Philly Philly Wang Wang is a new stand-up comedy special on Netflix, one that was filmed in a room with actual people this year(!), and that’s already an exciting fact. But that this one comes from British comedian Phil Wang, and is as fun and entertaining and watchable as it is, is doubly exciting. “It’s weird when you know something so well, and you’ve been so deep into it for so long that you have no idea what it’s actually like anymore and what people think of it,” he told me earlier this week via Zoom from his home in London.
The hour-long special is a mix of material he’d been honing before and during the pandemic and finds just the right blend of being specific to this time but also universal and relatable likely for years to come. Here, he talks about exactly how much he wanted to capture this time, what it was like when he heard the American emergency notification on cell phones in the US for the first time, and why he’s ready for his cameo in Loki.
DECIDER: I want to ask you about filming this, as we haven’t seen many stand-up specials in a room with people lately. So you filmed this in June, tell me a little bit about what it was like to actually finally do it?
Phil Wang: It’s the first British Netflix special post-pandemic or during pandemic, whatever. I was meant to film it in May of last year, and I was like, couldn’t the pandemic have waited three months? Three months is all it would have taken. So I had a very selfish reaction of, “Ugh, obviously, this happens to me. Just when things are starting to come up Wang, the universe throws a pandemic my way, classic me.” It’s an especially interesting time to film a special like that and it felt great to be able to finally get it done and get it out there. It made it unique that everyone was wearing masks and that we were at half capacity. But at the same time, there’s a sense of unity and that people were happy to be there and felt lucky to be there. There was a sense of optimism because it was a lot of people’s first show back, first live performance for over a year. That was a great honor to me, for those people to come see me do stand-up as the first show they saw after a pandemic. And so there was a sense of it being special, I mean, that’s a pun considering it is also a special, but it felt special.
Also, there was a part of the special that I didn’t really like before, that I thought was alright. Every comedian has a part of their show, there’s about 15 minutes, they think, “It’s fine, I’ll fix it at some point,” and you never fix it. During the pandemic last year, when gigs started coming back during the summer for a brief spell before we went into a third lockdown, I came up with some material about the pandemic, and especially about being ethnically Chinese during this pandemic and how it added an element to it that people who weren’t Chinese probably don’t have or don’t feel. I really wanted to talk about this and I came up with some jokes about it that I’m really proud of and I was able to replace the part of the old version of the show that I thought was fine with this new stuff that I really liked. In a weird way, I feel so lucky because now it feels a little more current, a little more dynamic, and a little more present. So I think it’s actually benefited strangely in that way. It would have been great to perform to a full room of people sat crammed up next to each other, I think that’s when the best comedy shows happen. But in the circumstances, the team behind it did an amazing job of getting it together and the crowd was great. All in all, I felt very privileged to do it in that venue and that people came.
I like that there are no close-up shots of the audience throughout this, and it would be hard to see laughing under the masks. Was that intentional? In Justin Timberlake’s Netflix special, he also has no shots of the audience, it’s just the people on stage, so I thought, maybe this is Phil just doing his Justin Timberlake now.
I’ve always modeled my work and career after Justin Timberlake, I’ve never made a secret of this. I’ve been trying to bring sexy back to comedy for years now and it’s not happened. I think either way has its merits, and we had a conversation about it. Having shots of the audience would have been fine, it would have really rooted the show visually in a particular time. In general, you’re always wary about making something that feels too particular to the moment that it was made. Of course, I’ve probably hamstrung myself by having the material about the pandemic in it, but I think that probably has a little more longevity than seeing people in masks spread out. We have some shots over the shoulder, and you can just about see people wearing masks. Fundamentally, I think either choice has its merits, and this is the choice that we made in the end, but I think it’ll come down to taste whether you like it or not.
I didn’t know how people were going to feel about addressing the pandemic, so was that something that you put a lot of thought into? Did you think it would be weird if you didn’t talk about it, or was it just simply like, I’m stuck inside and so I guess I’m writing this material? How did you make that decision?
When I wrote the material at the start of the pandemic, or in the first year of the pandemic, it felt flat-out insane to talk about anything else. After a while, there is a problem with any kind of news story, any event that goes on for too long, that people just get bored of it. That was my main worry, that people [would be] bored of hearing about it. So I just tried to make the stuff about the pandemic as original as I could, even if it was a topic people have heard a lot about in the last year. Hopefully, I was coming at it from an angle that they hadn’t yet heard about or spoken about. It’s only for a portion of the show, it doesn’t go on for ages, it just puts the show in context. It’d be weird for the visual for how the special looks, with a minimal shot to the audience and occasional glimpse of a mask, it would have been strange not to mention it at all. So I hope I struck the balance right.
Similarly, talking about race and your ethnicity, I thought you handled that really well, too. Did you feel some pressure to address that? And how did you weigh your personal experience versus talking about it on a global level?
No, I never feel pressured to talk about anything. I was talking about what I feel like talking about and want to talk about and where I feel is a joke. So many times I just come up with a joke in my head and go, ah that’s really funny. And then I go, how do I get there? And I backtrack and reverse engineer and to get there. But being Chinese ethnically, there’s an element of the pandemic that is thrust upon you. Early on, before the first lockdown, I was walking near my house and a guy walked past me and looked at me, he just went, “Corona,” like that and just walked on. From the get-go, this is something whether I like it or not, that is going to be associated with me because of how I look, maybe not so much anymore, which is thankful. But it’s just an inescapable association and because I like talking about my race anyway, it felt like a natural connection to make.
