Mining for Laughs (Not Bitcoin)

Tracy Nguyen on the Bay Area Comedy Scene

By Liz Zarka

On my way to meet with San Francisco-based comedian Tracy Nguyen, I almost got run over by a scooter — twice. Not one of those cute Italian ones in “Roman Holiday,” but a rinky-dink little contraption that looks like a tech-era reanimation of the Razor scooter that has been sitting in your parents’ garage since the early 2000s. I’ve noticed flocks of these scooters lined out on blocks throughout the city over the past couple of weeks and just assumed that they were portents of a particularly robust spring tourism season, or the transportation du jour for baby-faced tweens with Xbox Live names like “Pu$$y Slayer 420-69.” Crossing Mission and Second Street, I was surprised to find that the perps who almost took out my Achilles were fully-grown adult men looking a little too proud as they zipped through foot traffic, ostensibly to make their 10 a.m. meetings at one of the hundreds of tech startups now nestled within the city’s SoMa district.

In a part of the city dominated by men in relaxed moccasins and vests, Nguyen stands out. The first thing you’ll notice upon meeting her is her signature safari hat, which she is rarely without if you catch her outside. You aren’t sure if it’s a joke, an eccentricity, a conversation starter or all three, but it doesn’t matter, you’re mesmerized.

“It’s for sun protection,” Nguyen explained as we took a seat at Special Xtra, one of the many upscale cafe-by-day, bar-by-night joints that replaced the warehouses that used to blanket the region south of Market Street. “I’m 30 and my body is calcifying and so I’m doing a lot of foam rolling right now, trying to eat a lot of hydration tablets. I’m trying to keep my instrument tuned.” Nguyen is a stand-up and improv comedian who has been showcased at venues all over the Bay Area in events like Real Live Comedians, Bad Asians, Mutiny Radio and Comedy Baseball, to name a few. You probably wouldn’t guess it with her quirky, sardonic sense of humor and alluring fashion-savvy (it was a Monday and Nguyen was sporting a jean jumpsuit and socks under chunky heels), but Nguyen is a tech startup veteran.

Conversations with Nguyen meander, and for the next two hours, we discussed how growing up in a large Vietnamese Catholic family influenced her decision to get into comedy, how Silicon Valley is affecting the comedy scene on all sides of the Bay and what Andre the Giant has in common with today’s most popular stand-up acts. Our conversation was even punctuated by a live guest appearance from Glossier CEO Emily Weiss! Let us explain.

What inspired you to start doing comedy? Can you share a little background about your beginnings as a comedian?

Well, I had a quarter life crisis at 26. I had taken improv classes before, hated them, and then I found this stand-up comedy class, and I wanted to take it as part of my bucket list. I really liked it, and I met some cool people and I started to do open mics.

How did your quarter life crisis manifest itself, and why did that make you want to get into comedy?

I was bored at my job at the time. It was the second or maybe third career change in my life. So I was like, “If I can’t make it as this, what the fuck am I going to do?” I felt a little lost. I just wanted to explore self-expression. I think that when you’re very confused in your life and you don’t know what to do, it’s probably just best to experiment for a while, just to move toward things that you enjoy or that you’re good at. I didn’t know that I would be good at stand-up, but I was funny to the people around me. I made people laugh who were close to me, so I thought maybe it would translate.

This really resonates with me. At my first job out of school, at the end of the day I would feel so empty and wonder what I had to look forward to tomorrow. You can lose yourself really easily if you don’t have a mode of expression to help you understand where you are. So self-expression — you need it, most people need it to survive, but why comedy? What about comedy, rather than other forms of artistic expression, drew you in?

I always thought that comedians were like gladiators, and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be respected for my wit. And I do think that you can develop that. I don’t think anyone is born with just a natural charisma. You have to develop it like a muscle. I grew up Catholic and so not a lot of vices are tolerated by the Church —

Infamously so.

