It was a cold night in Hollywood when I came across Tony. He swaggered in to the Toys for Tots comedy show like a profound baller. I knew he was funny the moment our eyes met. This comedic boss obviously deserved a spot on Dreamer Loop. Here’s a log of our brief yet memorable conversation:
Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born and raised? How old are you?
I was born and raised in Kansas. Growing up, we were the only Asians there. Which made it weird when my parents told me they only wanted me to date another Asian. But you know what? My brother and I were voted best couple every year of high school, so it was worth it.
But more seriously, I went to school at the University of Kansas (Go Jayhawks!) and then worked for many years as a copywriter in advertising making commercials and stuff. You know Mad Men? I was like Don Draper, but without the women, booze, good looks and success. So I quit and became a comedian, where all those qualities are bonuses.
I am about 657 years old. Asians look young. But one day it’s going to catch up with me and suddenly I’m going to have a long white beard and live up in the mountains as an old kung fu master.
Tony loves enjoying himself and making others laugh.
When you were a child, what did you want to become?
As a kid, my dream was to become an astronaut. I was obsessed with the idea of space. I even wrote a “When I Grow Up…” essay about it in third grade that won some kind of award. But then Challenger shuttle exploded while we were all watching in school and my dream fell to pieces. Pun intended. At that point, being 8-years-old, I started looking into a career in banking.
What sparked your interest in comedy?
For comedy in general, it was a lot of things. But mainly my dad. He loves comedy. When we were kids, I’d sit on his lap in his favorite recliner and watch Benny Hill and Three Stooges with him. And until David Letterman retired last year, he would watch The Late Show every single night. While I still sat on his lap (so glad David finally retired. It was getting uncomfortable).
My parents also threw dinner parties all the time and my dad loved hosting and telling jokes, being the center of attention. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized he was telling the same bits every time. He had material! And it would kill! I remember one time we went to a dinner party at my uncle’s house. My uncle, who attended many of my parents’ dinners, started telling some of my dad’s jokes. My dad got so angry that he was stealing his material! It was just like the world of stand-up comedy.
Here’s Tony at the famous Laugh Factory.
What inspired you to start doing stand up comedy?
At first, it was just because of the risk. No one else in my world would even dare attempt to do it. It was a way to stand out. If only someone would’ve told me being Asian in Kansas had already done that plenty. But as I dove deeper in, and still do, I discovered I like the platform for introducing new ideas and thoughts into the world. And the challenge of making them funny or clever is like Matt Damon trying to solve math equations on the chalkboard in Good Will Hunting. And being Asian, I like math. And I like that.
What comedians did you find inspiring when you started?
I love all comedians. I just respect anyone who takes the risk of going up there and someone [who] maintains a career out of it. With that said, when I started I loved Seinfeld and Chris Rock. I know everyone says Pryor, Cosby or Carlin. And many comics imitate Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg or Sarah Silverman when they first start out. And there were and are many comics that have inspired me before and since then, but when I started those were the guys. Seinfeld’s complicated observations on the simple, mundane things and Rock’s simple observations on the complicated, big worldly things. I used to sound just like Chris Rock when I first started, too. To the point that other comics would call me Chris Wok. Just to humor them, I used to go up on stage and say,”I love Chinese people. But boy do I hate Chinks. Every time Chinese people want to open a Karaoke bar, ignorant-a** chinks would karate chop the place up. Grand opening…grand crosing!”
When did you start doing stand-up comedy?
I’ve had 3 different starts. I believe if you haven’t quit stand-up a few times, you’re a psychopath. And if you haven’t come back to it over and over again, you’re not a true stand-up. The first time I started was back in 1996 after my friends dared me to ask out a girl or go to an open mic at a comedy club. I lost the dare. But part of me kind of did that purposely as an excuse to go and if I sucked I could say, “I didn’t want to go anyway. I only went because of the bet.” Had I just went on my own and sucked, that’s a whole ’nother thing. People would’ve been like, “Oh, he really believes in himself that much. How embarrassing.”
I later quit to finish college and start my career in advertising. But I always kept writing material. And then after a conversation with Colin Quinn in NYC, I started again in 2003. I’ll tell you about that conversation in one of the questions below.
