Phil Wang may be a new face to American audiences, but the British Malaysian performer will likely be familiar to fans of UK comedy, appearing on everything from Taskmaster (one of the most consistently entertaining comedy game shows on air these days) to the short-lived sitcom Top Coppers. Wang released his first-ever Netflix comedy special, Philly Philly Wang Wang, this week, blithely combining his wryness with his affinity for the absurd. Wang hopes it serves as a “winning introduction” that’ll endear him to international comedy fans.
The hour of stand-up was originally meant to be filmed in May 2020, but for obvious reasons the taping had to be pushed back. “Sometimes when I’m feeling self pitying, I think, ‘Why did the pandemic have to hit when I had a special to film? Couldn’t the pandemic have waited three months, just three months?’” Wang muses.
However, he looks at the bright side, continuing, “At the same time, I was able to come up with some stuff during the pandemic about the pandemic. I really like that material and I’m really proud of it. I was able to update the special and make it feel current and modern. And I think it’s actually now, in terms of material, it’s a better show than it would have been had the pandemic not happened.”
Part of that topical material touches on racism against East Asian people in the wake of COVID-19, no doubt spurred by bigots like Trump dubbing it the “Chinese virus.” Wang takes a hilarious and, at times, surprisingly nonchalant approach to this discrimination. He also builds on previous jokes from his 2015 set Mellow Yellow about white people being offended on his behalf.
“You know, what’s changed since the inception of the joke is that people don’t even need someone like me to be offended on their behalf directly,” Wang explains. “They can just say online to a sort of vague audience that they are offended on behalf of other people about something. And I don’t really engage in those conversations too much anymore.”
That doesn’t mean that Wang shies away from his Malaysian heritage. In September he’s releasing his memoir Sidesplitter: How To Be From Two Worlds At Once which touches on, amongst other things, what it’s like growing up mixed race. He even has a “pipe dream” to eventually craft an hour of specifically Malaysian stand-up (he’s dabbled in the past) where he’ll speak Malay and Mandarin. Malaysian humor is just as self-deprecating as British comedic sensibilities, Wang explains, but with one key difference.
“As a group, as Malaysia, they’re very keen to laugh about Malaysia and laugh at Malaysian culture and stuff,” he says, “Whereas I feel like the British are more ready to laugh at themselves as individuals, and are actually quite protective about Britain.”
Wang has always felt like a bit of an outsider straddling the two disparate cultures. I ask if he has any advice for his younger self in light of this, and he responds, “I would say, don’t expect to feel at home in England either. Because this would have been me as a kid in Malaysia, and when I was growing up there, I was like, ‘I feel a bit weird and different here. When I move to the UK, where I was born, then I’ll feel at home.’ And I moved over to the UK and I felt completely Asian. And so I think I would have said, ‘don’t waste any more energy hoping that you’re going to feel like part of the gang. Lean into this and try to make a career out of it.’”
But since he feels like the odd man out in both places, is there anywhere Wang feels at home? He jokes, “Is it pretentious if I say on the stage?”
After some thought, though, he replies, “I guess I, for me, the feeling of home is not really linked to places so much. It’s just moments, you know, I think you can kind of feel at home in certain moments when you’re with friends or eating a really nice meal or sometimes when you’re just sat on your own watching TV. I think home kind of comes at you in flashes, that sensation. But I don’t know if I’m unique in that… Anywhere feels a little transient to me.”
Wang likewise feels relatively unsettled when it comes to the idea of success. As a young comedian with a Netflix special and a book coming out, he occupies an envious position. However, Wang’s not one to rest on his laurels.
“If you’ve made something that you like, I think that’s success really, and if you can get paid on top of that, that’s double success,” he posits. “The main thing is to make something that you think is good quality.”
In the end, though, Wang admits that he doesn’t know what signifies success to him.
“The honest answer is I don’t know, cause I don’t feel that,” he says.
However Wang feels about his career, his dry humor and singular perspective make him a welcome addition to the Netflix carousel of comedians.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.