A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Danny Cho
Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I grew up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, where I was the only Asian family there. So, up until the end of middle school, I was part of the minority. Then in high school—my parents basically said, you need to go to a better high school because you’re not going to have a better future if you go to a high school in this area—so I went to a high school in the suburbs of South Pasadena. I went on to UCLA, and graduated with an international economics major and an accounting minor. So, that’s kind of my educational background. When I was a kid, there was this comedy series called "Deaf Comedy Jam." It was on HBO, and the kids would illegally record it and share the tapes around. Back then, "Deaf Comedy Jam" was a huge thing. A lot of stars broke out of there, like Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac. It was all the Black comics, actually. I didn’t even know this was a thing. Like, people do this for a living. People make money doing this. I think for me, growing up in East L.A., there was a juxtaposition of being the only Asian kid in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. I learned the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, which doesn’t make sense, but they taught it. During recess, kids would do “Yo’ Mama” jokes, and we would basically just trash each other’s mothers. I think that was kind of the gym for me in terms of learning how to be funny or mean, or both, really.
How did you get into stand-up comedy?
Basically, the summer between high school and college, my friends dared me to do stand-up comedy. Even after I graduated and got a job at a consulting firm, I was doing stand-up part-time. I would leave the office, go to the comedy club, tell jokes, then come back to the office and finish work. I did that for three years. Then I decided—well, not just me—there were a handful of people who convinced me to quit my job to pursue stand-up comedy full-time. Number one was a comedian named Bobby Lee. Bobby Lee goes, “Hey, I need someone fat and weird looking on set tomorrow.” So instead of getting angry, I said, “What time do you need me there, buddy?” So, I get on set, and in between takes, he’s like, “Hey, man, do you have an agent?” He goes, “There’s two types of people that get famous on TV. Really good looking people and fucking mutants. And you, my friend, look like a mutant. You’re weird looking and you look like a human thumb.” On the spot, he calls an agent. He goes, “Hey, there’s this kid. He’s hilarious. He looks weird, he’s perfect.” And, the next day, I go to the agent’s office. No headshot, no resume, nothing. They signed me right on the spot. I quit my stable, high-paying salary job to become a person who tells dirty jokes. But, the high you get from performing in front of a live audience, them giving you that energy, you’re chasing that high. You know what I mean? It’s like a high that you’re going to continue to chase. I feel like I’m fully addicted to that feeling.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
I’m an asshole. I’m a jerk on stage, really. You know what I mean? I’m pretty filthy on stage. I’m pretty blue. So that’s also culturally shocking to be like, why is he talking about that on stage? In English, I’m not that dirty anymore, but in Korean, I just do it just to show it’s possible that there is this type of stand-up too. In the beginning, there’s going to be a lot of pushback because people are not familiar with it. But, the idea of stand-up doesn’t always have to be political. It doesn’t always have to be smart. It doesn’t always have to be dirty. There’s a variety of styles and genres of stand-up. So, it’s just me wanting to show people that it can work. And, it’s been working so far.
How do you deal with tough crowds?
In the beginning, if there were a hundred people in the audience, I wanted all of them to like me. But, as you do it for a long time, you realize that’s impossible. That’s just life. All I can do is be myself if I bomb. I’m not going to try too hard to not bomb. There’s a comedian, Patrice O’Neal who died many years ago, and one of his philosophies was, “I’m not going to die alone. We’re all going to die together in this experience.” He makes bombing worse so that everyone feels uncomfortable. There’s something admirable about that philosophy. I try to do that now and again, especially in Korea, where dirty jokes aren’t always everybody’s cup of tea. Once I venture into that, I can see people pull back, and sometimes I’ll attack them. I’ll be like, how do you think you got here? Like, do you think some magical bird dropped you off at your parents’ doorstep? The way you got here is because of what I’m talking about right now. Personally, stand-up is kind of like omakase. You eat what I make. If you can’t eat it, don’t eat it.
How does Korean comedy differ from American comedy?
In Korea, the concept of comedy, it’s usually more slapstick-y. I wouldn’t even say SNL, I would say more high school talent show improv. I personally don’t think it’s any good. I think most consumers in Korea go, oh, that’s what comedy is. There’s a lot of props, a lot of makeup, costume changes, things like that. I think that’s the number one thing people probably don’t get [about American comedy]. They’re like, “Wait, so let me get this straight. All you have is a microphone. You’re not going to get dressed, you’re not going to put on makeup or a funny wig. You’re just going to talk?” I’m like, “yeah, that’s what that is.” But, I think because a lot of people watch Netflix here and stuff like that, the sound of comedy exists, and they know that it exists. Even on YouTube, there’s a lot of people that subtitle stand-up comedy bits.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming comedians?
Don’t do it. It’s hard. It just sucks. I would not consider myself an actor by any means, but I’ve been in a bunch of commercials, I’ve been in movies and sitcoms and whatever, and it’s a rough business. My only advice is: you better really want it, because if not, all the hardships are going to really kick your ass. It’s going to kick your ass if you don’t love it—and even if you love it. People will say, for example, “Oh, my god, that’s like one day of work and you make $30,000. That’s amazing.” That’s not including how many auditions you failed, you know what I mean? That’s not including all that other stuff, the callbacks, all that stuff. So to me, the entertainment business as a whole is filled with so many talented people, you know? Nothing in this world is a meritocracy. Just because you think you’re good doesn’t mean that you deserve it. That’s something that I had to learn the hard way. That’s what I would tell aspiring entertainers: you’re going to get your ass kicked a lot in this business. Also, I would say be you. You know what I mean? Draw some lines, stuff that you wouldn’t do. Don’t do it just to get famous. Don’t do any of this just to get famous. Do it because you love it. It has to be love. If it’s just to get famous, then get the fuck out of here.
What would you tell your younger self?
Don’t drink like that. I would tell my younger self: it’s kind of like being at the DMV or a deli line that’s fucked up. Your number is eventually going to be called. It’s just a matter of when. It’s a matter of "are you willing to stick it out till your number is called?" There’s no order. It’s like 1 and then 350, and so you go, wait what about me? I’m 10. I thought I was nine people back. But no. There are people who get their break early and there are people, like Morgan Freeman, who didn’t get his big break until he was in his late 50s. I would say "don’t give up" or those types of things. And, yes, I believe it. If you love it, stick with it. Oh, one more thing. Younger self—read some more books.