Interview by Kathleen Quiring
After the Windsor Review’s hockey reading on October 31st, Review staffer Kathleen Quiring interviewed comedian John Wing Jr. about his newest book, autobiography “When The Red Light Goes On, Get Off”. Wing is a well-known comedian working in the United States and Canada, who has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Surprisingly, Wing has combined his work as a comedian with that of a poet, and has published multiple books of poetry. He hails from Ontario but now lives in Los Angeles with his family. Look for this interview in the Windsor Review’s upcoming edition in Spring 2009.
You write and perform both comedy and poetry. Do you consider yourself both a comedian and a poet? Are thee two distinct vocations for you, or are they intertwined?
I’m a comedian by trade. I’m also a Canadian poet – I wrote poetry first. But first and foremost, I’m a comedian.
What are the tools that go into writing poetry and comedy? How are they different?
They’re totally similar. In both, you’re writing something short and terse. Your aim is to produce and effect with few words. They both require brevity, rhythm, and technique. They’re both aiming for a similar effect: in one it’s laughter, in the other . . . well, for me it’s usually laughter as well. But either way it’s an emotional effect you’re creating with words.
I understand you quit university without getting a degree. Why did you choose to do that?
I had a sister above me and a brother below me. We were a family of high achievers. My sister went to finishing school at grade thirteen, and left home at seventeen; and my brother got a scholarship at a five-year high school in Port Hope, and so he left home at fourteen. Which was actually good for me, in the sense that I didn’t have that competition during my high school years. I got to college, and I got the feeling after two years here I wasn’t learning anything that would get me anywhere in the world. I was having a good time but I wasn’t being prepared . . . because I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I thought about getting my Master’s in creative writing . . . and you know, I would have been very happy doing that. Because that’s what I want to do – I could teach writing professionally.
But why didn’t I stay? I was afraid they were getting ahead of me – my brother and sister – and I needed to get out in the world and prove myself. I needed to get to Toronto first.
Any regrets about never having finished a degree?
No. It had to happen the way it happened. Why regret it? I wish I had finished it sometimes . . . but my life would be a lot different if I had. I would have different kids, by a different woman. I don’t know if I’d do comedy. But I found something I loved to do 28 years ago that I love today and that’s priceless.
In your autobiography, When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off, you write, “I don’t think comedy is an art.” Can you expand on that?
It’s not an art. If you and I look at a painting – you and me and thirty other people – are we all going to have the exact same impressions of it? No. We’re going to have thirty different impressions of it. That’s art. If there are thirty different impressions in an audience of what I do, I’m a failure. The audience must interpret what I do all the same way and at the same time. The interpretation is exact and simultaneous. That’s not art, that’s craft. That’s technique. It’s a skill. And oddly enough, it’s a skill that can’t be taught, it can only be learned. As I say in my book, comedy, like surgery and oral sex, can only be learned through diligent practice.
When did you discover that you were a comedian?
I’m not sure. I was always trying to be funny. Because I wasn’t tall and I wasn’t athletic and I wore glasses, so I had to have some way to get by. And I always hung out with the funniest guy. I was never the funniest guy, I was always licking his boots. But . . . I don’t know. When I started I was pretty bad. The first night I went up, it was an amateur night. I killed; I was fabulous. Applause, the whole number. But I had no idea what I was doing. It was chance, pure chance. I came back the next day, did the exact same show, and got no sound. And I was hooked: I was absolutely dead hooked. I bombed the second time, and I was addicted. I had to get back to the first one.
I didn’t really become a comedian until I had been doing it about three years. You become a comedian by getting all the pieces: it’s learning how to write a joke; learning how to write a good joke; learning how to write a joke that fits you, learning why the joke fits you; and learning to shape your personality around those jokes. And then lastly it’s attitude: I belong up here, I’m a professional, you will laugh at me. And then it’s in you, it just becomes a part of you. A guy said to me one night, One day you’ll bomb and then you’ll know you’re a comedian. You’ll bomb and then on the way home you’ll think, I’m funnier than they think I am. And that’s the last step.
I figured it out: it took me a long time. In my third year, I started M.C.-ing a lot, which is a great teacher of tricks; and somebody taped me and he sat me down at the club and he said, “Let’s watch this – you gotta see yourself on tape.” And I saw that was doing an impersonation of a guy I had known at university. It was stunning: I had had no idea I was doing it. That was a huge step for me, realizing I couldn’t be him; I had to be me. It was watching this tape, that’s when I realized it.
Who were some of your early influences?
George Carlin, Flip Wilson. Johnny Carson, then later Letterman, and Monty Python. We were lucky in Canada in the seventies that we got a great mix of American comedians, Canadian comedians, and a lot of British stuff. So we got all three. And it was really, really excellent to see our comedy heavily influenced by British humour – Benny Hill, Monty Python, Joker’s Wild.
Why do you live in the U.S.?
There are a couple of reasons. Once I worked 38 weeks on the road in Canada: I worked all ten provinces, I visited fifteen states. And I thought, Shit – how am I ever going to make any more money? I can’t work in Canada. A lot of guys were going, and I thought that it was a lot better to go and fail than to never go and wonder how I would have done it I would have gone. The possibility of that regret spurred me greatly. The other thing was that I met an American girl, and I married her – and I’m married to her to this day – so I could go.