The Funniest Man In Hong Kong Jami Gong

INJ 15 | Funniest Man In Hong Kong

 

For Jami Gong, the greatest job in the world is making people laugh. Jami is dubbed as The Funniest Man in Hong Kong and is the founder and producer of TakeOut Comedy, the first full-time comedy club in Asia. His first dab at stand-up comedy was a comic competition in Syracuse University during his sophomore year in 1989. He fell in love with standup comedy watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Jami says fate or destiny helped him become who he is today, but watching The Tonight Show helped him realize the power of laughter. Celebrating the comedy club’s eleventh anniversary, Jami takes us through the origin story and shares his secret to crowd work.

Listen to Episode #15 here


 

The Funniest Man In Hong Kong Jami Gong

In this podcast we have Jami Gong as our guest. Jami is the Founder and Producer of TakeOut Comedy located here in Hong Kong. It’s the first full-time comedy club in Asia. He’s been on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, he’s been knighted by the country of Malta and he carried the Olympic torch through lower Manhattan for the 2004 Summer Olympics. Welcome, Jami. First question for you, if you weren’t working as a comedian or as a comedy club manager, what would you be doing?

I will probably kill myself. I believe in destiny. This was what I was meant to be having. I hit the stage for the first time in 1989. I grew up watching The Tonight Show. I believe this was my calling. I’ve told people I’d probably be dead. It’s the greatest job in the world just making people laugh.

I know you have a joke about being an engineer, your parents wanted you to be an engineer.

I entered a comic competition in Syracuse University. My parents wanted us to be the doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers. I was a Civil Engineering Major at Syracuse University. I was on probation my freshman year. I eventually became a geography major. That was my first dab at stand-up comedy, my sophomore year in 1989. I had an engineering joke about how ridiculous these problems were or that they will ask the velocity of a cue ball hitting at an angle of eight degrees in a pool hall. A question comes out, “What is Billy’s social security number?”

INJ 15 | Funniest Man In Hong Kong
Funniest Man In Hong Kong: It’s amazing just to see people laugh.

You and I have somewhat parallel lives. I think we’re about the same age. I was a sophomore. I started out as a Mechanical Engineer, made it one semester and then switched into Psychology. I was at Rutgers University. As a freshman, I drove up to watch Syracuse and Rutgers play football. We might have been at that same game. One difference between the two of us besides you turning out funny and me not, you’re one of six children.

Number three out of six.

I’m number one of two. What was that like and did that have any effect on this one calling?

I’m a dad myself with one child and he have six. I have so much appreciation for my parents and especially for my mother. My parents are divorced. Looking back in hindsight, my mom did everything for us and with the six of us all her concerns were just making sure we ate and survived. She had six kids in ten years when she was 30 to 40, my older sister is ten months older than me. Regarding material, it’s great just to have siblings over there. I remember my youngest sister, we had hoped it will be a boy so that we could emulate the Brady Bunch. I think it was just having fun growing up. Those kids helped me laugh, helped me had a good childhood, and look at the lighter side of things. It indirectly helped me become who I am today.

Are you a little bit of an outsider in your family? Did they turn out to be lawyers and doctors and engineers as planned?

My oldest brother went to Cornell for Biology. He ended up getting a PhD at UCLA. He works for Accenture. My oldest sister became a doctor. She’s an OB-GYN doctor in New York City. I’m a comedian. My three other younger sisters: One’s a teacher, one’s in a tech business and one’s a housewife. I’m proud to say that all six of us went to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, you heard about that in New York City. Two of my nephews and nieces have gone there. We looked it up and I’m pretty sure nobody in history has ever had that many family members in this prestigious high school.

How does someone get into comedy? I know your friends urged you to enter a comedy contest, a stand-up contest, right?

Yes, I’ll tell you one thing. My son Emmett, we made sure he goes to bed at 8:00 PM. My mom didn’t really have strict timelines for us to go to sleep. I liked to sleep late. I was watching The Tonight Show Johnny Carson at 11:30 PM, 11:35 PM, then go to sleep at 12:30 AM. If she was really pushing us to sleep early, I would have missed watching The Tonight Show. That’s how I fell in love with stand-up comedy. I realized what Johnny Carson was doing. Fate or destiny helped me become who I am today. Watching The Tonight Show, it really helped me realize the power of laughter.