Except for drinking! And communing with crowds. That’s a big thing in Catholicism. It’s allowable. When you asked me that, I’m kind of just like, “Why did I choose comedy?”

Let me try to reel it in a little bit. You said that a comedic voice and charisma are muscles that you have to work. Even before you knew what stand-up, sketch or improv were, do you feel like — and maybe I’m projecting here — but do you think you were exercising those muscles unknowingly by trying to endear yourself to people or by trying to deal with pain?

Absolutely, absolutely. I remember growing up and feeling very stupid. I never felt like I was smarter than anybody else in my class. One way to hide that is to turn everything into a joke. I was never the cutest girl in my class, or the most athletic, or the brainiest person. I was sort of middle-of-the-road.

Do you still feel that way looking back — that you were an everyman?

Yeah. Here’s the thing, I grew up in a predominately Asian school. I never felt like a minority. I actually felt like just a cog. Like I was just another faceless, nameless Asian person at my school. And so then I asked myself, “What could I do to feel more special?” I love fashion — it’s a way for me to express my uniqueness through my clothes. Comedy is similar.

It’s your special skill!

Yeah! I can bullshit.

You can riff.

I notice people. I actually have a knack for remembering people’s faces. I not only remember people’s faces, but I also remember what we talked about and the situation that we were in when we had the conversation. I recognized an Uber driver that I had eight months ago, and I clearly recalled the conversation we had previously.

Whoa, that’s really nuts. What would you chalk that up to? I know this sounds like a hand-wavy Berkeley-slash-Bay Area thing to say, but is it being present in a moment or being attentive?

I think it, too, is like a muscle. I was in a refugee camp in Thailand. I don’t know how many people were in that camp, I want to say, like, 50 to 100 adults and just like, one baby.

And you were the baby?

I was the baby, dude. I have a big family, too, and I have to remember everyone.

Was anyone in your family funny? Did you grow up with funny people or have funny friends?

I had a lot of funny friends growing up.

Were you attracted to those types of people?

Absolutely, absolutely. Anybody who had a special talent, I was attracted to — the weirdos. Like, people who were kind of chubby, but had the voice of Whitney Houston. I was like, “Oh my god! You’re amazing!” I have a lot of people in my life who may or may not be characterized as bitch[es], but I love them for the certain thing that they have, things that they provide in my life that are irreplaceable. You’re like a comedy historian. You’re like that person that they interview in documentaries.

I’m over here like, “Since the dawn of time, people have been telling jokes! Comedy is defined as ‘XYZ!'” Which grad school department should I apply to to do stuff like that? American Studies?

I have no idea. Dude, I don’t know. Actually, there’s a really good documentary that this is reminding me of, about Andre the Giant.

I think I saw a trailer for that and cried a little bit. HBO, right?

Comedy and wrestling are very similar. Both started off as vaudevillian types of lower art very specific to a certain territory or market. With the advent of cable television, comedians and wrestlers almost became like sports teams; you had your superstars and people from their region would cheer them on.

Oh yeah, I definitely cheer on people like Ali Wong, from San Francisco, Chelsea Peretti, who grew up in Oakland, W. Kamau Bell — Actually, I’m curious to know which comedians inspired you to get your start. Who did you try to emulate?

In the early years, I was really into Roseanne Barr.

You’re kidding me. You want that to go in print?

No. I was really into all the major guys, like Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. although —

That didn’t age too well.

No, no it didn’t. I’m in the school of thought where you can separate art from life though. Like you can read “Mein Kampf.” Just kidding, you can’t. Um, I’ve never read “Mein Kampf.”

Me either. Neither the original nor the Knausgård novel.

Yeah, I haven’t read any edition of that book. But you know, I still enjoy Woody Allen’s movies.

Me too. And you know, if he called me up on the phone today and said “Hey Liz, I have the perfect role for you in my next film,” I can’t say that I would say no. This isn’t about me though.

Yeah, this isn’t about you. So, to recap, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Roseanne Barr and Jim Carrey — just the faces that he makes.

