Leland Cheuk has a reputation for being funny. Damn funny. So it’s no surprise perhaps that his new darkly comedic novel, No Good Very Bad Asian, takes an immersive leap into the life of a stand-up comic during the early 2000s. A Brooklyn literary darling and the founder of indie press 7.13 Books, Cheuk juggles writing with championing the voices of writers who might have otherwise been overlooked by the literary spotlight. With several books out in the past few years, including The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong and Letters from Dinosaurs, it can be hard to pin him down.
I first met Leland at a reading at LOST LIT in Brooklyn, where he advised the audience to be “good literary citizens.” By this he meant: Don’t just self-promote but also help other writers out, buy local authors’ books, read, write book reviews, and support one another. These words of wisdom helped me embrace and become a larger player in my local literary community, and they continue to remind me that when we support the creation of literature, everyone wins.
I recently spoke with Cheuk about his experiences performing as a stand-up comic, Asian stereotypes and brutal parenting styles, and how the #MeToo movement has impacted the comedy world.
The Rumpus: I was really interested in the stand-up comedy aspect of the book, and knew that you had once briefly done stand-up. Then I read your Lit Hub essay and wanted to know: Did you only get involved in doing stand-up as research for your book? Did you ever entertain any ideas of trying to be a comic?
Leland Cheuk: I never entertained any ideas of being a stand-up comic; I had only wanted to do research. But once I got into it, I had a little bit of success. People were receptive to my act, my persona, and my jokes. I really liked writing jokes, making people laugh, and hanging out with comics. Probably a year or two into it, I was like, This is fun! I’m having a really good time, and I could do this more. But then, age hit, and then I got sick, and it just became more demanding. The more you try to look for stage time, the more you’re not home at night with your spouse, and I had a day job. In 2013, I got sick, and that made the decision for me. I wasn’t going to do open mics while getting a bone marrow transplant.
Rumpus: What was your most popular joke?
Cheuk: I put it in the book! I usually opened my set with the joke that my parents came to America from China for a better life, but now that China’s better than the US at everything, I guess they made a big mistake! That always started off a set well.
Rumpus: So leading with the Asian American identity was the way to go?
Cheuk: I remember that when I first started telling that joke, it was in the middle of the set. One of my comedy teachers at the comedy club said, “Move that joke up to the top of the set,” and that’s when my sets started to kill. Pretty weird, right?
But it’s a joke that addresses what the audience sees. The comic is on the audience’s side. That’s part of the reason that it works.
Rumpus: Do you think that there’s a stereotype that Asians are not seen as funny? So if you’re in comedy and you’re Asian, you have to work to topple that impression?
Cheuk: I feel like there’s more or less a blank slate when you see an Asian guy like me on stage, because I’m very average looking. I’m average height, average build, and I don’t think people see Funny Man. People think, Doctor? Businessperson? IT? Coder? You’re kind of starting from a place where you have no assumptions to work from. I don’t have many defining physical characteristics like being overweight or super tall.
Rumpus: Okay, so thinking about Asian stereotypes in the Asian world, I just saw the Aziz Ansari special and he talked about the “woke white person” meter—
Cheuk: Yeah, Aziz is problematic, but that bit was super funny.
Rumpus: I want to discuss the problematic stuff, too, but first I want to ask you about your thoughts on comedy and political correctness. Where do concerns of political correctness fit in when writing jokes?
Cheuk: I think a lot of what the stereotype issue is really about is whether something is cliché. If you joke about Asians liking math, that’s been done a gazillion times. In some ways, it’s offensive because it’s been done so many times and people are sick of hearing that. While there are alt-right folks who are battling PC culture for other reasons, for comedians, it should be, Let’s make up something new! There’s a period in the book where Sirius is inebriated and doing a lot of drugs, and resorts to making jokes that are stereotypes.
Rumpus: But ultimately on his “No Good Very Bad Asian” tour, it sounds like Sirius is trying to transcend the stereotype.
Cheuk: He tries. That’s the goal.
Rumpus: Talk to me about how you feel about Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K. I’m curious about your thoughts about how the #MeToo movement has affected comedy in particular, since comedy can be focused on tackling taboos and playing with issues in fairly edgy ways.
