By Daniel Herborn

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As he prepares to visit Australia for the Just for Laughs festival, Phil Wang is ready to embrace the silly streak that runs through his mostly thoughtful comedy.

“We’re coming out of a period of great seriousness, and also seriousness in stand-up, comedy and satire,” he says over a Zoom call as he tucks into a bowl of breakfast porridge. “I think people, including myself, are kind of yearning for silliness again.”

The 33-year-old, who is of British and Malaysian heritage, has carved out a reputation for finding fresh angles on the familiar. His stand-up, including Netflix special Philly Philly Wang Wang, has displayed an assured but low-key delivery. But he says sillier means bigger, and with his new show Wang In There, Baby!, he’s started playing around with a more animated style.

Phil Wang loves the challenge of entertaining an audience with nothing but your wit.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“I realised recently that I often look quite serious (when performing),” he says. “I think I’m being very big and silly and letting myself go, but when I look at the footage, it’s just like a normal guy; I’m naturally quite unexpressive.”

Wang was drawn to comedy as a way to circumvent his social awkwardness. “The thing about stand-up is that it gives you a set of parameters and rules,” he says. “It gives you a stage, and a set amount of time to talk, and everyone is expected to listen to you, and then you leave.”

He enjoyed trying to make his classmates laugh at school and began pursuing comedy seriously while studying engineering at Cambridge. He found almost immediate success, winning Chortle’s Student Comedian of the Year in 2010 and heading up the college’s fabled sketch comedy troupe, Footlights.

He’s since gone on to be a regular on UK comedy TV (Live at the Apollo, 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, and a hilarious if unsuccessful season on Taskmasters) and penned a memoir, Sidesplitter, about growing up mixed race and the cultural differences between Malaysia and the United Kingdom.

However, stand-up remains Wang’s first love, and he has found something that always draws him back to the stage. He has written about the “central delusion” that makes comedians tick: an insistence that even when one audience doesn’t find you funny at all, there’s always another chance to redeem yourself in a cascade of laughs with the next crowd.

Wang likens his addiction to doing stand-up to a gambler’s compulsion to keep rolling the dice.

‘I think that’s what comedy is; you always have the chance to lose, and that’s what makes the victories so thrilling.’

“What’s addictive in gambling, what’s thrilling, is the chance of losing, right? Winning all the time isn’t addictive. I think that’s what comedy is; you always have the chance to lose, and that’s what makes the victories so thrilling.”

As for actual gambling, Wang isn’t having a bar of it. “I’m a terrible gambler. I hate risking money. Stand-up is my gambling because I don’t mind risking my self-esteem and well-being; I just don’t like to risk any money.”

While the intricacies of what makes a story or observation funny can be complex and unpredictable, Wang says there’s also an appealing simplicity to stand-up – the challenge of entertaining an audience with nothing but your wit.

“Sometimes when I’m about to go on stage to a room of a thousand people, I think: ‘Am I really just going to stand there, and talk to them on a microphone?’ And, as far as a set goes, I’ve got some banners with my name on them, but I don’t even know if I can take them to Australia. I feel like there should be air gymnasts, and pyrotechnics and things, but no, it’s just me talking. That’s incredible.”

Phil Wang’s ‘Wang in There, Baby!’, part of Just For Laughs, is at Enmore Theatre, November 13

Three other shows not to miss at Just For Laughs Sydney

Catherine Cohen brings a thoroughly modern twist to performing cabaret songs.Credit:

Catherine Cohen

A purveyor of the art of cabaret songs, Cohen brings a thoroughly modern twist to the genre. While she has earned a cult following as an actor (Broad City, What We Do In The Shadows), a podcaster (Seek Treatment) and a poet, her comedy specials remain her apex. She describes her new show Come for Me as “an openly glamorous, decidedly horny musical exploration of what it means to enter your thirties as a woman online.” Previous special, The Twist? She’s Gorgeous, was a wild ride, with Cohen showcasing her powerhouse voice and charismatic stage presence as she delivered line after line of irony laden gold. It all adds up to a perfectly calibrated persona, alternately skewering and celebrating millennial narcissism and oversharing.
Factory Theatre, November 13

Kevin Bridges comes across like your funniest mate telling you tales.Credit:

Kevin Bridges
A true everyman comedian, Bridges comes across like your funniest mate telling you tales and casting an amused but sceptical eye over society in a thick Scottish brogue. It’s been six eventful years since Bridges’ last Australian visit, and he’s gone from strength to strength in that time, cementing his place as both a stadia-filling phenomenon (he racked up a record 35 sold out nights at the Glasgow Hydro) and one of the UK’s most acclaimed comics. His latest special, The Long Overdue Catch-Up, continues with his conversational approach as Bridges reflects on life during a pandemic, how far he’s come from his working-class youth in Clydebank, adjusting to parenthood and life as a thirtysomething and his decision to shun the toxicity of social media.
Sydney Opera House, November 20 and State Theatre, November 21

Geraldine Hickey will host with her warm, gently paced storytelling.Credit:

The Alternative Comedy Show
While the Just for Laughs lineup is full of big-name internationals, there’s also a tremendous local program. Geraldine Hickey, whose warm, gently paced storytelling has few peers, will host this curated night of oddball comedy. Comics on the bill include affable and inventive Kiwi Guy Montgomery and Zoë Coombs Marr, who has created some of the most memorable Australian comedy of the past decade with her multi-layered character work and gleeful love of silly jokes. Also expect memorably dark and paranoid takes from Dan Rath, fast becoming one of our most distinctive comic voices, and Japanese Australian comic Takashi Wakasugi, whose wry stories of cultural differences earned him the Director’s Choice award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Factory Theatre, November 15

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