Phil Wang, the stand-up comic you may recall for his viral video spoofing a Tom Hiddleston advert, has been baring his soul, or at least some of it, in his new book Sidesplitter.
Wang, 31, whose TV credits include Live at the Apollo, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, and Taskmaster, insists it isn’t a memoir because his life isn’t worthy of one.
“I haven’t escaped a gulag or revolutionised an industry,” he says, adding that memoirs are already a “saturated market.”
What he really discusses in his essay collection is the impact of being mixed-race, of being “from two worlds at once.”
Sidesplitter, despite its serious moments, is eloquently laced with laughs and bittersweet observations.
When his mother, a white British archaeologist, volunteered in Malaysia, she met his father, a Chinese-Malaysian civil engineer.
Wang grew up in Borneo with his two sisters, surrounded by family and amazing food (and humidity, which he despises), until his family relocated to the United Kingdom when he was 16.
So he’s experienced the pitfalls and delights of both cultures and delves deeply into them in his book, which includes themes such as family, food, race, words, comedy, love, and history. He investigates how being mixed-race “can complicate these aspects of one’s life.”
The idea of segmenting his book appealed to him enormously.
“I like George Orwell’s essays and stuff like that,” he says, “and I like a book of essays.” “I believe it is appropriate for my attention span as well.”
But when it comes to discussing being mixed-race, he’s a real jerk.
He says that having mixed ancestors is a “great way to feel foreign wherever you are,” because he never felt completely at home in either Malaysia or the United Kingdom.
This dissonance, he explains, can lead to feelings of isolation, adding that “every Eurasian person I’ve ever seen sings with loneliness.”
Is this why he became a stand-up comedian after graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in engineering?
“Certainly,” he says. “I don’t think I’d be a comedian if I wasn’t mixed-race.”
He was initially drawn to stand-up comedy because it was “about combating loneliness and telling people that I had value and that I was good crack.”
He also liked it because, as someone who suffers from social anxiety, comedy provided him with the necessary platform.
“There’s this formalised format – you go up, it’s your turn to speak, to teach. It’s fantastic to have this structured scenario where I can say things and be heard.
“I know that sounds egotistical, but it’s more or less a social anxiety thing,” he adds, just in case he was sounding too lofty.
Stand-up as therapy
“When I’m with a group of people. “It’s difficult for me to say anything because I always assume people don’t want to hear from me.” However, if you’re on stage in a stand-up gig, there’s a presumption that people are there to hear from you. So that’s always been easier for me.”
Wang clearly uses stand-up as a form of therapy.
Fellow comic Adam Hills once likened doing a stand-up routine to having a “cleansing vomit”. Wang responds to this colourful concept, saying: “It is, I guess, an unpleasant image, but it’s not completely wrong.”
He says that for him, live comedy “has helped me get over really painful periods of my life by talking about it on stage”.
“When I was a student, I had a really bad break-up near the end of my time at university, and I wrote a set about it.” “And I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me.” I honestly don’t know how other people manage without standing.”
“Stand-up is definitely a form of self-therapy,” he adds. It’s like doing yoga for your mind and soul.”
Wang, who is currently touring across the country, is clearly at ease on stage, as evidenced by his recent Netflix recording of a performance at the London Palladium, titled Philly Philly. Wang Wang observed him riffing from topic to topic with apparent ease.
He had to deliver the show to a semi-full audience of people wearing black face masks, which isn’t necessarily a recipe for hilarity, during the summer, with a slight loosening of lockdown.
Wang freely admits that the “best comedy environment” is “a little uncomfortable and claustrophobic,” with “people squished up.”
“But I think the sense of occasion on the night, as well as the general sense of relief at being back in a theatre,” he says of that particular gig.
Food is something Wang enjoys talking about a lot. Much of his book is a love letter to Malaysian culture and cuisine, with the tagline “Malaysians eat the way Brits drink.”
He recalls being horrified by “limp and tasteless cold, white, unseasoned pieces of chicken lying on a large platter” at a birthday bash in Wolverhampton, having grown up on foods such as laksa, which he describes as “Chinese noodles in a broth of Indian curry spices, brought to life with the pungent twist of Malay sambal (a fermented shrimp paste).”
Growing up in Malaysia, he was “introduced to all these different flavours and different possibilities for what food can be,” which he considers to be a significant advantage of being mixed-race.
“A lot of times, people who grow up to be picky eaters simply weren’t exposed to different foods at a young age,” he says.
“So being exposed to such a diverse range of flavours and foods is a distinct advantage.”
He does, however, enjoy British cooked breakfasts and desserts, which he considers to be far superior to Asian puddings, which he describes as “terrifying nonsense” such as “buns filled with red bean paste.”
And what about another pet subject of his – Loki star Tom Hiddleston? He tried, unsuccessfully to put him into Room 101, and the viral video he made spoofing Hiddleston’s Japanese advert in 2019 (which carries a language warning), has now had 6.6m views online.
“I’ve been told he saw the video and thought it was funny,” he says. “He takes himself seriously on many levels, or appears to, but you can’t help but laugh.” “In the video, I’m not really making fun of him; it’s more of a game with a strange advertisement,” he adds.
Although some of Hiddleston’s many fans were outraged by Wang’s remarks on Room 101, in which he described the actor as “someone who’s been told his whole life that he’s wonderful,” the comic said no one seemed to mind the video.
Is he aware that Hiddleston finds him equally vexing?
“I really hope so,” Wang replies.
Despite the laughter, Wang does strike a serious note when he says he hopes his book, which describes Malaysia in stunning detail and is steeped in childhood nostalgia, will give people a sense of what it’s really like there.
“It’s a country that is frequently overlooked,” he says.
“I also hope that people hear about a perspective that they don’t normally hear about, which is a mixed-race perspective,” he adds. “Additionally, for mixed-race people to read a book about them, because there aren’t many.”
“However, it is also for non-mixed-race people to be introduced to a different life experience that is becoming more common.”
Sidesplitter: How to be from Two Worlds at Once is published by Hodder on 16 September.