Cheuk: I think every comic wants to be able to tell any joke that they could ever think of. That’s the artistic ideal. Realistically, I don’t know if that’s viable. In writing, it’s similar. Maybe you want to write the most experimental wild thing ever, but then people have to read it. It’s about communication.
With Aziz and Louis, and whoever else, it becomes problematic when you look at the recognition of what the audience sees. With Louis, people are distracted because they are thinking about what happened. So he needs to take that feedback, incorporate it into his persona, and I think people are waiting for him to comment on what happened. Do twenty minutes of jokes on what happened from his perspective.
Same with Aziz. In that special, he doesn’t really address it. He does a few little bits, but he doesn’t address it in any sort of in-depth way. I think that we’re just waiting for these guys to process and realize that what they did offstage has become part of their persona, and the audience is seeing that persona on stage. These guys can’t just ignore it, because it’s part of their persona now, like it or not.
Rumpus: With Aziz, I thought he was mostly commenting on being a victim of a #MeToo accusation that really affected his career. Okay, so fine. But I kept wondering if he was going to acknowledge that something happened to prompt said accusation.
Cheuk: Yeah. He said he felt bad about it, but he didn’t say why. What a comic opportunity it was for him to address this from an original way. He could have addressed this situation from his perspective, in a way that was empathetic to that audience—all his fans—and even to people who see him as problematic. To comment on it and make them laugh. And he missed it.
There are all these comedic moments—like Tig Notaro right after she was diagnosed with breast cancer— to really respond to reality. And Louis and Aziz still have that opportunity.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s change gears and talk about your title and what it means to be a “no good, very bad” Asian. Do you think that Asian Americans have more normativity than other groups? Like being a “good” Asian, does that stem from family, as in being a “good” son?
Cheuk: Yeah, I think that was what I was trying to get at. It’s a class issue, too. As in, the definition of being a good or bad Asian differs depending on what class you’re in. If you’re poor, maybe being a good Asian is taking over the family business. In the book, Sirius is basically expected to take over the liquor store. If you’re growing up fairly privileged, then maybe it’s about going to college. Getting a white collar job. It’s defined both by Asian and the “dominant” white culture. A good Asian is a doctor! An engineer! A bad Asian is the one that’s seeking asylum, apparently.
Rumpus: Apparently. What were you thinking about Asian stereotypes as you wrote this?
Cheuk: I was really just trying to humanize what it feels like to be caught between two cultures, caught between two worlds. And accepting that Sirius never finds peace with that. I don’t know if I’ve necessarily found peace with it either. [Laughs]
Rumpus: This could be the heart of the imaginary, one-hour comedy special, “No Good Very Bad Asian tour.” I want to ask you about the family in the book. They’re so brutal to Sirius. What were you hoping to convey to American readers—Asian and non-Asian alike?
Cheuk: They are brutal by white standards. I feel like with Asian people, they’re like, yeah, I’ve heard that. I’m reading Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang, and it has all of these extremely brutal things that parents say to their children. And I really recognized that.
A part of it is that Sirius is born American, and his parents seem very harsh to him. But in the parents’ mind, what they’re saying isn’t that harsh. It’s comparatively light, compared to what they received from their parents. So there’s a cultural gap there.
Rumpus: What was your experience like with your family as you were becoming a writer?
Cheuk: They were extremely unsupportive for a long time. [Laughs]
But it’s actually changed a lot in recent years, surprisingly. When my first book came out, I didn’t invite my parents to any of the readings, not even in San Francisco. My mom was so terrible about me going back to school for my MFA (a low-residency MFA at that) that I didn’t invite her to the graduation. She said, “Why didn’t you invite me?” And I said, “You never supported me.”
But it’s gotten a lot better. My first book came out in China, and my whole family was there. This time around, I’m doing readings, and I will invite them. Actually, my dad had a big part in passing my book to people until it ended up in a Chinese translator’s hands. They’ve become much more supportive. Part of it was that my grandfather was a writer, and he passed away a few years ago. Then I had cancer, and there was a moment when it became clear, maybe we shouldn’t be barking at each other anymore.
Rumpus: Because there are bigger things to worry about?
Cheuk: My mom says now, “Don’t work too hard on your books. Stay healthy.” As opposed to, ten years ago, it was like, “Go make money now. Stop this silly shit that you’re doing.”