I think it’s interesting how much the distribution of comedy has changed. The Tonight Show would launch careers and Carson was a taste-maker. He would invite people back in then they would have opportunities. Television paid attention to what was happening there. You run a comedy club, we’re downstairs. This is the So-ho neighborhood in Hong Kong. How did that happen? What is that like? What’s your day like?

We had hoped to have shows every night when I built this. We just celebrated our 11th anniversary. We were excited over 1,700 shows. We basically built the first full-time comedy club in Asia before we even had comedians. I came here nine times between 2005, 2006 to research. Why hasn’t anyone opened up a full-time comedy club in Asia? There was a comedy club before we came along, we just took it to a whole new level. I was in retail for many years. It’s amazing just to see people laugh. I realized why no one has ever done this before.

From a business standpoint, it’s hard because not only am I a comedian and I run the club, I teach them comedy also. Typically, we have shows, there are reservations and I’m always online. This is a one-man operation. We have minimal budget here. We don’t have a bar, it’s BYOD whatever, bring your own drinks, bring your own food, whatever. I wish you would see a show here because we don’t have a bar and no restaurant. This is a kill room. We just closed a deal, we’re going to bring over Pablo Francisco. He’s going to come here for one show and then he’s going to kill the room over here.

[bctt tweet=”I believe in progression. You got to walk before you run.” via=”no”]

It’s intimate, it’s tight.

We set the conditions for you to succeed. Hong Kong people is a going out city. Through my experience, people are going to be like, “What are you doing tonight? Let’s go to this comic club.” I’ll be starting a lot of messages pretty soon for last minute decisions to come see our show.

What do you seat it in here?

We seat 150 maximum. We already have 70, 80 reservations, which is great. That’s my typical day. I hope people will be booking tickets. I’m fortunate and blessed to have a job where I don’t have to be at the office. The internet changed the world. The smartphones can do so many things on. I’m doing business while I’m taking care of my son.

How do you get comedians? How do you get folks coming over to Asia and to Hong Kong?

Word of mouth. I’ve been doing comedy for a long time, so I already built connections and relationship before I came here. Tom Cotter, America’s Got Talent runner up, he was here. I met him in New York City. I’ve never heard of him before. At a comic club, he walked off stage, I was laughing so hard, I introduced myself. He had no idea of my plans. My intention is to come out here when I was still thinking about it fifteen years ago. It was the sixth time I brought him out here.

Through all these comedians I met years ago, the word of mouth started coming. People want to come out here. They don’t come here for the money, they come in for the experience. That’s priceless. How many people have performed in Hong Kong before? I recently saw a survey in Facebook. We’ve hit about over 100 cities in Asia that have comedy or have had comedy since we started whether it’s Jakarta, Tokyo, Singapore, Malaysia, KL, Shanghai or Beijing. Comedians are coming over and instead of one week in Hong Kong, they do three full weeks touring all of Asia. We’ve created comedy market in an untapped material.

Do you have an average audience member? Are these expats, locals or travelers?

It’s a mix. Some Americans, some Australians, some French, some Italians, some Russians, some German, some Chinese, Chinese people, some local. Singapore has the most diverse comedy audience anywhere. Once or twice a month, we bring over a big act but we have shows every week now. It’s amazing that we still get people to come to our club who don’t even know who Jerry Seinfeld is.

If people who come to our club don’t even know who Jerry Seinfeld is, do you think they would know who Pablo Francisco is? No but because of our reputation through the years, our newsletter and our word of mouth, they come because of the credits. I’m not saying that people aren’t funny but we have someone who was actually funnier than Pablo Francisco. Because they don’t have credits and they’re local and not famous, no one will come.

What’s different about running a comedy club in Hong Kong than running one in the US?