I also love the birth control stuff.
That was maybe my favorite routine.
Last week, there were new articles that came out about a new male birth control and I thought, wow, this is an incredible way to promote this new special.
Oh, great. If it’s cork-shaped, I’m in the money.
It’s magnets, apparently. It’s a lot of science and it makes me cringe a bit, but I’m glad that the conversation is happening.
Sounds like I got a new special.
If not a new special, you’re also just influencing science, so congratulations on that.
Just like Timberlake did before me.
He’s really got to bring a lot more sexy back when it comes to male birth control, that’s for sure. But yeah, I love that segment and I don’t know if there’s anything else that you want to share about how it came to be, or what the reaction has been to that?
So the bit is about if guys had to do something similar to the contraceptive routines that women have to. It came up at dinner, I was talking to some doctors, and the subject of that difference in experience came up. It’s a classic comedic device to just flip things, to flip the experience. When I first started doing it, it was funny, there was kind of a tension at the beginning, in myself as well. The first time I did it, I felt a bit tense because it sounds a lot like I’m making fun of women who take contraceptives. But then when I turn it around and it becomes clear that it’s about how much emotional and mental strength it takes to do that, and how men, I can’t imagine ever being able to do that. Once that becomes clear, then there’s this kind of release of tension and everyone feels like they can laugh. Those are always my favorite bits of stand-up, when there is a huge release of tension and the laughs are always bigger. It’s like when you blow up a balloon, the tighter you make it, the bigger you blow it, the louder the bang. Those are the bits that I always really loved doing, the ones that people aren’t sure about at the beginning.
It feels very refreshing to have a male talk about things like dating and body image in the way that you do. Did it feel vulnerable at all, to touch on those topics?
No, sometimes I talk about wanting to lose weight or trying to lose weight and stuff. I feel a little silly, I’m always patting my belly when I do that bit, and I can feel the fat sort of jiggling underneath and that feels vulnerable, you know, jiggling on stage. But no, the thing about the body image stuff, I was trying to say that it’s fine to be fat, but it’s also fine to want to lose weight, it’s fine to do whatever. I think we’re in a place now where people kinda have to pick a side and be extreme about things and have to commit to one or the other or whatever. So the bit is just about how your appearance is not the be-all and end-all, but it’s also not nothing. My stand-up is basically centrist, I’m a centrist, basically. That’s my gentle political mission that bubbles under all my stand-up, is I’m trying to convert everyone to political centrism, and I’m doing it with dick jokes, the only way you can.
Well speaking of, I want to talk about Taskmaster a little bit, because I loved you on that show. I feel like that outfit has had a positive effect on your life.
I wasn’t expecting it to be a presence in my life for so long when I decided to wear it. I just wanted to make an homage to Bruce Lee, and his penis and testicles are not visible when he wears it and I wasn’t expecting mine to be. But they were and it was too late by that point to change anything. So I just had to lean into it, but people still say now, when I turn up at a gig, “I’m disappointed you’re wearing the yellow onesie.” And I’m like, I think it’s technically illegal for me to wear it where there are children.
We can put it in some Hall of Fame and just let it live there. I saw you on Amy Schumer’s Instagram not too long ago. Is there anything you can say about that? Are you guys working together on something?
Amy’s a friend, we were hanging out in New York. I was in New York for like three weeks working on something. I can’t really say what about, but it was fun, it was cool, and it was nice to be able to get out of London for a bit, I felt very lucky, I felt like I was the only Englishman in New York. I got to go to Brooklyn, I was there about when it got so hot that the power cables caught fire and Williamsburg lost power for an afternoon. I’ve been in heatwaves before, but none that literally just melted the electricity infrastructure. That was crackers.
Did you hear those alerts we get on our phones?
I freaked the fuck out when it happened. I was having lunch with a friend and my phone started making a noise it had never made before in its entire life. I was like, who are you? And on the phone suddenly appears and this yellow warning thing and I’m freaking out. All these Americans whose phones are also going off just kept eating their lunch, very nonchalant, and I’m like, there’s an alert, there’s a missile coming or something. Russia launched a nuke, surely. And it was just like, turn off your power, turn off your AC. It’s just like, Jesus, you gave me a heart attack to tell me to turn the TV off. I couldn’t believe that and it kept happening though. I don’t understand how you people live with that going off all the time.
You can turn it off so it just vibrates.
The sound was terrifying, and it kind of represented something to me, which is that Americans are in a constant state of alert about everything. It’s crazy.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask if you’ve heard from Tom Hiddleston? Because I like that that got more attention once Loki came out.
Yeah, I really jumped on the Loki bandwagon to push some of my content. I’ve heard from someone who knows him that he has seen the video and that he thinks it’s funny, which is a relief and it’s really softened me to him, actually. This guy’s alright, this guy’s cool if he can laugh at himself. He hasn’t reached out directly yet, but I think our collab is coming up at some point surely. I’m asking for a cameo in Loki, that’s all I’m saying. I think I really boosted Tom Hiddleston’s profile and it’s the least he owes me.
View original post