Stand-up comic Joe Wong performs in Los Angeles in December 2010. The self-described… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
The first time the Chinese biochemist performed stand-up at an open mike was at a sports bar in Somerville, Mass., where he struggled to be heard over the noise of bowling, pool and football games on the big-screen TVs.
It was a lonely five-minute set. At most, eight people watched. At the end, he remembers, one guy came up to him and said, "You were probably funny, but we couldn't understand you."
He could have hung it up right then and resigned himself to his day job, doing cancer research in a lab. But Joe Wong was determined to become an American stand-up comic.
Photos: Former biochemist takes to stand-up
Seven years later, Wong stepped onto the stage of New York's Ed Sullivan Theater to make his debut on the "Late Show with David Letterman." Still a small, skinny guy with glasses and a very thick Chinese accent, he had found a way to make it work for him.
"Hi, everybody," he said, raising his right hand in greeting. "So, uh … I'm Irish."
Wong, 41, grew up Xi Huang in a small Chinese town near the Korean border, where most people did manual labor on farms or in factories.
"When I was a kid, every student had to work in the cornfields and scoop fertilizers into the crop," he said. "Americans can't believe it, but at lunch we'd rinse the same container off in a creek and use it to scoop soup."
Humor, or what little of it he experienced, clicked for him early on. A form of Chinese comedy called xiangsheng, or cross talk, which features two men bantering briskly, was sometimes broadcast from loudspeakers on the town's utility poles. When he was about 10, his father took him to a Charlie Chaplin movie.
"The whole audience was hush-quiet and all you could hear was my son laughing out loud," Longji Huang, 68, said in a phone interview from China. "Maybe it was a sign."
If so, it wasn't promptly acted upon.
Wong made it to college studying biochemistry. In 1994, he left China for Houston to work toward a doctorate at Rice University.
Wong assumed he'd get laughs in America. Americans, he'd heard, laughed a lot.
"In China, there is a stereotype that Americans are funny, they like to tell jokes," he said.
So in Houston, he tried to do likewise.
"They just didn't get it, or they didn't think it was a joke at all," he said of his early forays in English.
First he blamed his poor language skills. So he signed up for more lessons. Then he thought the problem must be his pronunciation. So he tried writing.
The school newspaper published his piece about college life: "The roaches here are Texas-sized. I believe they have a very similar diet to mine."
"My English teacher told me, 'Who knew a Chinese guy can be funny!'" Wong said.
Soon she began tutoring him in American comedy idioms. She introduced him to Woody Allen. She gave him tips.
Photos: Former biochemist takes to stand-up
Wong had studied English by memorizing sections of the Oxford English Dictionary. Now, she said, he needed to stop showing it.
"She told me to stay away from difficult words. It turns people off," he said. "My vocabulary got smaller over the years."
After receiving his doctorate, Wong landed his first job, working for a Houston company that made DNA chips. When the company folded a year later, he got multiple offers. He chose Aventis, a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Mass.
In a lab, he grew cancer cells and decoded genes, trying to find ways to make cancers stop growing.
It was a noble, well-paid job. But it wasn't Wong's dream, which still seemed a little half-baked, even to him.
Wong had been to an American comedy club in Houston once. He didn't get the slang. The comedians talked too fast.
"I didn't understand half of what was said," he said.
How do you learn something as intangible as comedy? Eventually, Wong sought out his comfort zone: school.
In suburban Boston he signed up for an adult education class. Wong's classmates included a barber, a used-car salesman and the owner of a hardware store. Together they learned how to structure a joke, how to use a mike and how to frame a set — starting and ending with your strongest jokes.
Wong's teacher, Tim McIntire, a comedian and comedy club owner, said he was impressed by Wong's well-crafted jokes, which pulled people in and had a nice twist at the end. But that was on paper and in front of supportive classmates. The real test would be in front of an audience.
Days in the lab. Nights trying to find gigs. To get them, Wong did whatever was required — even after his rough experience at Hannah's, the Somerville sports bar.
One club said you had to bring friends and family. But Wong hardly knew anyone. So he stood outside the door in the New England winter chill, asking people walking in to say they were there to see him.
Meanwhile, he worked on his material, trying to draw on the world around him:
"I'm not good at sports, but I love parallel parking. Because unlike sports, when you're parallel parking, the worse you are, the more people you have rooting for you."