Bobby Lee is surprisingly eloquent when he talks about comedy. I’m interviewing him for his upcoming shows at the Ontario Improv on Feb. 2 to 4, and I’m struck by the fact there seem to be several Bobby Lee’s. There’s the comedy historian, the to-this-day almost pathologically hungry comic and the normal guy who appreciates his family.
The funny bit seems a given. Unlike many comics who slog through town after town, open mic after open mic, Lee’s career took off fairly quickly. After a year most comics are still trying to figure out how to tell a joke; Lee at this point was opening for Carlos Mencia and Pauly Shore. Soon after that he became a regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. His über-break came, though, in 2001 when he landed a slot in the cast of MADtv. He was suddenly semi-famous, but it seems not to have affected him much.
“I’m a normal guy,” he tells me over the phone. Lee insists he doesn’t go through life as a “comedian,” looking to constantly make people laugh or seeking out humor. “I never laugh at daily life,” is how he puts it. Part of this may come from Lee being so grounded—he says he neither drinks nor does drugs—and while many comedians wear their pain on their sleeve proudly, Lee doesn’t seem burdened by many ghosts of the past. If as Lee says, “Comics make bad decisions,” he’s not talking about himself. Bobby Lee seems much more concerned with the future than the past.
Lee does stand-up seven nights a week. “I still do open mics—I still do that shit,” he informs me rather sheepishly as if admitting to a coke or booze problem. “They give me more time . . . but I still go up,” he confides. Lee’s comedy has always centered on his perspective on being a Korean-American and the misconceptions many Americans have about Asians in general and Korean-Americans in particular, while at the same time making fun of many Asian-American celebrities and cultural “types.” On MADtv he was the first Asian-American cast member, an opening he made the most of. From Connie Chung one week to Kim-Jong-II the next, Lee spent eight years skewering anyone from John McCain to fictional characters like Bae Sung, a confused interpreter. Then the show ended in 2009 and Lee was faced with what to do next.
One answer was more stand-up. Lee’s comedy still is based in large measure on race and identity, but it’s evolving. With so many comics doing or trying to do the type of comedy Lee excels in one might wonder if he feels copied or constrained, but Lee doesn’t seem stressed out. “I feel like a little bit more original than most,” he claims and it’s hard to disagree with him. His comedy (especially his sketch comedy) has always contained a healthy dose of raw physical humor—a bit I watch online before our interview has him impersonating a buddy dry-humping him during a friendly wrestling match—and he wonders how long he can keep being so physical. “I like to run thru walls,” he tells me and I believe him.
Of course the biggest wall in Hollywood is the movies and Bobby Lee is trying to scale it. He’s already got scads of film credits, Pineapple Express and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle are two of his biggies, but there’s more on the way. He’ll be appearing in May in the Larry Charles film The Dictator, a satire starring Sacha Baron Cohen about a dictator who risks his life in order to save his country from democracy. Lee says that he plays a “Creepy Asian businessman.” After that he’s got a much larger role in the romantic comedy, Wedding Palace where he stars along with Brian Tee in what Lee says is not only hilarious but features almost every Asian-American working in Hollywood today.
Bobby Lee claims he doesn’t write down jokes anymore. “I just work it out in my head and try it,” he tells me. And he’ll be coming to an Improv near us, where you can watch him try out old funny shit, new funny shit or just funny shit.
Bobby Lee at the Ontario Improv, Ontario Mills, 4555 Mills Cir., Ontario, (909) 484-5411; www.improv.com. Feb. 2-4. $22.