This is still new. We get people who come to our club who still never even heard of the club through word of mouth. I’ve got at least eight, nine phone calls, almost once a year. “Do you have stand-up comedy tonight?” “Yes.” “Will there be chairs? I don’t want to stand around for two hours.” They were serious. We laugh because we know, but to them they don’t have any idea. We’re educating people. We’re taking steps back to move forward.

The first two years we were not called TakeOut Comedy Club. We were called TakeOut Comedy Shop. Why? I get phone calls asking how much the membership is. They think the club is a private club. That’s why these are stuff that I learned through the years. That’s why over here we all laugh but these are small details as a business owner I have to adjust to. Through the years, we used to do improv, we used to do Chinese stand-up, we used to do storytelling. Through the years English stand-up comedy pays the rent.

We’re lucky to survive doing shows only twice a week. Every show to this day, we still ask before the show begins, “Raise your hand. Don’t be shy. Is this your first time watching live, stand-up comedy?” There are always people raising their hands. We found out that people think watching it on TV is the same as live. It’s so different. As a business owner, we’re still trying to convince people to come through the doors. We have local talent, very funny, but because no one’s famous, we won’t sell out.

Why is it called TakeOut?

TakeOut Comedy started initially to help revitalize New York City’s trying times after 9/11. We had a meeting before when I was coming back from Hong Kong with my friends to help bring back Chinatown. One of my good friends, we had to think of a name and the moment he said TakeOut Comedy, I shouted out, “That’s it.” My friend thought of the name, registered it and looked to make sure no one has that name, TakeOutComedy.com. It’s a great name.

Jami, what are you best at?

I long to get on HBO, The Tonight Show with David Letterman. I’m a comic who happens to run a comedy club. I still perform. I still do my best every night, but now I wish our comedians get on those shows. I hope to now accelerate people’s careers, which we have now, it’s wonderful. Our communities, I see them develop, now they’re doing full-time, getting paid and doing corporate gigs, getting famous. It’s wonderful to see them more successful than I will be. That’s my goal now.

You’re an accelerator.

Mentor, whatever you say it. It’s amazing to see comedy grow all over Asia.

INJ 15 | Funniest Man In Hong Kong
Funniest Man In Hong Kong: Nothing is guaranteed. Your material works only 90% of the time.

Do you still perform?

Yes.

Do you have a favorite opener? Do you got something that you do you go to?

In the beginning? I would say I’m from New York City. I would say, “Make some noise, do you love Hong Kong? Is this your first time in Hong Kong? If it’s your first time in Hong Kong, I hope you didn’t do what my cousin did from New York City. It’s her first time ever in Hong Kong visiting and she turns to me and asked me if I could take her to Chinatown.” I haven’t said that in so long that’s why I always forget it. I get a quick laugh almost instantly and then we’re in now.

You can talk about Chinatown.

I don’t do that anymore. I do other stuff through the years evolving. As a comedian, what I teach is the first 30 seconds is when they decide whether they like you or not. You want to get that laugh ASAP and the clock is ticking. I became a better comedian. It’s amazing to not only see a comic progress, I progressed. I’m proud to say that because every comedian’s dream is to progress.

How have you gotten better?

I’m quicker in the stage time, because the first 600 shows, I was on because we didn’t have good enough comedians. I hosted the first 600 shows and now I’m proud and glad to say that our comedians can do 30 minutes or 45 minutes out. I let them host now. I want to perform once a week, just do to stay sharp. Now I don’t have to be on every show anymore. We do shows in other cities. People fly me to other cities to teach. I’m the only one that teaches in Asia to my standard. I performed in Myanmar. How many people do you know have performed in Burma, Myanmar?

You’re the first, I think.

This is again telling you how much this untapped market here is in Asia.

This is a golden age of comedy. You’re a teacher. I’m a teacher, but our worlds are really quite different. When I was working on the Humor Code, I sat in on a stand-up comedy class. Greg Dean I think is his name. It was really fascinating to see the stuff that he was working on. Some of it was incredibly mundane, things like how to hold a mic, how to take the mic out of the stand and stuff that you wouldn’t think needed to be taught. I remember that with him working on crowd work, lessons on how do you do crowd work, and how do you keep that moving and working and practicing that kind of thing.

