Comedic Geniuses

Four Asian American jokesters steal the show.

May 1, 2006

Single Asian Male looking for that special someone who enjoys a good physics joke. Has magic fingers.

Chinaman is the alter ego of comedian Mark Britten, who is part white, Filipino and Chinese. Though he’s developed a mighty repertoire of zingy one-liners and edgy wisecracks, he still likes to tell the joke that he came up with in high school when someone asked him if it’s true that Asian men have small genitalia. Turning to his provocateur, he retorted, “I’m half-Chinese … from the waist up.”

Though Britten fixates on his racial identity in his comedy act, he grew up having nothing to do with the Asian community in his hometown of Arlington, TX. “My mom came from overseas, and she said all she wanted was to have American kids,” he says. “She made it a point not to teach us the language. We weren’t even allowed to eat real Chinese food. We would eat hot dog fried rice while she sucked on fish heads.”

Nowadays, Britten is based in Forth Worth, where he lives with his girlfriend and two children, though he’s usually away on a grueling national tour schedule performing with everyone from his idol Bobcat Goldthwaite to Pauly Shore.

The Chinaman act has attracted buzz across the country because it’s volcanic mix of rock-and-roll and juvenile Asian jokes. (And it’s fitting that Britten, 36, has the imposing stature of a nightclub bouncer, forearms that are etched with tattoos, and a fake beaded Fu Manchu that compliments his muttonchops.)

At times, Britten’s Asian jokes can come off like playground taunts or bad T-shirt humor. One of his favorite bits, for example, is the one about his stint in the fictitious boy band, N’Chink: “Yes, that’s right, Woo was in the band,” Britten hollers over the cheering crowd. “And so was his brother, Woo-hoo.” But to Britten, the Chinaman persona is partially about reclaiming his Asian-ness and mostly setting himself apart from other guys in the comedy circuit.

“When you go to a comedy club, nobody remembers your name—they’re drunk,” he explains.

But not everyone gets the joke. In Colorado Springs, CO, local Asian American residents got riled up about what they thought was a racial slur on the marquee advertising Britten’s show. “A lot of Asian people get upset, the old school Asian people,” Britten says. “But if you’re Asian American, you think my act is one of the coolest things.”

“I use Chinaman as a superhero thing,” Britten adds. “It should be pronounced China-Man, like Superman. When I come out on stage and say: ‘Where my ninjas at?’—people love that. How cool is it for some Asian dude to say, ‘Ninjas, please!’”—Neelanjana Banerjee

Brent Weinbach is the type of guy who collects vintage Nintendo games (he’s amassed about 100 pre-1994 titles) and a photo album of fecal matter (we’ll leave it at that). But you’d never know it by looking at him.

With short, graying hair and church mouse demeanor, Weinbach seems more like a substitute-school teacher (which he was) than a stand-out stand-up comedian (which he is). But when he gets on stage, Weinbach’s quirks are on full display.

The transformation begins when Weinbach adopts his trademark performance stance. Clutching the microphone with both hands, he’ll arch his head back like he’s about to let out a mighty roar. Then he’ll launch into one of his best bits—a commentary on certain types on (mainstream) comics.

“Yo, what’s the deal with white people?” He’ll demand with a swagger. “Whenever a black person goes to McDonalds he’s like, “Quarter Pounder, Coke, large fry,” he says. “Whenever a white person goes to McDonalds he’s all, “Hello, my name is Murphy. Do you use real cheese? ‘Cuz I prefer skim.’ ”

Then, with just the turn of his head, Weinbach will adopt a completely different persona: “And I don’t understand black people,” he’ll say primly. “When a white person goes to McDonalds, his order is to the point. When a black person goes to McDonalds, he’s all ‘Ugh! It smells like pussy up in here!’”

By the end of the monologue, it becomes clear that Weinbach has just done an impression of a black comic who’s doing an impression of a white person ordering at McDonalds who’s doing an impression of a black person ordering at McDonalds.

Though he’s dreamed of being a comic since he was a kid growing up in Southern California, Weinbach didn’t start doing stand-up until a comedian friend encouraged him to try out his jokes on stage three years ago. He’s since given up classrooms for clubs and performs regularly . He’s already shared a stage with Dave Chappelle and performed on AZN television’s Asia Street Comedy show, though he says racial humor is not the focus of his act.

“I’m very much not a political person, and it’s frustrating when people think I do race humor,” says Weinbach, who is Filipino and Jewish. He says he’s more interested in using physical movements and ridiculous voices to represent his observations of life.

“Silly and absurd sounds and images speak louder than words,” he says.