How would you describe your set, your angle or your stage persona? You know, we have Sasha Fierce. We have Ziggy Stardust. We have Tracy Nguyen. But is Tracy Nguyen always Tracy Nguyen?

I’m not really known for my content as a comedian. I’m more of a delivery person. Tracy Nguyen is not Tracy Nguyen on stage. You know, I like to play with magical realism. You never know if what I’m saying is true or [a] fairy tale.

So you’re like 20th century Latin American authors in that respect?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You don’t know what is real and what is fabricated.

What do you talk about on stage? Do you do a smattering? You said you lapse into magical reali —

I mainly talk about sex.

So would some call you a “sex comic?”

I would call myself a sex comic. A lot of my material is about sex, but it’s sex as a metaphor for power — power relations between men and women.

So not literal experiences of you having a lot of sex?

Or not having a lot of sex. But they’re my experiences.

Oh, not having a lot of sex. Okay, interesting. That’s fine.

[Laughter] Of not having a lot and then also, you know, it’s about being in a relationship and what that’s like, and also the power struggle of two people trying to negotiate a household.

Was it weird for you to perform comedy about your relationship in front of the person that you’re in a relationship with? Does that feel at all sociopathic?

It’s liberating. It’s absolutely liberating. You could look at is as being sociopathic — I have a voice, he doesn’t, and he is being put on trial. But I try to keep it pretty fair. I ask him every time I’m thinking about doing a joke about him if he would be affected by it, or if he doesn’t want me to do it. I try to be considerate. Also, a lot of times, the jokes are a dig on myself, about how I reacted to him in certain situations. But yeah, I spend the most time with him out of anyone in my life, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of material about him.

Do you think that he is your muse? Is he flattered by it?

Initially when I started doing stand-up, he was flattered because a lot of the material was complimentary to him. However, I think as time has gone on, he’s gotten less and less flattered because the material, you know, I just have a different lens on our relationship.

It’s not the honeymoon phase.

It’s not the honeymoon phase anymore. It’s the logistical stuff. How do you live with this person day to day?

How do you co-raise a dog?

Yeah, how do you co-parent? How do you negotiate space? Physical space and mental space. How do you retain an identity without morphing into the same person? I mean, I’m morphing into him and he’s morphing into me.

That’s kind of beautiful.

It was at this point in the interview Nguyen pointed out that we were sitting only a few tables away from Emily Weiss, the founder and CEO of Glossier cosmetics. She asked if we should go and say hi, and I said no. Ignoring my response completely, Nguyen declared that she would take the lead and pounced when Weiss walked across the room to get water. The conversation with her was brief. The only major highlight was that Weiss asked me what color “Boy Brow” (an overly-expensive eyebrow filler) I was wearing and I panicked and said “Medium.” “Medium” is not a color. After some chatter about Weiss’ jacket and whether or not women have to be bitches to lead Fortune 500 companies, Nguyen and I turned back to the interview.

Okay, anyone involved in comedy knows that stand-ups bomb a lot — even when they’ve made it and especially when they’re starting out. I’m curious to know how you bounce back and what keeps you coming back. Have you learned to stop worrying and love the bomb? What do you need to tell yourself?

You know, I’m like, gainfully employed. I love my job. I have great family members and a good relationship. So I try to fall back on them when I’m feeling shitty. I’m also, like, a great yoga person … Please don’t quote me on that, DON’T QUOTE ME ON THAT. Okay, redo. I’ll take a hot bath. I’ll eat a slice of cake. I’ll do yoga. You know, anything to make me feel better about my terrible performance. Also short term memory loss, I think. I smoke a lot of weed to forget. It eases the trauma of a set. I will even do it sometimes when I’m going up on stage, which I should stop doing because I forget my lines and stuff.

