Never Too Soon: A Conversation with Leland Cheuk




LELAND CHEUK’S SECOND NOVEL, No Good Very Bad Asian, was published by C&R Press in November 2019. The title comes from the protagonist Sirius Lee’s comedy special, as if the book itself is such, a narrative out of a tragic life told with unrelenting sarcasm. Lee’s success is bittersweet. He left his family and has made a career joking about his own ethnic identity. Leland Cheuk and I sat down to discuss comedy, identity, and whether today’s representations of diversity in the comedy and writing worlds are authentic.

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IAN ROSS SINGLETON: What made you choose to write about a stand-up comedian?

LELAND CHEUK: I’ve always been a comedy nerd. I think when I started the book, it was 2010, the first onset of stand-up being a cool kind of milieu. There was WTF with Marc Maron, shows like Louie, and podcasts like The Nerdist. I became a fan. And my writing has been comic to a degree, so the original idea was I wanted to write a comedy about comedy. As the book took shape, I started doing stand-up as research.

Then the racial themes of identity became more present to me. It took a long time to write, eight years.

So, if everything you’ve done so far was comic how does this differ in terms of style?

My first novel was a very dark and gloomy dysfunctional family comedy, written in a gleeful rage. [Laughs.] I was pretty actively trying to avoid sentimentality while writing it. An author friend of mine, who I love, called it “relentless.” This one, I wanted to have a little bit more heart.

When you mention gleeful rage, it reminds me that many comics are angry, in pain. So, comedy is a kind of therapy.

It’s also a crazy thing to do. You stand up in front of people and bare your soul in strange ways and expect them to laugh at you. There’s the idea of the sad clown. And there are some parallels to the fiction writing world as well in terms of it taking seven to 10 years for one to get reasonably good at it.

When I was doing stand-up, it was very hard to get other comics to act seriously off-stage. They’re always trying out jokes on you, constantly processing their trauma and pain on you. And it takes a while to break through that wall and get to know them as people. When I was doing comedy, I was constantly trying out material too.

Comedy has always been a coping mechanism for pain for me. Throughout the book, Sirius veers from cracking jokes to being dead serious, if you will, and back. I see it as a natural way of dealing with the drama in one’s life. For instance, I’m a cancer survivor, so I’ve got a bunch of cancer jokes in my Notes app.

Also as a comic, you start to try to be the person the audience sees on stage. But it’s just a version of yourself. It’s the persona of the comic. But many comics and writers merge their self with their comic persona or their writing voice and that’s when their act really takes off. But off-stage, you know that there is some separation between the person you see behind the mic and the person with whom you’d actually hang out and have a drink. I think, in the early days, there’s a lot of pressure to be that person on the stage all the time because you want to be a good comic so badly.

Are the best comics able to separate it?

Yeah. Watch Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Who would know that Seinfeld was into cars from his material on stage? But in the early days, you’re just grinding. You’re trying to get on stage four times a night or whatever. He probably didn’t have time for interests.

When you talk to people in the comedy world, when they’re coming up, there’s no room for anything else. It’s a lot like writing, right? You really have to be dedicated to this crazy sport to be published. It’s relatively rare to talk to a writer and they say, “Oh, I just started writing and then two years later it got sold and now it’s very successful.” That never happens. It takes years and years and decades to get good. And during that stage you really want to be your identity, so it’s gotta be everything. And that’s the way a lot of stand-ups are.

Speaking of identity, Dave Chappelle walked away from his very successful show because of a laugh he didn’t like. Trevor Noah said in an interview that a joke of his about African Americans who approached him as somebody “from the motherland” caused a white person to laugh in a way that made Noah never want to tell the joke again. On the other hand, a huge part of success in this society has to do with white audiences. And this comes up with writers of color too. Can you talk about writing about one’s ethnicity for white people?

Well, it’s such a fraught issue. There are so many different angles that you can talk about. I was just talking to someone the other day about how I personally, as a writer, have started to feel weary of selling my ethnicity. And the writer responded by saying, “It’s not you who’s selling it. It’s your agents and your editors. You should do whatever you want as an artist.” Comedy is a really good analogy for it. For instance, Aziz Ansari can do dating jokes. But they have to be brown dating jokes. Whereas, John Mulaney can do dating jokes universally, dating as a tall guy.

Unfortunately, it’s all related to everything you see. That’s one of the reasons that identity came up as a theme in the novel. In a way, it’s different than writing. When you write a book, nobody knows what you look like. But when you’re on stage, everybody sees you when you step in front of that mic. They immediately expect certain jokes and expect you to say certain things. But the whole point of comedy is to defy expectations. So the parameters are already defined once you get up there in a way that they’re not defined for white people. They’re defined by gender as well. It’s something that I hope comes through in the novel. We talk about equality, but we’re not really playing on level fields from the start. Even though a comedian like Aziz has sold out Madison Square Garden, the question is whether he’ll ever be in the pantheon of great comics. It’s tough to answer. When you think about some of those pantheon comics now, like Seinfeld, Chappelle, Rock, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Louis C.K., it’s black and white and male and like all pop culture, a reflection of who we consider American.

And are Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, or Richard Pryor allowed to do bits that don’t have to do with being black?

Right. Rock’s last special was about his divorce. But he’s best known for doing Bigger and Blacker. Of course, the title of my novel refers to ethnicity and to Sirius Lee’s famous stand-up special. The word Asian’s gotta be in there in order for it to be remembered. You can see examples all over pop culture. I saw a watch ad with Patrick Dempsey the other day. Patrick Dempsey hasn’t been on a big TV show in years. And he’s doing watch ads in magazines for TAG Heuer. Randall Park has been on a sitcom for five years. You never see him on any ads anywhere. Randall Park is one of the top Asian guys in Hollywood at this point. Patrick Dempsey is number 800 on the star list, and he gets to make tons of cash doing ads for watches.

