Traverse City, MI––The 2013 Winter Comedy Arts Festival has officially begun roaring through Northern Michigan. The hilarity kicked off with last night’s lively performances by Colin Quinn and Kathleen Madigan. And, as more headliners trickle into town, we’re catching up with the comedians for some pre-show pleasantry. We snagged a phone date with funny guy Sheng Wang before his late night flight into Detroit. Sure, he’s clever, witty and all those things that comedians are. But he’s a softie too. As he made his way through the city traffic (we could literally hear the taxis honking through the line), he casually described the Valentine’s dinner he’d be whipping up for his sweetie back home. What’s he got cooking for us in Traverse City? Read on.
So this is your first visit to Traverse City. Maybe you’ve already heard, but we’re known as the Cherry Capital. That said, very serious question: You like cherries?
Cherries? Like the fruit?! I didn’t know that! But yeah of course I’m a fan. I normally eat my cherries, you know, regular and raw…. I guess preferably washed, first. But yeah I like cherries.
You’re in New York City now, but is there anything that you already find humorous about Northern Michigan?
Hm. Well last time I came to Northern Michigan I was in the Houghton airport. At that time it must’ve been the smallest airport I’d ever seen. I remember thinking that it was this perfect little hallway size for parking the plane. But aside from that, I’m wondering about the name “Traverse City.” Isn’t “traverse” a verb? Where’d that come from? Maybe I can figure that one out when I’m there…
You absolutely should. But tell me more about how you got to this point in your career. Had you always planned on pursuing stand-up?
I didn’t. I’m from Texas and moved to California for college and earned a very general degree in business administration. But when I think about college, my top experiences weren’t so much in those core classes as they were in the humanities. I took a poetry class and ended up really liking it. And at that time a girl had just broken up with me, so, isn’t that why anyone ever writes poetry?
Darn those girls. So how’d you transition that into comedy?
Well I remember the post-graduation period being insanely stressful. Everyone freaks out, unless they already have amazing amounts of money or had a job planned out earlier in the year. That wasn’t me. For me and my buddies, it was like, you move out, try to find a cool place to live, and just figure out life. Looking back, it was a hard time, so emotionally taxing. And it was frustrating, because you feel like you need to know every thing right away. And that’s not how it works. After graduation I thought about a handful of careers—maybe a CPA or a financial analyst—well I ended up working at a photography store. I loved photography and always enjoyed things more on the creative side. So I pursued that for a while. And then I thought I’d try again to be a poet. Only, this time, I thought I’d attempt to make it funny.
So were you always that funny kid?
Growing up, I don’t think I was ever funny. I was never the class clown or the comedian of the family… I was just me, Jerry. When I was in grade school my mom let me pick out a name just so it’d be easier for people to pronounce. I chose Jerry— as in the mouse from Tom & Jerry. I really liked the show and I thought it worked well! And it did, until a few grades later, in walks this other guy named Jerry Wang. Seriously. And so that’s when I embraced Sheng…
Can you describe Sheng today? Just throw out a few words?
2) Fancy… Ooh, but 3) casual.
4) Um, human?
5) And Hungry. Like, yes, gastro-intestinally, but also intellectually.
**Dear Sheng: Is that really a word?
I imagine developing new material can be a hefty intellectual process. With everyday experiences are you simultaneously thinking Oh this would be really funny, or is it an after-thought?
Definitely a combination there. Normally the stuff I do on a regular basis isn’t very obvious. They’re not typically things you immediately see humor in. And that’s kind of something that I find difficult about the job. You never know when you’re not working. I used to always carry around a pad of paper and a pen, just to jot things down and come back to when I’m trying to transform these regular experiences into comedy. Now I feel like I do just about everything on my phone, but I’m still always taking notes. And I try to schedule in writing time every day.
So then you take all these developed ideas to a room of strangers who either laugh or awkwardly stare you down on stage. What do you do when it’s the latter?
Oh man that happens all the time. That’s just stand-up. Actually, last night I didn’t connect with my audience. I don’t know if it was that they didn’t know my language, or I didn’t know theirs… Sometimes there’s just that disconnect.
Then what makes an especially good show for you?
The best performances are when I’m trying out new material. When you get used to telling the same jokes, the most rewarding part of the job is making a new adjustment. They’re small creations that sometimes make all the difference and can just kill the audience. It’s creativity.
Well we’re excited to see what you’ve created for Northern Michigan this weekend! After Traverse City’s Winter Comedy Arts wraps up, what next?
I’ll be heading back to New York after this weekend. I’ve been traveling all around for years, and that’s great, but now I think I’d like to spend some time where I pay rent.