A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Keyser Nguyen
The Universal Asian got to know Keyser Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Jewish comedian and producer.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was it like?
I grew up in Long Beach, California. It was a great place to grow up—a lot of beaches, bonfires, and, you know, house parties. There’s a very good sense of community here. I did a lot of activities growing up: skateboarding, surfing, skim boarding, etc.—a lot of that stuff. Now, my background’s a little funky. I came over here from Vietnam with my family, and when I was 15, I left home. I worked full-time when I was 15. I was, well, people would say “homeless,” but I was jumping from home to home and living out of my truck at the time. Then, when I was 16, I was taken in by a Jewish family.
How did you get into comedy?
I was actually doing some non-profit work in Arizona, and I met Hannibal Buress’s sister. I’d been a comedy fan for my entire life. My influences were Dave Attell, David Cross, and the biggest impact was Dave Chappelle with "Killin’ Them Softly." So, I met Hannibal Buress’s sister, and she basically took me to his show in Phoenix, and I got to hang out with him backstage for a long time. I wasn’t a comedian back then. We were just talking about the non-profit stuff we were working on, and then, as I was leaving, I was like: “What do you think about me doing stand-up?” I remember he told me: “You know, I used to do open mics back in the day, and there would be about 50 people there, and 49 would just not be there. So it’s kind of like, if those statistics scare you, then it’s probably not for you. If you start comedy in spite of those statistics, then you’re probably made for it.”
How would you describe your sense of humor?
I’m very sarcastic. I like a lot of history jokes. I like the cultural dynamics, you know, the compare and contrast being born into a Vietnamese family and then growing up in a Jewish family. It’s very fascinating to me, and I’m sure it’s fascinating to other people too, but I kind of have the inside scoop on it. Because I’ve lived it and that’s all I know, it’s second nature to me. So, my comedy is very adaptive, it’s very dialogue-based. It’s me explaining my life experiences from the viewpoint of a Vietnamese Jew.
Do you pull your material from your life or the world around you?
Oh, definitely my life. I’m just an observer and participant of the world. Everything comes from me, even observations would tie back to me, and how I feel about it. “The world is burning! And I love it.” You know what I mean? My most passionate stories and topics have to do with things that have happened to me.
What is your favorite part about being a comedian?
My favorite part about being a comedian is having an outlet to express how you feel about things. It’s very dynamic. Even in today’s environment and constraints, I feel there’s a lot of bandwidth for you to let out your feelings, your observations, and your thoughts. I think that’s one of the best parts of comedy, and I think the connection with the audience is almost everything. When you make it personal and you’re talking to the audience, it’s like a monologue masked as a dialogue, right? Because you’re up there by yourself, but you’re talking in dialogue form to the audience. That’s really what amazes me.
The worst part of comedy is—and I generally avoid it—is the cutthroat nature of the business. I understand it because I’ve been in the business for a very long time, so I don’t shy away from it, but I see the effect it has on other comedians.
How do you deal with tough crowds?
I look at it as a challenge. I think every crowd is a learning experience. Preparation is very important. A lot of people don’t even talk about that, but if you’re going on the road, you really want to understand who the audience is, how they look at things, and their viewpoints on the world. You cater your conversation to them in a way that opens up that dialogue, and then they can relate to what you’re saying.
How much does your identity as an Asian Jew influence your comedy?
It’s everything. It’s an opportunity for me to tell the audience about my experiences that they generally wouldn’t get anywhere else. I mean, everyone has hardships; I do not think mine are unique or worse than anybody else’s, but they are different. It’s made it very confusing, and my job is to make it less confusing and make light of it. So, it’s affected everything, from the material I write, to how I dress, to how I approach comedy.
What are your proudest achievements so far?
I definitely think what we’re building with Electric Comedy is one of them. Just to give you a little background: we’re a media and comedy production company. So, we produce live shows; we also produce branded content, and we’re pushing the boundaries of technology when it comes to how a comedy show should be produced. All our live shows have an element of online digital streaming. We’re basically taking the best practices from other industries and applying them to a very archaic system in the industry of comedy and entertainment. I believe it’s the future. It’s additive; it’s not that we’re changing live comedy; we’re just adding elements on top of it and making it more accessible.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming comedians now?
Number one: learn the business side. It may be as, or more important, than being funny. Number two: just be respectful to everybody. It’s not a competition. It’s not a race. It’s only a competition versus yourself. Be professional, don’t burn bridges. Just be a kind human being.
If you could travel back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
I would just tell him: “You’re doing great. Don’t worry, you’re doing great.” People think life is this complicated thing, but you know what complicates it? You. People over-analyze and over-complicate things all the time. I’ve dealt with lifelong, chronic anxiety, and many times you think about the core issues there, and it’s like: “Wait, why am I even worried about that?” And, many times you just have to stop and give yourself credit for being resilient, for just being present.