I think of Bill Cheng, who wrote the novel Southern Cross the Dog, and how people asked why he wasn’t writing about Chinese people. Are Americans obsessed with identity? Even if the artist isn’t the one selling it?

I think it’s great that there’s more representation than ever. I don’t know whether more representation equates to better representation. I’m not sure we’re seeing a lot of new types of stories. At a writers conference, I was talking to Dagoberto Gilb, the great Chicano author, who was saying that he has seen two generations of Chicano authors basically write the same story. Immigration, families, border, over and over again. We talk about artistic freedom. Lionel Shriver says she wants to have the freedom to write about Latinos. She can. She just has to write it well. But she doesn’t recognize that authors of color don’t have that freedom. We have never had that freedom. It’s great to want it, to look back on the past and say things have changed. But how real is that?

Marlon James has talked about this too. In a sense, since you’re also a publisher of color, you’re challenging that.

In particular, 7.13 Books is publishing two Muslim-American male authors this year. They’re writing narratives that are different from what’s out there and what’s celebrated as “diverse” literature today. Farooq Ahmed is writing like Cormac McCarthy, except inspired by the Qur’an and Islamic folktales. Portrait of Sebastian Khan by Aatif Rashid is basically a coming-of-age sex comedy, something an early Philip Roth would write. And he should have that freedom. Last year, we published Vincent Chu, who wrote a book of stories that has a bunch of office comedy in it. But it doesn’t have any identity aspect at all. And he should have the freedom to do that if he feels compelled to, as long as you do it well. 

Rachel Kushner mentioned, about the comedy in her writing, that she thinks that you can’t understand something until you can find the comedy in it. So talk a little bit about finding comedy in anything.

It requires distance. Comics are so used to working quickly. You’re trying to get a laugh every 10 to 15 seconds. You’re building material all the time. You’re trying to get on stage as much as possible. Whereas in writing, when you address distance, you say, “Oh, I need more time to separate from the trauma to really be able to understand it.” That doesn’t really apply to a comic because they’re constantly in the process of developing material. I think if you ask most comics, they’ll find anything funny. When somebody dies, it’s immediately jokeworthy. And that becomes somewhat problematic in a social sense. Like my wife will say, “You’re joking about that now?”

“Too soon.”

With a comic, it’s never too soon. In my writing, I try not to revere too many things. So I try to make jokes all the time, to make anything fair game. That’s the instinct of most stand-ups. But as inequality grows racially and class-wise and it becomes so present that it’s difficult to ignore, you have to factor in power dynamics. Back in the ’90s, every comic had a joke about a midget. Like you just said, “midget,” or “dwarf.” Automatic laughs. Now it has become trite. And punching down is no longer accepted. And I think that’s partially because of the forces of inequality working at the fabric of our society.

That comes up with Johnny Razzmatazz, the mentor of Sirius Lee in the book. He makes midget jokes. That’s a mark that he’s an older comic.

He’s an old guy. He’s supposed to have come up with Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison. And you look a lot at that older material, and they could make fun of anything. It’s partly because they’re white guys and they see themselves as losers. I think that persona worked for them.

So, it was supposedly punching up because they were supposed to be at the bottom.

Right. They were supposed to be at the bottom. But maybe our lenses weren’t as expansive as they are now. I still find those comics funny. But I understand why a comic like Hicks or Kinison wouldn’t do as well today.

Rock has mentioned college campuses. So has Seinfeld. There has been an attack on PC culture. And it seems very Republican, but it oftentimes has come from comics who I’m sure are not Republicans or conservatives. But they’re nonetheless attacking ideas such as safe spaces and trigger warnings and hyphenations and using correct terms for gendering or not gendering people.

I think there’s a reality of what you can and can’t do. How do I feel about it? I’m not a stand-up comic anymore. Even in my writing, I know I can’t do anything and everything I want. You’re writing to an audience, you’re trying to reach people. It’s communication. There’s always gonna be that space between the ideal of what the artist with a bullhorn standing on a soapbox can do versus what’s real. If your goal is to reach as many people as possible, you can’t say everything you want. That’s just reality. It’s an ongoing dialogue. What’s good art?

It has to “do well” as you say, or it has to surprise, as Johnny Razzmatazz says.

All a joke is, really, is a surprise that makes somebody laugh.

What are you reading now? 

I’m reading China Dream by Ma Jian, which I highly recommend. It’s a wild dystopia. Chinese dystopia is so much more toothy than American. I’m actually spending the next year reading translations only and I plan to write about it. China Dream is probably the best one that I’ve read so far.

Could this be the way to authentic representation? Through diverse language representation? Through translation?

Absolutely. It’s scandalous that only three percent of books published in the United States are translated. It speaks to an empiric navel-gazing that you see less of in other societies. Too many Americans are incurious about other cultures and the global forces driving the problems we face in our country. I’m two months into my experiment, and I already feel more attuned to what’s universal and human, across nations and across cultures — issues of migration and family and political injustice. The universal isn’t the white American like it is in most American fiction, even fiction written by people of color. It’s been such a relief. We Americans are really not as special as we like to think.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two novels. One that’s kind of light, set in Silicon Valley starring a group of millennials who do a startup, and one that’s more dystopian, about my time in a large corporation. I don’t know how good they are. You can go from highs where you think, “This is genius!” And then you have lows where you think, “Oh man, I hate everything about this.” I’m kind of in the latter stage right now.

It’s like my friend who runs marathons said. Afterward, you feel terrible. Then a week later, you want to sign up for the next one.

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Ian Ross Singleton is a writer, translator, and professor of Writing at Baruch College.

 

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