Growing up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah two decades ago, eight-year-old Phil Wang wanted to be a clown. But then he discovered science and became fascinated with it. The brainy kid didn’t have to work hard on his academics. In fact, contrary to his schoolmates, Wang looked forward to exam time!
Of Malaysian-British parentage, Wang had always felt as though he stuck out in the crowd, even when he attended an international school. Shortly later, his parents changed their minds and enrolled him into a local school, where he finally found his clique of friends whom he still keeps in touch with today.
At the age of 16, Wang’s world as he knew it turned topsy-turvy when he was sent to continue his education in England. “I didn’t have any trouble with my studies but it took me some time to fit in,” he said.
“I remember being a reserved, overly-sensitive kid. I was a chubby teenager who felt like no one listened to me and that girls didn’t notice me. And then I entered university – it was not a walk in the park, particularly Cambridge! But it was also at this time that I discovered that I could do stand-up comedy. I was 18 and my school put on a comedy night, interspersed with five-minute spots for anyone who wanted to do stand-up. I put in my name and did a short set of mostly stolen Russell Peters jokes, replacing all instances of ‘Indian’ with ‘Chinese’. At the time, I had no idea how comedy worked. I thought that it was a bit like karaoke – that you could pick something and do your version of it. Thankfully, the gig went well (thanks Russell!) and I have been hooked ever since, with my own material now.
“When people paid attention to me on stage, I felt exhilarated. I felt as though I had finally found my voice.
“At home, I used to make my two younger sisters laugh. They are silly and funny in their own weird way. I loved to make them laugh because it was not an easy task! It required a deeper intellectual and emotional connection. But being on stage gave me a different sense of accomplishment. I shudder to think what would become of me had I not found an outlet to express myself through comedy.
“I have always loved comedy. I watched all kinds of great comedy all the time. The Simpsons was a great influence but it was after watching a set by American stand-up Jim Gaffigan that I decided that I wanted to create and perform comedy professionally. This was what pushed me to sign up for my school’s five-minute spot.”
During the course of his studies at the University of Cambridge, Wang involved himself in comedy. “I auditioned for Footlights and about a year later, was appointed onto the committee. Footlights is a comedy society with a humbling set of alumni from over the past few decades. That was the same year that I entered and won the Chortle Student Comedian of the Year Award. Chortle, a comedy website in the United Kingdom, runs a nationwide competition for university students every year. Following my victory, I got myself a manager and garnered enough attention in the industry to get started on a career in comedy. About a year later, I won the Comedy Central Funniest Student Award and then was appointed Footlights President for the 2011/12 academic year, my final year of study. It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he reminisced.
Armed with a Masters of Engineering degree, Wang plunged into the world of comedy, and to supplement his income, tutored mathematics and physics for a year. Today, he is a full-time comedian who not only does stand-up, but writes, acts and appears on shows as a panellist or commentator. Wang is perhaps currently best known to British households as a guest panellist on BBC TV’s Have I Got News For You, a comedy quiz show where celebrity contestants are grilled on the week’s top news.
On top of that, Wang’s sketch group with fellow comedians Jason Forbes and George Fouracres, collectively named Daphne, has just wrapped up recording a series for BBC Radio 4, after having been nominated for the prestigious Best Newcomer Award at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Wang shared, “I knew from the onset that a 9 to 5 job wasn’t for me. The routine terrified me, just as much as going up on stage terrifies some people. I suppose we all just do what doesn’t terrify us. Being on BBC TV and BBC Radio is a real honour for me as I grew up watching and listening to the BBC.”
Wang is a lucky 26-year-old who gets to pursue his passion full time even though his mom regularly suggests that he takes up an MBA, ‘just in case’. But he is taking life in comedy in his stride, first with appearances at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the entire month of August, following homecoming performances in Kuala Lumpur and Penang as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow.
Note: An edited version of this article [From outsider to headliner] was published on 6th August, 2016 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.