You like multicultural? Joe Nguyen has got multicultural. He’s a native of the Deep South, and a Dominican-German-Vietnamese-American by way of Shanghai. And he’s Jewish.
If that sounds like potential comedy gold, it is, as Nguyen, 26, has emerged as an up-and-comer in the stand-up comedy world. Like many of his fellow Jews, on Christmas this year he’ll be eating Chinese food. In this case, eating and co-headlining at the 18th annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy show.
He joins an all-Jewish lineup that includes Wendy Liebman, Nathan Habib and, as always, Kung Pao’s founder-hostess, Lisa Geduldig. The twice-daily shows run from Dec. 23 to 26 at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
No doubt Nguyen will riff about being a walking one-man ethnic stew. But there’s more to Nguyen’s comedy than Jewish jokes. He’s also a kind of sentry, always on the lookout for life’s stupid little things, delivering his comedy with laconic ease.
Of course, he would never put it that way.
“I find it hard to analyze my thought process and articulate what it is,” he says about his approach to humor. “It is mostly my reaction to a crazy world.”
This is Nguyen’s first shot at Kung Pao, although he has lived in San Francisco for several years and is a regular on the local comedy club circuit. He recalls after first moving here taking note of Kung Pao and thinking it would be perfect for him.
He has played before other Jewish-centric audiences, such as the Jewish Music Festival and a Hillel comedy night. He’s done a few Asian comedy venues as well. He’s even done a benefit for a Vietnamese orphanage.
He’ll go wherever he can to make people laugh.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Nguyen grew up the son of a Vietnamese engineer father and a German-Jewish mother, whose parents fled Nazi-occupied Europe, first to Shanghai and later to the Dominican Republic.
After marrying, the couple moved to Georgia where their son had a normal upbringing … er, right. There was a minimum of Judaism –– a Chanukah candlelighting here, a seder there –– but it wasn’t enough to shelter Nguyen from feeling like the “other.”
“I can feel like an outsider anywhere,” he says. “I grew up in the suburbs, where most people are white or black. In that sense I felt like an outsider, but I wasn’t getting picked on, though one time someone called me a Chinaman.”
Though he says he always made friends and family laugh, Nguyen did not consider comedy as a career until he moved to California, where he first attended Pomona College as a philosophy major.
“All my friends from high school were very smart and very funny people,” he says. “Then in college, my friends weren’t smart or funny. That’s when I realized I enjoyed making people laugh.”
After moving to the Bay Area he attended the San Francisco Comedy College and went straight to the head of the class. “You perform for your peers, students and teachers, who know what they’re talking about,” he says. “You get a lot of feedback.”
That helped him as he transitioned to gigs at real comedy clubs. And though he is quick to acknowledge and honor his unique family background, he says, “I prefer to embody stereotypes and go for cheap laughs.”
As for the Jewish half of Nguyen, he’s growing more interested. Earlier this year he took part in a Birthright trip to Israel. He loved the country almost as much as he did entertaining his peers on the bus. “I do want to go back,” he says. “The trip gave me some good material.”
He’ll no doubt use some of that material at this year’s Kung Pao shows. Perhaps being in a Chinese restaurant with hundreds of fellow Jews throughout Christmas week will draw him closer to his Jewish roots.
He admits he could use it.
“Our tour guide in Israel would say, ‘This is where this or that happened in the Bible,’ and I never knew about it at all. I had to make a mental note: Read that story sometime in my life.”
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy dinner and cocktail shows take place Dec. 23-26 at New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific St., S.F. Tickets: $42-$62. Information: (415) 522-3737 or www.koshercomedy.com.