I teach advanced crowd work for our comedians who have done it a while. I believe in progression. We teach the basics first and once you get it, while we see that you’re good at it, later on we offer a crowd work workshop. You’ve got to walk before you run.

What’s the secret to crowd work?

Reading the room. Crowd work starts before you even get on the stage. Everything that happens before you is intelligence. We do what we call feeling the temperature up before you even go on. I tell people, “If you can do comedy, your public speaking skills go way up, creativity, communication skills, just observations, everything.” That’s why you are super multitasking up there in five minutes. The key also is the show starts before you even go on the stage.

I had a conversation with a Denver comedian, Janae Burris. She was telling me that she scouts the audience, watch the audience, and listen.

What you teach is all psychology. You have to read the psyche of the crowd or individually. They’re reading you, you’re reading them.

Even when I would just play weekend warrior stuff, I would walk the field before a game, just to figure out what the field is like and what the grass is like. Are there holes in certain places? These are municipal fields, watching the other team warm up.

All these things. What day of the week tells you something. Where they sit tells you something. What time they come in tells you something. Who they’re with tells you something. I teach people. The room is empty. Doors open at 8:45 PM. Five people walk in, they seat in the second row. What does that tell you as a comedian? You’re in the back working this.

What does that tell you?

It tells you two things. One, they’ve been here before at a comedy show. They’re okay, we talk to them. Or two, they have no idea. A lot of people who have never been here before, they take the second seat, “Let me get my money’s worth value.” Word of mouth is strong. I’m a comedian myself, so I know how to treat comedians. A lot of comedians have been screwed before, so I make sure they get paid on time. I say what I do and do what I say.

I see you’ve got the official hotel for TakeOut Comedy.

That’s where they stay. We have a hotel sponsor. This is a bare minimum comedy club. We don’t have a bar. We spend everything on the system, and it’s wonderful to see people laugh.

Five years from now? Ten years from now?

Hopefully still doing this place. My priorities have changed also. Before, when I was single, I wanted it really hard to have shows every night. I’m married now. I guess things happen for a reason that’s why I don’t have shows every night. We just have open mics and random shows. We have an upcoming Valentine’s Day show. I’m glad to spend my nights with my son. For our Valentine’s Day show, we charge one price for single and cheaper price for couples. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, we always have and always get the big crowd because it’s going out.

What are you working on these days?

We just closed a deal to bring Pablo Francisco here. It’s great that we’re going to be bringing him to a bigger venue and this club. He’s going to kill this room. I’m still working details on our twelfth annual Hong Kong International Comedy Festival. If you see how our website, TakeOutComedy.com, it’s great that we have so many comedians not only flying over, but also regional comedians coming to do the one-man shows in our club. We were dependent on international comedians coming over here while the local comedians were working on the craft. They’ve got so much better where Netflix has given some of these comedians in Asia the whole special. Comedians in Asia had become stronger now. It was amazing to see leveling out the playing field.

[bctt tweet=”A great comedian is always ready and flexible to whatever happens.” via=”no”]

Do you think that there’s an Asian style to stand-up? Is there a difference?

Just six plus last minute. That’s the gauge. Every show is different. Every crowd is different. What is funny in North Dakota is not necessarily funny in Tallahassee, Florida. You have to localize your bits and that’s why we have people coming in here. American comedians, we prep them all. You can’t be too American, too many American references. That’s why our communities, we’re prepared to go to the States. Intentional communities are coming over here in our Hong Kong committees and committees from Asia.

What I look for when I bring somebody over and my development about comedians is be worldly. Find out what’s going on in CNN. Be general, be worldly. You’re not going to make everybody laugh and not everyone’s going to always get your stuff. Your goal is to make most of the people laugh. A great comedic can make a crowd laugh anywhere, anytime, anyplace because he or she makes the right adaptations.

I think one of the nice things about good comedy is that it notices things, but the audience doesn’t know this. They point it out and then the audience agrees with it. I asked that question in part because are these comedians different things? They have a different culture and a different orientation, a different set of rules that that they were raised with. They’ve learned the strategy, the tactics of being a comedian, but are they making fundamentally different kinds of observations because they’re just approaching the world in a different way?