—Harry Mok and Rudy Beredo

dr. ken

Dr. Ken—a k a Ken Jeong—is a physician and a comedian. Seriously. Of course, his Korean immigrant parents prefer his work in medicine, which Jeong likes to joke about in his comedy act: “It’s not like Korean parents force you into stand-up,” Jeong says. “Its not like I was like: ‘Daddy when I grow up, I want to be a doctor and save lives,’ and he was like: ‘No, no! You tell joke!’”

Growing up in Greensborough, NC, Jeong was more the student council type than the class clown, and he didn’t even know he was funny until he entered a mock male beauty pageant during his senior year in high school. “I was kind of a chubby kid and we had to do a swimsuit competition,” he says. “I was fearless. I didn’t even know I had it in me. The audience gave me a standing O—it was definitely my Napoleon Dynamite moment.”

After that, Jeong says he was officially smitten with performing. When he went away to college at Duke University, he became active in the campus theater scene. He loved performing so much that even the rigors of medical training didn’t stop Jeong from storming the stage. During medical school, Jeong started doing stand-up as a way to relieve stress. Then, when he started his medical residency in New Orleans, Jeong landed his first professional acting job—a guest spot on the USA Network’s crime-drama The Big Easy. In 1999, when Jeong moved to L.A. to take a job as a doctor, he would hit the comedy clubs at night after a long day of practicing internal medicine. “I have always had a knack for performing, so I just made time for it,” Jeong says of how he managed it all. “It’s my golf.”

In 2001, after a few years of juggling medicine and comedy, Jeong had his break-out moment when he did his stand-up routine in his white coat on The View and he was dubbed, “The Funniest Doctor in America.”

Jeong’s professional life certainly inspires his comedy—he’s got a joke about an annoying hypochondriac and more than a few about women’s personal hygiene—but in the exam room, he’s all business. “I don’t take a quarter out of a patient’s anus or anything,” he says.

For now, Jeong’s main focus is acting, and he recently filmed spots on Damon Wayon’s Showtime sketch comedy show Underground while also performing at L.A. comedy hot spots like The Improv and The Icehouse. Jeong is also featured on the recently released comedy DVD The Kims of Comedy, along with Korean American comics Steve Byrne, Bobby Lee and Kevin Shea.

And though his comedic career continues to blossom, Jeong says he’s already had his proudest performing achievement: Landing a part on NBC’s The Office earlier this year.

“I didn’t even have to do an accent,” he says. “I was so honored.” —Neelanjana Banerjee

Petite and doe-eyed, Rasika Mathur looks like she could have just gotten off the eighth-grade school bus. But then she opens her big, fat mouth.

A rising star in the world of improv comedy, Mathur is known for owning a stage as soon as she unleashes her gut-busting impersonation skills. On Nick Cannon’s MTV hip hop-improv show Wild N’ Out, Mathur, who’s in her mid-20s, has shown off her talents by morphing into Elizabeth Taylor, Yoda and Al Pacino (she stuffed a Twix bar in her mouth, held up the other half, and said in a voice that was a dead ringer for Tony Montana, “Say hello to my lil’ freen!” while crumbs spewed from her mouth).

Comedy hasn’t always been Mathur’s goal—in college she majored in advertising and minored in Japanese—but she’s been attracting attention for her outrageous antics since she was a kid. In eighth grade, she won the Biggest Ham Award for her role as a tongue-chewing game show contestant in a school play. “When I won the show, I jumped on top of the huge kid that was playing the host and I screamed my head off,” Mathur says. “That’s when I really began unleashing sides of myself that no one was privy to.”

But it wasn’t until college that Mathur performed her first comedy show: a South Asian cultural event at the University of Texas, Austin during the late 1990s. “At that time, everyone was like: ‘You can’t just get up there and talk,’” Mathur recalls. “People told me that I was going to get booed off the stage.”

Mathur grabbed the microphone anyway, and launched joke after joke about how she went stag to every high school dance. She ended the monologue by bringing out her latest date, bound and gagged.

After college, Mathur got into the Chicago improv comedy scene where she trained with the famed Second City troupe. Her skills soon led her to their conservatory program where she found herself breaking down ethnic barriers.

“In improv, everyone is pretty white,” Mathur says. “I like that I can help to put improv on the map for Indians.”

When she’s not battling other comics on MTV, Mathur performs in Los Angeles while keeping her day job in advertising, like the good Indian girls she sometimes impersonates on stage. But she’s already dreaming about taking the leap to starring in and writing for her own sitcom.

Muses Mathur, “How cool would it be if, in 15 years, an Indian girl was out there doing impersonations of me?” —Neelanjana Banerjee

Magazine Section: