Comedian Phil Wang on ambition, big venues and his latest tour, coming to Yorkshire

“Wang in the baby? As in, there’s a cot there - wang in the baby? That seems a controversial title for a stand up show. You do know ‘wang’ is Yorkshire slang for throw?” I ask comedian Phil Wang.

“No, Wang in There Baby, like ‘hang in there baby,” laughs Phil Wang, repeating the title of his latest show, seemingly genuinely tickled by the video call-caused misunderstanding.

Wang in There Baby does make a lot more sense as a show title for the pun-loving comic, but you’d be forgiven for thinking a comedian might resort to a title as controversial as ‘wang in the baby’ in these days when the clamour for an audience’s attention gets ever louder. The sure fire way to get eyeballs on your act is to say something controversial enough to get cancelled, a tactic to which many lesser comics have resorted of late.

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But he former Cambridge Footlights President is doing pretty well without the need to court controversy. His last stand up tour, Philly Philly Wang Wang, is riding high in the stand up charts on Netflix and appearances on the American staple Late Show format have solidified Wang’s status as an international comedian.

Phil Wang is due to perform in Yorkshire this week. Photo credit: Edward MoorePhil Wang is due to perform in Yorkshire this week. Photo credit: Edward Moore
Phil Wang is due to perform in Yorkshire this week. Photo credit: Edward Moore

Wang, however, is circumspect about what looks from the outside to be a pretty hot streak. “I can’t complain with how things are going at the minute but I’d say that ‘peak’ is a good way to describe it,” he says from the spare room of his London home where the wallpaper looks to be a tribute to 101 Dalmatians (‘it was the kids’ room of the family who used to live here but I haven’t got round to redecorating - I probably should, it’s been a couple of years’).

“I think comedy is about moments. You do a show or something goes viral and it gives you a boost and you’re hot, but then things cool down for a bit and then you get a boost by going on a TV show that people like or something, I think of it as a bit of a push and pull game.”

If you know Wang’s comedy, you won’t be surprised by this intelligent, analytical way of thinking about his work. Cerebral without being supercilious and sometimes surreal without losing a mainstream appeal, Wang ticks a lot of boxes.

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It’s not a big surprise: he really knows his craft. He first fell in love with stand up as a teenager, a precocious 15-year-old getting on stage at school concerts so that people would have to ‘shut up and listen’ to him.

Comedian Phil Wang. Photo: Matt StrongeComedian Phil Wang. Photo: Matt Stronge
Comedian Phil Wang. Photo: Matt Stronge

Wang appears to have had his sights set on comedy superstardom for a while - his latest tour is a case in point. In 2019, his last tour Philly Philly Wang Wang played Leeds City Varieties, a famous, well loved, but ‘intimate’ venue seating fewer than 500. On his current tour, stopping in York this weekend at the Barbican and at Bradford’s St George’s Hall in a couple of weeks, he’ll be playing 1000-plus seater venues. The scaling up between the two tours feels planned.

Is he, I wonder, ambitious? It’s sometimes a dirty word in the world of arts and culture - you’re supposed to pursue the artform you love, essentially for love. “Yes, I was ambitious,” says Wang, displaying no qualms about the admission. I became obsessed with it (stand up) when I was a teenager. I was good and I thought ‘I should do something with this’. It’s essentially a hobby that got out of hand. I still expect at some point for someone to come along and say ‘okay, that’s enough, time to go back to your real life’.

“The truth is, it’s one of a few things I’m good at. I’m not sure if I am ambitious actually. What it really is, is that I’m good at pursuing things I know I’m good at, if I’m not good at something, I quit very easily. That would be my life advice, if for some reason I was ever asked to give my advice, get good at quitting.”

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His latest tour dates mean that he has leapt from small venues, to the bigger venues and the only places left to go are arenas. But having played to 6,000 at Hammersmith Apollo (‘the laughs have a different rhythm, you have to wait for the laugh to move around the room when it’s so much bigger’) it feels like this tour might be his last in this size venue. “I simply want to get the comedy out to more people and so bigger venues mean I can do that,” he says.

That’s not the only change since his last tour. This time around the audience will be hearing from a comedian who has a white English mother and a Chinese-Malaysian father. He always was those things of course, but when he first started breaking through he didn’t talk about it. “I think ‘Chinese comedian’ was enough for audiences to have to try to get their heads around back then,” he says.

“I didn’t talk about being Malaysian too because I just felt like people wouldn’t really understand and you feel like you want to meet the audience halfway. Now, I think it feels like there is a much greater understanding. Even in the last five or so years, there is more Vietnamese and Japanese and Chinese food in the culture, movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Everything, Everywhere All At Once, they’ve all contributed to a greater sense of familiarity. So I do talk a little more about the nuance of my background.”

He also talks about Tom Hiddleston. Why? Well, Wang isn’t above a bit of online marketing. If you haven’t seen it, seek out the video of an advert with Hiddleston in a kitchen, preparing breakfast - but seek out Phil Wang’s doctored version. Wang inserted himself into the video, hilariously. His version has had over six million views. “My agent’s are like ‘you need to make another’. But that’s still the only one that I’ve made. I just don’t really feel the need to,” says Wang.

And with Netflix specials and almost-arena filling tours, you don’t suspect he needs to wang one in there. Phil Wang, Wang in There Baby, York Barbican, Sept 23. Bradford St George’s Hall, Oct 6.