That’s progression because as a rookie comedian, you have your bits self-deprecating, you make fun of yourself being Chinese, being French, being an American. After a while you’ve got to talk about current events also. For example, North Korea is going to be in the Olympics. I had a new bit that night. The great news is that North Korea is going to be in the Winter Olympics and South Korea has accepted their 500 athletes.

The bad news is that all athletes are in the biathlon. I thought that’s pretty clever. The biathlon is shooting. It’s only shooting. It’s sport. Most people don’t know what biathlon is, so I don’t do it anymore. I also say a bit greedy that North Korea, now they’re trying to get into the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo where they will bring their best 100-meter, one-way sprinters. People get that one more than the other one you’re talking about.

Everyone has their bits that they will work all the time. That’s something I pushed to my advanced comedians. Now we know your stuff, try to localize it and also use current events more so. The audience is smart. They’re going to look on our website to check who’s performing, who’s not performing. It’s a business for me, that’s why I repeat customers are good customers.

I teach customer lifetime value. You need people coming back. When you make your biathlon joke and it doesn’t get laughs, that’s fine if you didn’t get a laugh to that. Do you have a way to manage that though with the audience when you’re on stage?

I have a save in my hand and if that doesn’t work I’ll say, “Now we know the level of audience. Knock, knock,” I would tone it down and get a laugh and move on.

I’ve never heard that. They’re called saves. What’s the traditional save?

A traditional save could be a friend of mine if something doesn’t work out, he’s like, “Come on guys. I laughed when you walked in.” Another traditional save is when no one laughs at your bit, you just knock on the mic and ask, “Is this thing working?” Remember, nothing is guaranteed. Your material works only 90% of the time. A great comedian is always ready and flexible to whatever happens. It’s a live show. Those are the greatest comedians and the experienced ones.

Do you have moments of self-doubt? Did you have moments of what’s going to happen?

It’s different for me because I run a business, I have rent to pay. It’s a different mentality, I have to find that balance between making business decisions and personal decisions. A comedian repeats the same material all the time. I’m not going to book him or her as often. That’s why I continually teach to get fresh blood. Our standards are so high for someone for me to let in our rotation.

Years ago, I wasn’t anybody because that was it. We’ve increased our prices because we have such high standards. That’s why this is so hard for us to do, because you could be a heart surgeon, doing to be a successful comedian. You have to perform in front of a live audience all the time. You cannot perform it from your friends or your family. They’ll laugh at everything that comes out your mouth, but you have to prep for a live audience.

You’re charging $30 US for a ticket. That’s not trivial.

The good news is that you bring your own drinks. People don’t know that. There are other shows around town. I wish it wasn’t BYOB because comedy clubs make money off their drinks. It wasn’t meant to be, it’s not worth it.

You didn’t exactly answer my question though. Do you have self-doubts or you’re confident? Do you lose sleep over this?

I don’t think too much about it. We can’t change the past, you can only change the future. I don’t know whether this club will survive or not, but either way I know I’ll be doing comedy until the day I die. You want that high of making people laugh the first time you go up there and you just destroy a room. I’m watching you and you have an out of body experience.

When you go up there, you could be saying the same thing for months, years. Somehow the crowd was with you. Whatever you say, somehow you made a decision to go this way. You’re talking, you’re enunciating, things are coming out, they’re laughing and everything. You’re thinking, I can’t believe this shit is happening. I’ve seen it happen to our comedians where you walk off and you want to do it again and again. It’s just amazing.

What are you listening to? What are you reading? What are you watching these days that really stands out to you?

INJ 15 | Funniest Man In Hong Kong
How to Win Friends and Influence People

I recommend this to everyone. This book has helped me tremendously. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I read that every year since 1991. Everything they tell you in there, I’ve done on stage in my life. It has helped me tremendously. That’s my Bible.

Is there a certain time of the year when you read it?

Every now and then. It’s in my backpack, that’s my airplane book. It’s just a reminder, to refresh my mind, to smile.

What are some of the lessons?