Now might be a good time to confess that I was eating my lunch through a large portion of the interview to “keep things casual.” During Nguyen’s above response, I started cracking open a hard-boiled egg, to which Nguyen shouted, “This is your brain on weed!” This made me chortle and drop egg in my cleavage. Only later did I realize that I was speaking to a wildly successful businesswoman/model/social media influencer with two eggs bulging out of my front jacket pocket and the rest of the interview with egg on my chest. Back to the interview.

Maybe just whatever it takes to remind yourself that you’re not a piece of shit and you have things going for you?

Exactly. But also, to not take the bomb that seriously. I don’t take myself seriously, so it’s not a big deal.

Do you feel like you’ve always had a non-serious approach to a non-serious medium, a “joie de vivre” where it’s okay if you mess up?

Yeah, I think that’s the best philosophy to abide by when you’re doing something like this, which is a lot of times very thankless and also doesn’t pay at all. For instance, on Thursday night, I made a whole 15 bucks, and on Friday, I made 11 bucks in tips. That’s enough to cover travel and a little bit of beggars’ money.

Yeah, some beggars’ money and maybe a cup of coffee. Not even a latte though.

Not even a latte, just your standard cup of coffee. You’d have to choose between travel and a latte.

Was that casual attitude hard for you to develop?

It was kind of hard, yeah. Stand-up is you on the stage, and so it feels like people are judging you. But what you have to realize is that people aren’t judging you; they’re just judging the parts of you that you are showing them. And those parts of you aren’t necessarily permanent. Those parts of you can change. We don’t even have the same molecules in us that we had two years ago. So how are we going to expect ourselves to have the same thoughts, the same opinions or the same emotions? All of that shit is going to change. So, I can say whatever, and you know, I might be judged for it like three years from now, but I will be a different person when that judgment comes.

So you worry about people judging the opinions you express on stage rather than how they might evaluate your abilities as a comic?

Yeah. I don’t give a shit about that because I know that I’m naturally funny.

How do you know that?

People laugh! Like right now, I don’t feel nervous about going up, even if I don’t have anything to say. I have no nervousness. But I am concerned about my material being good, so I have to focus on writing.

Because you’re a delivery person, not a content person?

If someone hands something to me, I have the delivery. The parts of comedy I love the most involve the audience; they involve a certain rapport with the audience. Crowd work I really like. Riffing I really like. I just want to interact with the audience. I just want to walk around it and play with it and feel it.

Is it kind of like improv?

No, it’s not.

Because you’re in a position where you still have the control?

Yeah, I’m moderating the conversation. I’m a medium, almost — in the fortune-telling sense. Just kidding. I will say that a lot of comedians look down on people who do improv because they think of them as dumb jocks.

Whoa.

That’s a thing! Isn’t that weird that there’s that stratification? But there is. There’s a doctors vs. orthopedic surgeons thing going on here.

Oh, and stand-ups are like orthopedic surgeons and improv comics are doctors?

No, stand-ups are the doctors and improv-ers are the orthopedic surgeons.

I think this metaphor is falling apart.

The metaphor is falling apart. But yeah, I actually think this division is changing. Now that stand-up comedians are doing improv, and improvs are doing stand-up, there’s a lot of crossover. They know that it’s a way to entertain, and so they’re going to do it — even actors are doing it. You don’t even have to be a comedian to do stand-up. You can just go up there.

Inspired, and still ignorant of the egg on my boob, I set out to revolutionize the art of the interview —

Oh! Here’s an interesting one (I said about my own question). What question to do you wish someone would ask you?

[Nguyen stares blankly].

Revolutionize the art of the interview. Check.

What do you want to tell people?

What do I want to tell people?

What do you think you know about that you wish someone would ask you about?

I wish people would ask me more about the state of the world. Actually, I’m not really an authority on that.

I was going to ask you, “How do we solve homelessness in San Francisco?” But I thought that was a lot for a Monday morning, I kind of wanted to ease into it first.

I’ll answer that. I think the city needs to employ the homeless as street cleaners. I also think that company offices should house homeless people at night. People leave offices and nobody is occupying those buildings in the evenings.

