First Gig Worst Gig

Kuan-Wen Huang

Kuan-Wen Huang

It was the first of times, it was the worst of times. This week we're exploring the life and times of Kuan-Wen Huang, the top Taiwanese turn, now based in London, who can regularly be found at West End institution Comedy Bloomers. Right now that night's annual LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year competition is in full swing, with forthcoming heats in Edinburgh, London and Dublin, right up until the final in June. It's a big deal.

As a regular MC at these events, does Huang have any tips for winning over that crowd? Presumably it's pretty supportive already?

"I would say the crowd is, above all, fair", he says, "as the term 'supportive' may evoke an image of a middle-class millennial parent complimenting every single thing their child does, or a self-help group that showers every act with the same level of appreciation, regardless of how good the performances are."

Fair point.

"The audience is supportive in the way that they would react strongly to good gags, that they are not mean-spirited. However, if the material falls flat, you can tell."

"When an LGBTQ+ act performs to a predominantly straight audience, we could sometimes rely on certain tropes or clichés to get easy laughs. This however won't work at this competition. The crowd is comedy savvy and happy to have a good laugh at our community - if the jokes are good. Acts that did well in the past tend to showcase their uniqueness, originality and individual POVs, rather than just being a cloned archetype."

Good advice. As for Kuan-Wen's own career, he took a cracking show, Ilha Formosa, to the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and topics ranging from colonial European control of Taiwan, to his mother's continual control over him. One of his crowd-pleasing techniques - low-key build-up then dramatic loud punchline - saw him compared, perhaps unexpectedly, to a grunge icon.

"The Kurt Cobain comparison, I am - obviously - flattered but still a bit worried his diehard fans may have put some price on my head. He was drop dead gorgeous! (No pun intended).

"For Fringe this year, I will only be there in the last two weeks, doing my compilation show Comedy with an Accent. The plan is to work towards a new show at the Fringe in 2025 whilst I recover from the financial ruin caused by Fringe last year."

It's the circle of life, the wheel of fortune. Now, we look back further, and begin in Berlin.

Kuan-Wen Huang

First gig?

I remember quite a lot - I did a lot of research before finally committing myself to getting on stage. My friend also recorded the set. It was November 27th, 2015. I was living in Berlin at that time and it was a cute open-mic gig in the up-and-coming area of Neukölln called Adorable Creatures. Berlin remains to this day the European city with the largest English stand-up comedy open-mic scene outside of the UK.

It's the back room of a small bar where the audience - about 25-30 people - crammed in and sat on staircases (the kind used by a chorus choir) and you have the tiny 'stage' in the opposite corner. Helen Bauer was also on the line-up. I went way over my allocated five minutes, the jokes were low-hanging fruits but I had so much fun. Unfortunately the night and the bars are both no more. I think it may just be a luxury flat there now. A tale as old as time.

Favourite show, ever?

At one gig a couple of years ago, a small marketing agency's boss took his team to the show. He approached me after and asked if I could do a 45-60 minute show for his company as their Christmas do. I suggested that I team up with two comics to give them a mini show, as I was not confident having enough material for the amount of time requested. Also, I was running an open-mic night in Bermondsey at that time so I had all the equipment.

The agency boss' secretary gave me a full briefing on the candidates I could roast and the areas I could really dig in. There were a lot of tailor-made jokes specific to their team and they all landed. One of the acts I asked to perform was a musical comedian. We rewrote the lyrics of a pop song (Cake by The Ocean) to turn into their company jingle.

I was only a few years into comedy at that time. To see this small 'corporate' gig working, and the staff all having fun, I was pretty happy.

Worst gig?

In a wealthy Essex village called Coggeshall. When I did my line, "I am just a good old-fashioned gay boy. I am not a Lesbian academic" and it did not get the laughs, I knew this crowd was not for me. I should have seen it coming when I got there and saw a giant cross bigger than the venue (it was just after Easter).

It was the longest 15 minutes I've ever endured on stage. The gig was in a very large village hall. I saw people in the back throwing paper aeroplanes at each other and they were cheering another act's line: "I beat up this old Chinese woman called Jackie Chan. Ah yaaaa (Kung fu noise)..."

Kuan-Wen Huang

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

I wanted to say it's between Joan Rivers and Margaret Cho. I admire how Joan Rivers could be so effortlessly and hilariously mean but got away with it but ultimately I did not manage to watch her live or get to see enough of her earlier material. So it's Margaret Cho really. The idea that a queer Asian woman could express herself so freely in the 90s is insane.

There is this bit from Margaret Cho where she acted out how a gay man would react if he had to go down on a woman. No matter how many times I watch this bit, I always laugh so much until my tummy aches.

And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?

This industry is full of very damaged people so I won't name names; who knows what trauma caused their irritating behaviours.