I have to know people’s names. Avoid arguments if you can. Give them a higher pedestal. Make sure you’re humble. Don’t get them thinking you’re better than the audience. Let them think you’re higher than you. They’ll appreciate that. That’s why I love that book. I also read a lot of Steve Martin’s book, Born Standing Up. I’ll quote him where he says, “Economy is always something happening.” In comedy there’s always something happening.

That’s a really nice book. It’s one of the few books that you read that leaves you wanting more, you only get a taste of his life in that book. This is a tremendously successful, not just a comedian, but person in terms of moving from being the biggest stand-up on earth to moving into television and film. Now he’s on Broadway, playing the banjo and so on. He’s a really fascinating guy.

I was actually in a book, someone called me up years ago. I’m in a book called, Funny Business. They mention about the club when they talked about what’s funny and what’s not funny.

Do you read more than you listen to podcasts?

I listen to this one. I spend all the time with my son. I’m from the eighties and the music I listen to are all from the eighties. I don’t think the music now is to my liking. I still listen to U2, Air Supply and Elton John.

I always finish with this question, what is the secret to success that everybody knows but people have trouble doing?

Off the top of my head, I’m going say relationships. It’s hard to do it by yourself. You need a team. You need people that will help you whether you want it or not. Sometimes you have to let go and designate duties.

Who’s on your team?

I treat my convenience with respect because I’m also a comedian, so I know the other side. They all are very appreciative. Most of them are appreciative of what we’re doing here at this club. I really say we, not I. As a comedy producer, a comedy booker is a thankless job. I tell people I do it for myself. I do every show as if it is my last because sooner or later, this is going to end.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. That’s why a lot of comedians, they tell me if it wasn’t for our club, they wouldn’t be here. Just tell your friends to come see our shows, your relationships, word of mouth, smiling, and treating people with respect. Let me just elaborate that, I read this earlier. A CEO might not know everything. A CEO of a chemical company might not know everything on the periodic table, but he knows how to treat people who do and if they’re successful, you’re successful.

I think what you’re saying this earlier about these comics about elevating the audience. I’m really fascinated by an improv. When people talk about the rules of improv, they always talk about “Yes, and?” I think the really fascinating rule of improv is this notion of we’re all supporting actors. My role is not to shine on stage. My role is to help everybody else to shine on stage.

I like this word, gifting, as a way to really make that a tangible idea. People that get into comedy, they don’t always fit in. They’re clearly not normal. It’s hard to be a good comic and to be completely normal. You have to see the world slightly askew. It does help to be a professional, and I think that that’s something that a lot of comics struggle with. They know they want to live by their own schedule and they want to be edgy and all these kinds of things.

[bctt tweet=”A great comedic can make a crowd laugh anywhere, anytime, anyplace because he or she makes the right adaptations.” via=”no”]

This is a business, you’ve got to show up on time, you’ve got to be nice to the staff, you’ve got to help promote the school. I talked to Chris Mazzilli who runs Gotham. He says exactly the same thing. He says, “Don’t be an asshole. I pay attention. How do you treat the staff? Do you show up on time? I don’t care how funny you are, if you don’t do those things, I’m not going to book you because this is the business.”

If I know they have a bad reputation or assholes, I won’t bring them over here because you’re representing yourself. You can’t get in trouble. This is not an ordinary road trip. Comedy is also a sport, especially hosting. A great host makes him or herself look good but make everybody else better. For example, a host should have a good intelligence. We had a show. This girl, the host asked her name and she said her name is Siemen. She was not lying. We knew that she wasn’t lying, people were laughing. The host could go on and on. He left it at that and gave it to the old comedians. He wasn’t a dick and ate that for another five minutes. Stand-up comedy is an individual and team sport.

Jami, I just want to say thanks so much.

Thank you. It’s great to see comedy grow around the world.

I’m so happy to be able to do this.

One day North Korea maybe.

Maybe.

Resources mentioned:

About Jami Gong

INJ 15 | Funniest Man In Hong KongJami Gong is the founder and producer of Take Out Comedy–located in Hong Kong–the first full-time comedy club in Asia.

 

 

 

 

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