I was returning books at the library and there he was: George Chen! I’ve know the Bay Area transplant for decades through his bands, the record label and zine that he and his sister Yvonne ran, and my cousin Anthony who went to school with them in Berkeley. These days my friend has shifted into standup, running DIY nights, and even crashing one of the Save Music in Chinatown benefit shows that my wife and I put on when California played! (Our mutual friend Adam, who drums for California and Jawbreaker, ran Lost Weekend Video/Cynic Cave where George had a comedy night.)
George hipped me to his Word Origami EP, which you should all check out at zumonline.com or iTunes, and I couldn’t not ask him some questions about it as well as the latest developments in his life. He’s always been funny; now it’s on purpose.
Have fans other than me recognized you at an LA public library yet?
My library shifts have been pretty sporadic. Before I saw you the other day, I hadn’t worked a shift for three months because I had a kidney stone and had to cancel a bunch of shifts. I did see another comedian that same day, but I am rarely ever accosted by the public.
You recently released a digital album… Are you a collector of comedy records the same way you are of music?
My actual standup/spoken word collection on vinyl is pretty small. I will occasionally find a thrift store copy of a Joan Rivers or Lenny Bruce album, but don’t have much call to put them on. For my day job I literally just listen to new comedy albums all day long, so I’m very aware of what’s going on in the field but I don’t tend to hoard mp3s. I considered doing a cassette version of Word Origami, which I consider more of an EP, or liken to a band putting out a 10”. If I had a tour it would make more sense to have merch, but for now it exists as a digital-only release. I’ve found Bandcamp to be a really useful platform.
Comedy merch? It seems like it could be way more wide open and interesting than band merch. Are you zines part of it?
If I got the opportunity to tour I’d make cassette tapes, surely. I think comedians that have catchphrases or signature bits might do well on t-shirts or koozies, but I don’t think I have a signature bit… yet! I like that Kurt Braunohler made towels. There are more opportunities, in theory, but also comics like to travel light, so nothing too bulky or heavy. I’d try to sell my zines wherever people want to buy zines! They are pretty funny, I hope. They’re just collections of drawings but an occasional flyer—Giant Robot Comedy Night, for example—gets in there.
Talk about going from groveling for shows as a band, a label, and now a comedian.
In certain cities like Portland, tour booking as a comedian was simpler than booking an experimental music tour in Europe. That was also utilizing resources I’d built up over the years where I’d pretty much do one or two West Coast trips a year touring in KIT, Chen Santa Maria, or Common Eider King Eider. With KIT, we had a pretty firm all-ages show policy so we didn’t have to grovel much; we essentially opted out of the SF bar show scene.
I spent a lot of time with Zum and Club Sandwich putting on shows for touring acts in the Bay Area. It would have behooved one of my bands to do a national tour based on those connections. However, at this point (2012?) I didn’t know any of the booking people anymore (DIY turnover rate is high “churn”) and I’d been focused on all-ages shows for a long time. Comedy shows were mostly happening in bars and the political sensitivities of those scenes are sometimes at odds. I did a show in Austin where a lot of music people did standup or performance that they didn’t usually do.
Are there commonalities to build on?
When I transitioned out of music to focus on comedy, there were transferable organizing skills but completely new relationships. I considered it like transferring schools; some of the credits applied but then there’s a new culture to adapt to. There’s a comedy guy who reminds you of a noise guy, but you can’t relate the same references to the new group.
Are most of your comedy peers from punk, too? Do you cross paths with unpunk ones who totally do not get where you’re coming from?
I know a few people that have transitioned from the indie underground DIY world into comedy, but we sometimes find each other after the fact. No one in my scene made the same leap with me. Perhaps there are some worlds that have more porous boundaries: I’m thinking of Jibz Cameron/Dynasty Handbag who always had a performance art background that has blended in well with the Los Angeles experimental comedy scene. Do people get it? I think so, a lot of comedians were into whatever the angsty music of their generation was. I was too old for Linkin Park.
You worked with Jello Biafra. Did his spoken word have any effect on your comedy outlook? What about Rollins?
Jello’s spoken word definitely had an impact on my personal views growing up, but in terms of performance I’d say we’re pretty far apart. To be fair, his life is more interesting than most peoples’ so hearing him just tell a very detailed story about stuff from 30 years ago can be entertaining. I don’t have the brain to straight-up lecture people, but I want to get that external validation from the crowd. Both Jello and Rollins were smart to have change formats and kind of expand the spoken word genre, mixing a style of storytelling and something closer to poetry. There is the same idea where Black Flag basically created the hardcore touring circuit and these guys sort of created their own markets by just talking—I do like that aspect of it.
What do you hope people get out of your pieces?
I am initially just hoping for laughter. In my mind, what I’m doing is putting people in uncomfortable and awkward situations through my prism of neuroses and letting them off the hook by making myself the butt of the joke or giving them a jolt of release, even if it’s just “Well, thank God I’m not this guy.” I guess that’s a portion of the storytelling aspect of my comedy. When I do make a larger socio-political point, I still want it to work as comedy rather than lecture. “A Is For Acronym” is a bit that is atypical for me, where it could be viewed as social justice-y or preachy, except that it comes to that conclusion from essentially taking an opposing angle to the rhetoric of identity politics.
How has moving to LA affected your outlook or work?
Moving to Los Angeles sometimes feels like an abstraction since I spend most of my days indoors on the internet, but it’s a huge shift from being in the Bay Area for decades. I’m learning to really enjoy what it has to offer in terms of culture and especially culinary arts, and the comedy scene is at an all-time high. What I was used to doing in the Bay Area was starting enterprises from scratch, and I think the institutional barriers are very different down here. The conventional wisdom of the Bay Area is that it’s a great place for innovation, but the polish and marketing/perfecting has to take place in NY or LA, at least that is what people in music and art would say. Comedy has a different relationship to commerce than the ramshackle freewheeling Bay Area style, there are considerably greater stakes being in a place where people actually hire comedians for writing. I’ll be real- it’s incredibly vulnerable in a way that I haven’t felt for a while. So that must be a good thing, feeling challenged to up my own game.
So what’s coming up?
I am happy to be in Los Angeles and learning as I go! I have a podcast about documentaries called Sup Doc, I have the monthly first Thursday Giant Robot Comedy Night at GR2 and I also started an open mic at Edendale Branch Library that is most Thursdays. My girlfriend Angi works there, so we get to use the community room! Join my Facebook group for more info.