I would like to share a general frustration I have. When an event like the LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year takes place to champion grass root LGBTQ+ talents, you find the review or some coverage of the competition fails to even mention whether such an event is crucial/needed in the first place.

You may disagree it is needed, but let's at least have that discussion. Instead you find the focus is on tiny little things, e.g. the way certain comedians talk rather than whether what they are saying is funny.

Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?

A friend denied that there's global warming when I pointed to her all the evidence and said the world is literally burning. She simply replied, "The world is not burning.I am entitled to my opinion."

One day when I was walking her home, she noticed her flat was on fire and wanted to borrow my phone to call 911. I refused to lend her my phone and claimed her flat was not even on fire. I said, "Your flat is not burning. I am entitled to my opinion."

This gag does not fail miserably, but it never worked strongly enough for me to keep it in my club set. I really love this routine because this global warming friend is real - and not alone in her beliefs - and that's the only way to provoke her, which I find funny.

How important is a competition like LGBTQ+ New Comedian... and clubs like Comedy Bloomers?

Both are tremendously important. Some like to think the fight is over because it is all fine for the LGBTQ+ community now, which is so far from the truth. Some of those hostilities or acts of othering LGBTQ+ people have simply gone from brazen to latent forms.

Once, at a weekend gig in Leicester, a Midland-based MC described me as "the gayest THING" he's ever seen in his life after my set. It was the first time I've ever met him and I don't think he meant it ironically.

On the Desert Island Dicks podcast, a straight male comedian said he would not want to be around drag queens on the island because a show or two is fine but being around them is "a bit much". He didn't refer to any specific drag queens but just gave the general idea of drag queens as his answer. These are before I mention the sh*t the trans community has to put up with.

Clubs and shows like these provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ talent to grow and get better, because they know they won't be written off by the audience just for being who they are. You get good and it helps you develop the skills to face some potentially more hostile crowds.

It is also still rare to see more than one LGBTQ+ act being booked on the same bill, unless it is the LGBTQ+ month or Pride gigs. Clubs and shows like The LGBTQ+ New Comedian and Comedy Bloomers remind us we are a community and the relationships between acts forged in the green room can be really helpful. Comedy Bloomers is also committed to providing a lot of opportunities to much newer LGBTQ+ acts.

Do you notice a different tone to the material, compared to other clubs or competitions?

It depends on what other gigs we are comparing the LGBTQ+ New Comedian competition to. The differences are smaller and more subtle when we compare it to some shows in bigger cities with a young, metropolitan audience. For me personally, I could use certain lingo or references to sexual practices or pop culture (e.g. Rupaul's Drag Race) without having to explain too much.

For other acts in general, I find that we can be more relaxed fighting for straight audience/mainstream society's acceptance when doing our sets. Different acts have different techniques, it can be showing you are particularly playful being LGBTQ+, trying to be lower status on stage or misleadingly affirming the society's stereotypes first only to subvert them later. At our own gigs, it's less admin and more flexibility for the acts.

Kuan-Wen Huang

Any reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions stick in the mind?

A couple of years ago, I was egged by a random lad just outside Southwark Park in my neighbourhood. I turned that incident into a routine, starting with calling Bermondsey a gentrified ghetto and I lived in Bermondsey, not as a gentrifier but rather a 'target'.

I did this routine once in Worthing and a massive lad in his fifties came up to me half drunk during the break. He questioned me initially whether I actually lived in Bermondsey. I thought he wanted to compliment my observations, only to realise this guy who retired to the south coast from Bermondsey was threatening me, "Don't you talk shit about where I grew up." I had to point out the irony by telling him, "I am sorry it's all real and if anything, your language and your behaviour proved my point, that some people in Bermondsey can be rough like you."

Things escalated and the old lad's friend pushed me and said I should not provoke him as he was already drunk. In the end, the heated argument was between those older lads and some twenty-something English boys, who could not believe they just witnessed their countrymen being so aggressive to a foreign comedian who simply joked about a true incident. One of the boys shared the whole train back to London with me apologising profusely, so I retained a bit of hope in this land.

How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?

I feel like the early seasons of The Charmed Ones (when Shannen Doherty was part of the cast). It is not the top rating success but it is not being dropped, either. Most important of all, some REALLY love it.

This year has been alright. I have tried to keep the number of live gigs to just over a dozen a month to spend more time writing for a sitcom pilot proposal. I am also doing my solo show in multiple continental European cities and I have restarted my passion project Comedy with an Accent podcast, on which I interview non-native English speakers who perform stand up in English.

And my mum called and suggested I should quit comedy to return to work for the family business because there is no future in this. So some things never change.

The LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year competition runs until June 11th. Tickets for this year's heats are available from

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