I later quit because one bad show suddenly gave me terrible stage fright where I couldn’t go on again for the longest time. But then I moved to Detroit and was so lonely and cold there, I started again in 2008. Been doing it ever since.
What was your first performance like? What happened? Where was it?
What do you like about doing stand-up comedy?
The world. It’s fun most of the time. Hanging out with comics is the best. Nothing is off-limits and you just get each other. There’s a shorthand when you speak and it just feels comfortable. And like I said earlier, the challenge of solving the problem of a joke. You have an idea, and you have to figure out the solution through trial and error. It’s like a scientific method. Yeah, there’s a science to it. The Asian in me loves that part. And also, there’s nothing like being on stage alone in front of a group of strangers and going at them head to head. I’ve worked many jobs. I’ve had many successes. And nothing beats when I hear, “And now coming to the stage…Tony Vinh!”
Here’s another pic of him doing stand up. This guy gets around
Where do you usually do stand-up comedy? How often do you perform?
It’s my full-time job now, so I try to perform wherever I can. When I’m not on the road, I’ll try to hit up wherever will have me just so I can workout a few minutes. It’s like going to a gym and you have to keep working out that muscle or else it becomes fat and suddenly you’re a flabby piece of s***. I try to perform every night somewhere, but I’m fairly new to LA and so I’m still navigating the scene and trying to meet people to get more stage time. Every time you move somewhere new, it’s like you’re starting all over again and having to prove yourself.
How do you come up with new material?
I eat alone and think. I go to movies alone and think. I shower alone and think. I poop alone and think. Not in that order.
What do you do to refine your craft?
I am a writer at heart. So I am always looking for the perfect way to write what I want to say. And no matter how perfect I think I have it on paper, the only way to tell is to say it on stage. Seinfeld once said that audiences will help you edit, and it’s very true. So I just keep trying to get on stage and failing until one day, I don’t fail anymore.
Have you ever faced rejection? If so, how did you overcome it?
Yes. 90 percent of the time. I just go home, cry for a bit, masturbate, then go back out and try to get more dates. Ohhhhh wait,..you meant comedy, not women…well, same answer.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve learned a long time ago that you can’t plan too far ahead in the future, so for now, I’m just trying to become a better comedian. I want to be a solid headliner so that one day I can hopefully play theaters and people will actually come out to hear what I have to say.
What advice do you have for aspiring comedians?
So, as I mentioned earlier, I had a conversation with Colin Quinn back in 2003. I was in NYC and there was a huge blizzard that pretty much shut down the city. I was there for advertising work and my hotel was in Times Square. Bored, I ventured out in the snow and saw Caroline’s Comedy Club was across the street and that Colin was performing that night. It was a small crowd due to the storm, but it was a great show. Afterwards, I waited around to have him sign my copy of Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up documentary, Comedian (every young comic needs to see this. It’s on youtube somewhere). When he finally came out from the back, I approached him and said I was a young comic. He immediately told the four people he was with to wait for him upstairs and that he was going to chat with me for a bit. I was floored. He sits me down in a booth and says, “To make it in this business, you have to have the 3 T’s: Talent. Timing. And Tenacity. When it comes to talent, you can just fake it. Many people do. When it comes to timing, you can learn that. And over time, you will. But tenacity, that’s the hard one. Not everyone can endure the gauntlet of making it in stand-up. But if you work hard and keep at it, you’ll go somewhere with it.” He then signed my DVD and went upstairs and disappeared into the blizzard. But that’s what I’d tell aspiring comedians. Plus watch the Seinfeld documentary. Oh, and don’t be a d***.
Why do you think it is important for people to follow their dreams?
Because succeed or fail, you always learn more about yourself and grow as a person. Besides, being safe is lame. I mean, unless you have responsibilities. Then take care of those first. But if you can be in a position to take risks and become better, always go for it. Life is short, especially as you get older. The play clock starts counting down fast. So either hike the ball or just stand there with your hands underneath the center’s nuts.
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Facebook: Tony Vinh
Photo credit: Getty Images