Rumpus: What would you say that the measure for success is for your Asian parents? Is it money, or having books published, or fame in China?
Cheuk: I think it changes over time. When my parents were middle-aged, they wanted to brag about the accomplishments of their kids. Now that they’re entering their seventies, they probably think, “I don’t really care what my friends think, I just want my kids to be around.” Your concerns change as you age. As they do for me as well! As a person, as an artist, my own interests change as well.
Rumpus: So you’re no longer depending on your parents’ blessing to do your art?
Cheuk: Right. In the book, there’s sort of a coming together of parents and Sirius towards the end, although they miss each other as well.
Rumpus: One of my very favorite parts is when Sirius gets sucked into the world of the Comedy Cellar, and then goes on tour and becomes this pop culture celebrity. It felt so immersive, like I was on this whirlwind with the character. How did you get into that world?
Cheuk: Thanks for the nice words. I read a lot of comedians’ memoirs, and learned that a lot of famous comedians started out the way Sirius did. They started very young, at fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen years old. One thing I observed was that stand-up includes all types of people. While it has been quite male-dominated until very recently, it was all different ethnicities, all classes, all levels of education.
A lot of stars tell a very similar story: They started out extremely young, college probably wasn’t high on their list, and did it for ten or more years before getting good, which put them at maybe thirty when they made it big. Like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld. A memoir that I loved is called Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange. He had so much pain and addiction issues that he had to deal with throughout his life, and most of all, this lack of self worth. No matter how much he kills, he still can’t fill the void inside him, and he’s very open about it. It’s a great book. I highly recommend it. I started there. Finding that voice was reading a lot of different memoirs by a lot of different comics, and seeing that their origin stories were similar.
Rumpus: It seems very significant when the main character (born “Hor”) takes on the persona of Sirius Lee. Now he’s going to be this “cool” guy. Do you see this as an essential transformation in stand-up comedy?
Cheuk: Yeah, I’ve seen this in comedy clubs and open mics. When a comic figures out who their persona is, the material starts to really pick up and they do well. They start writing jokes for that persona, writing jokes against that persona, and it’s different for everyone. It’s kind of like finding your voice as a writer. It’s like the early stages of writing, where you’re asking, What am I writing about? Why is it important that I write, why is what I’m writing important? A lot of that is figuring out who you are, and who you want to be on stage. I think comfort is about emanating that on stage, because the audience smells fear. It’s distracting. They’re like, This guy is fearful. You might be telling a joke that’s funny, but the fear takes away from that.
Rumpus: As a writer, is this background in stand-up comedy helpful in some way, like for presenting or packaging yourself? And are there ways that you see doing stand-up as similar to being a writer?
Cheuk: Doing stand-up has definitely helped me give better readings. Having a stage presence, knowing how your material is going to affect your audience, making adjustments on the fly. For any writer who doesn’t feel great about reading, I would highly recommend taking a stand-up class. You’ll definitely start feeling more comfortable around people. You develop an intuition about people. Your persona as a performer is going to be different from who you are at home, who you are at your job, who you are with your spouse or partner, who you are to your friends. When I’m on stage, I know that I’m that person. It’s like when you’re writing a book, you have to know what it is and what it’s not. Like this book—it has serious parts, but it’s not a historical tome, full of misery and injustice. It’s a funny book.
Rumpus: How has running a small press affected the way you see the publishing process?
Cheuk: You gotta play the long game. For me, I don’t worry about whether my book is selling. And I tell my authors: “I’ll only tell you if you ask. But whatever the number it is, it will be disappointing. It could be 100,001 books, and you’ll still be disappointed, because it could always be more.” That’s just the nature of writing. I think especially in your twenties and thirties, your first book comes out, and you think everything will be about that first book. But hopefully this is your first book of eight or nine, the beginning of a long career as a writer.
Submitting a book is always painful. This book was out for a year, and got a bunch of rejections. But running a press and being in the small press world, I’ve realized that it all aggregates. It doesn’t disappear. I’ve definitely seen an uptick in the opportunities that have come my way in the past few years, after publishing a few books. If you publish with a small press, you’re not going to sell tens of thousands of copies. But with just the accumulation of being in the game and publishing work, good things will happen over time.
Photograph of Leland Cheuk by Lisa Kristel.