Except for the — what’s that movie about the little people living in the wall?

Oh, “The Borrowers.” Yeah, but those people are tiny. Their footprint is like an ant’s. So, we could fit them all. I also think that once virtual reality gets better, there will be no need for employees to even go to an office. They’ll have a VR room, and they’ll just meet their co-workers there. Then we get to free up all of this office space for people who actually need the housing.

That’s so interesting. Or maybe we upload our brains to the cloud so we don’t need a physical space. That frees up half the city, maybe even more than half. Alright, cool, good, good, good question answered. Okay, last official personal question and then we’re going to transition to some scene stuff. Would you rather have feet for hands, or hands for feet?

Oh my god, definitely hands for feet, dude. If I had an opposable toe, I’d be a monkey basically. Feet for hands, that’s just useless. Dude, these questions are quality. Is this a Rolling Stone interview right now?

Pitchfork. Where are your favorite spots in the Bay Area to perform? Where do you feel the best? Where are you treated the best? Where is the audience best for you?

I really love the open mic at this bar in the Outer Mission-slash-Bernal Heights called Iron and Gold.

Ooh, Bernal Heights, fancy.

It’s a very fancy neighborhood. The open mic is in this really small room in the back of the bar. I love performing there because it’s noisy, so you have to talk over a lot of the music and a lot of the crowd, it’s a challenge. I also run an open mic every Monday night at Mission Hills Saloon in Potrero Hill. That room is pretty good too, although you’re mostly just performing for comedians. At least at Iron and Gold there are actual audience members, even if it’s just a single couple.

Speaking of talking over music, we’re talking over a very loud recording of George Michael right now. I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s very distracting.

I don’t think this is George Michael. No, this is — who’s the guy, Rick Roll, who’s that guy? Roy Orbison? [Nguyen looks the lyrics up on her phone]. Rick Astley! This is Rick Astley.

Oh wow! Oh man, I was about to spread misinformation. I’m glad we cleared that up. Moving on. Do you have a favorite gig that you’ve done?

Hmmm, my favorite gig that I’ve ever done. Actually, this just happened last week. I was doing a showcase at this place called the Beer Basement. They have this stage underground in their bar that is very similar to a New York comedy club. It’s kind of small. It has like, brick walls.

Everybody loves exposed brick.

Everybody loves exposed brick at a comedy club. It was an all-Asian showcase called “Bad Asians.” That was great, because I was speaking to an audience who shared my life experiences. It was about growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the Bay Area. It was like talking to family. My boyfriend came, and he hasn’t seen me do comedy in two years. A lot of the jokes were about him, so I could point directly at him and the crowd was loving it because they got to put a face to a scenario. He was shaking his head the whole time even though he was a good sport about it.

I think a lot of people who are familiar with the Bay Area comedy scene have noticed that the East Bay is becoming more of a hotspot for comedy because of gentrification, people being squeezed out of San Francisco, yada, yada. Do you sense a difference between the San Francisco and East Bay comedy scenes?

I think that the East Bay scene is a lot more vibrant. It’s younger and there are a lot of students out there and a lot of female and LGBTQ representation, so it’s a different variety of voices. In San Francisco, you have more of your legacy folks — people who have been on the scene for a really long time. Mutiny Radio represented the free speech radio establishment in SF. In Oakland you have a lot of little pockets of stuff and some really exciting things happening. People are playing with the form. You have showcases now where it’s not just stand-up. It’s like, dirty haiku contests and variety shows, so it’s expanding comedy in that way. It’s a little more experimental. If there’s an alt scene in the Bay Area, it’s definitely in Oakland.

Does the liberalism, diversity and relatively high education levels of the San Francisco audience affect your approach? If so, how?

