A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Paul Kim
The Universal Asian got to know Paul Kim, a talented comedian who is also a writer, producer, and founder and director of several non-profits.
Tell us about yourself.
My name’s Paul Kim. My friends call me PK because I’m a preacher’s kid. My dad had a big church—like 3,000 people. I’m the last of five. I have two older brothers and two older sisters; they’re all two years apart. I’m the fifth; I’m an accident—pretty obvious—because I’m 10 years apart. My parents are really conservative, religious, and strict. I grew up in Burbank, California, and at that time it was almost all white. I was one of the few Asian kids, and that really shaped me because all the kids would make fun of me.
How did you get into comedy?
Growing up, I would always watch stand-up comedy. It was something I always wanted to do, but my parents were super strict so when there was this Eddie Murphy "Delirious" tape that kids were passing around, I remember I had it for a night and it changed my life. I just remember listening to it—it was really vulgar—but I just remember being like: “Oh my God, I want to do that.” So I’ve been pursuing that for the past 15 years. I’m nowhere where I want to be, but it’s been an amazing journey.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
I would say like Conan O’Brien’s—self-deprecating, sometimes sarcastic, satire, and observational. There’s a lot of New York-style comedy where you call a person out in the audience and it can be kind of mean—I’m definitely not that type. Some people are really good at roasting people, but yeah that’s not my type. I don’t know, I think part of my family, the culture—because I’m a preacher’s kid—you’re just never supposed to do that; you know, put other people down.
What is your favorite part about being a comedian?
When you get a genuine laugh. Like not when your friends laugh in the audience, but a stranger you’ve never met. You can just tell they’re really, genuinely cracking up. Sometimes they snort, you know, and that’s when you know it’s genuine. Then you know that you’ve connected, and you’ve helped them forget about their problems for a minute. I think that’s very rewarding. They say that the shortest distance between two people is laughter, and I believe that, because I’ve experienced it with strangers.
It’s the bombing. Everyone’s gonna bomb, you know? It feels like you asked an entire group of people to dance with you, and they said no. I’ve experienced, in my single days, asking a girl out and being rejected, or asking a girl for her number—and that’s what it feels like when you do a joke and it doesn’t work. You’re like: “Wow, I really thought that was funny when I was writing that in my room,” and the truth hits you in the face. Silence is louder than words. I’ve talked with a lot of other comedians too, where you have nights where they’re amazing and nights where they’re bad. You drive home in complete silence—no music—just staring at the road and thinking about your set. You know you have a good set when your friends are like, “Hey, that was really funny,” but you know you have a bad set when people come up to you and are like: “Hey…that takes a lot of balls, man…that was really brave, you really took chances.”
How do you deal with tough crowds?
You definitely have to have your energy up, like way more than they are. Some people are going through personal issues; you have no idea. Even a crowd of just a few hundred people, there are hundreds of different family issues going on. You know what I’m saying? There are so many issues that people are worried, stressed out about, so to snap them out of it, the first joke is really important. The first impression is really important. You just cannot come out douchey. If your first joke comes off as: “Oh this guy’s just trying to get famous,” then you just see arms folded everywhere.
Do you think comedy should be political? Why or why not?
I think if the person is well-versed, well-read, then yeah of course. Personally, I’m liberal. I love The Daily Show; I’m friends with Ronny Chieng; opened for Trevor Noah—that whole crew. I love that style of comedy. I also love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but I also know some comedians that aren’t good at it, so maybe they shouldn’t. So for me, I don’t like doing political comedy because I just get too emotionally invested in it. Next thing you know, it’s not funny; you’re just arguing. I have a few political jokes, but I just don’t like getting into it too much. It gets me too riled up. I have noticed that the majority of comedians who do political comedy are on the liberal side. There’s something to that—I remember arguing with my friend who’s conservative, and I was like: “Well, why are most of the funny comedians liberal; is it because they speak the truth?” Of course, he got pissed. I can’t really explain that perfectly, but I definitely think there’s something to that—that most comedians are liberal.
What advice do you have for aspiring comedians?
I would say if you’re right out of school and you know this is what you want to do, I wouldn’t waste any time. I would just dive right into it, 100%. Do whatever you can to figure out what you need to budget your life, like the bare minimum of what you need to live off of. Then go to a mic every night. That’s the best way to do it. It’s not the only way to do it, but it’s the best way if you ask me. You have to have that singular focus, like Dave Chappelle. The older you get, the harder it is. You’re fighting with younger people for spots. So if you know, and you’re young, literally take an Excel spreadsheet and budget how much money you need to live off of, and go for it. It’s only going to get harder in your 30s and 40s.
You founded a non-profit and talent show called Kollaboration. How did that start?
I started it when I was 23. I was emceeing these really cheesy Asian shows, and I was like, there’s really no Asian-American talent show—and this was before YouTube. There was no platform, no community show. So, I started one in L.A., in K-town, which is why it’s Kollaboration with a K. For the first year, only 200 people came. Then, the next year 400 people came, then 800, and then 1,200. We put it online and people started forwarding it as email attachments, and I started getting emails from Asians all over the country—14 cities with people wanting to start it in their city. So I flew around everywhere, helped establish it with our staff, and we had an amazing time. We did over a hundred shows across the country. It’s probably the proudest achievement for me, other than being a dad, of course.
You also co-founded Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). What is it about and what inspired you to start it?
In 2004, my friend Adrian Hong, who was at Yale, was always blogging about what’s going on in North Korea. I just remember it was like, why don’t we start a non-profit that raises awareness for this instead of just blogging about this? Because I didn’t even know all these stats he was putting out there. There are a lot of people starving in North Korea; there are people who get captured trying to escape, and are tortured, sometimes executed. It’s bad. The thing is, it’s the government that’s bad, not the 24 million people that are there. They’re just people, citizens, just trying to live. So, we started the non-profit, and in a year—because the college students were amazing—there were 70 chapters across the country. Then Hannah took over—she’s the new director. She really legitimized it, took it to another level. The website, the staff, volunteers, all of the world, to be honest. She, along with the staff, have helped rescue over 1,200 North Korean refugees.
PK Comedy website