Baby! is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow on April 2. He also plays the Whitehall Theatre, Dundee, on May 5 and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on May 6. Visit philwang.co.uk