Absolutely. I’ve worked in tech for a while now, and I feel like I have a lot of material for a tech audience. I feel like I can talk about anything, although I’m not particularly interested in talking about politics unless it’s pertinent to the local economy. I’ll talk about homelessness and tech’s influence there, but I’m not trying to talk about property rights in the United States or around the world —

For the better, probably, because that doesn’t sound hilarious.

But I do like to reference certain authority figures, and it’s nice knowing that people will know who I’m talking about. Like everybody knows who Peter Thiel is, so I can make a joke about a vampire facial and people will know what that is. So it’s nice, yeah. I like it. I do.

Do you feel like you cover tech stuff because those are the people at your shows, or do you do it because it’s funny and relatable?

I think it’s a little bit of both, but maybe less so because it’s relatable. I’m living it, and it’s funny. You can’t know if something is relatable until you test it out, so it’s probably a secondary consideration for me.

What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of the Bay Area comedy scene?

I like the fact that since it’s such a small scene, you get to know everybody and it feels like a community. I like that you can root for people you like and befriend the people you like. It’s less intimidating than, say, the New York scene or the LA scene, which just feels like a sprawl.

And probably a rat race too. As an outsider looking in, the Bay Area seems like a playground where you can test your stuff. If you want to, you could take it to the next step and move to a different city.

Right, a lot of people train here, gain the confidence and then move to New York and LA to get really polished. So it’s lower stakes, but it’s still fun, which is why you get into comedy in the first place. It still feels like that for me and that’s why it’s my favorite part of the scene. Least favorite part, hm — I think you can get caught in the crossfire generated by feuds between people.

You probably don’t want to air any dirty laundry on The BCC Voice website right now. We have tens of readers — like literally, ten readers. But if you’re comfortable saying, what do you mean by that?

Like you mentioned, there are rooms that are super tech-friendly, but then there are also rooms that are not tech-friendly. There are rooms that are super “social justice warrior”-friendly, and there are rooms that are not SJW-friendly. Do you know what I mean? You really have to pick and choose, and I think that’s unfortunate because a lot people won’t do certain rooms. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage, because in one sense, you have your niche. You are a comedian and you have your niche and maybe you just perform for that niche. Or you try to have sort of a broader appeal and your material is watered down because of that. So there’s a balance you have to strike.

That sounds really tricky to navigate. The city can feel really polarized. You have your old guard of politically active, more alternative populations in the same area as a new generation of tech employees. I could imagine that comedians in other cities don’t have to deal with that specific type of division as much.

Yeah, yeah.

What’s next for you, Tracy? What are some goals relating to comedy that you’re thinking about?

You know, the comedian lifestyle is not necessarily for me. I don’t like staying up late. I like being healthy. I don’t like drinking. I don’t even like going to bars. But I enjoy the community. I think the next goal I have for comedy is to start my own projects. I would like to do some sketch stuff. I would like to start a podcast. I have some video footage that I’m developing into a reel.

What is your fantasy?

I would love to have a show like Margaret Cho had, “All-American Girl.” I have comedians in my life where I’m like, “You gotta play my mom!” So, I would love to make that happen and write roles for that and feature people in comedy that I think are really funny, but maybe don’t necessarily get as much respect. I would love to be a showrunner.

I think that’s a good one to end on, right? Like, the future? Looking to the future?

Yeah!

Tracy Nguyen has performed all over the Bay Area at showcases you may or may not have heard of: #Trivialol, Real Live Comedians, Bad Asians, Hellafunny, Hell Hat @ Mutiny Radio, Comedy Baseball, Comedy Couch SF and Comedy Incubator.

Most recently, she was spotted telling jokes at a boba shop in San Jose, and at a weed dispensary outside of Twitter’s headquarters. You can see her every week at Mission Hill Saloon, where she hosts Monday night open mics at 8 p.m. When she’s not performing, Nguyen is working on her acting reel. She’s been typecast as a therapist in two student productions and will be the understudy for Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden character in a student production of select scenes from Fight Club. This part is not a joke.

Follow her on Instagram at @dicktracy if you’re into it. 

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