20 Questions with Phil Wang

SOPHIE BAUER talks to the newly-crowned Footlights President, Phil ‘dollop of a man’ Wang about the Footlights presidency, pre-stage nerves, and performing alongside Lee Evans.

Dannish Babar Emerald Paston Footlights Jenna Corderoy Phil Wang Pierre Novellie Sophie Bauer

First and foremost, congratulations are in order: You have been crowned Footlights President until next Lent and Comedy Central Live Funniest Student of 2011– How’re we feeling?

We’re feeling pretty good, thanks. Things are going well, I won’t deny that.

Photo by Fred Brewin

After so many similarities drawn up between you and Michael McIntyre, by yourself and critics, are you salivating at the prospect of performing alongside him and Lee Evans? How’s the material coming along?

I like to think that the only similarities between us are aesthetic. I am very excited about performing alongside big names as anyone would be, but I doubt you’ll be seeing me hopping about the stage at the O2 anytime soon. The material is a bit slow at the moment because of Engineering exams I’m afraid. But it will pick up again…

Give us some of your comedy influences

I’ve always really enjoyed the delivery and style of American comedians. I’ve always loved Dave Chappelle, and I think Zach Galifianakis is a genius. Jim Gaffigan is a great one for a bit of silly, inoffensive humour too. This side of the pond I suppose Stewart Lee has had the greatest impact on me.

When you rocked up in Cambridge as a bespectacled teen, was comedy part of some great master plan or something that you blindly stumbled into?

I’d done a little bit of stand up at school and one gig at the local comedy club in Bath. At the time performing comedy was very new to me but I’d very quickly developed a passion for it and applied to Cambridge for the most part to try and join the Footlights. So there was some planning involved I guess, but comedy is a ‘stumbly’ business by nature as well.

The world of Footlights is something of an intimidating environment- how easy would you say it is for comedy virgins to get involved? Is it as driven and cliquey as it appears?

Cambridge comedy is by far the most meritocratic community I have ever experienced. If you’re funny, you perform. That’s how it is here and that’s how it should be everywhere. All Footlights shows hold open auditions and the Virgin Smokers unearth fresh talent at the beginning of every year. Performing comedy (well) is difficult to be done casually, most of us are very driven but only because we enjoy it so much. I wouldn’t say we’re a clique, we just share a common interest and passion and work on it together.

Can we expect anything about Footlights to change radically under your rule? Are you nervous at all about taking over the reins from Mark Fiddaman?

Mark was a brilliant president and is a very talented and accomplished comedian, so they are big shoes to fill. I don’t see any radical changes in the future, just hopefully a tighter run ship, so we can develop and produce as much good comedy as possible in our respective times here. I’m not nervous, just excited.

As one of the most omnipresent comedians in Cambridge, do you feel like something of a celebrity here? Ever been approached by strangers?

People sometimes come up to me and say they enjoyed a performance, that’s obviously very nice. I get to enjoy an element of celebrity I suppose but Cambridge is such a small place, everyone’s recognisable for SOMETHING. A very drunk man came up to me at the Van of Life (I was getting something for a friend) and told me I was the next David Mitchell. That was strange I guess, if only because I can’t think of many similarities between the two of us.

How do you approach the juggling act of work, comedy and being a generally normal human being? Is this a vision of serene equilibrium or haggard insomnia?

Aah… you see the secret to that is not to do your work well. I do the absolute bare minimum but that still means I don’t get much sleep. I’m not a healthy man either. I never (never) exercise and I don’t cook. I’m a dollop of a man.

Outside of work and comedy, are we likely to find you in some obscure corner of Cindies or Fez?

As far as a social life goes, I hate clubbing which is why I love Cambridge so much. You’ll probably find me drinking in the ADC bar and unsuccessfully hitting on a lighting director.

How much harder have you found the transition from genteel student stand up to the harsh outside world of pub gigs and the suchlike?

Doing stand up in Cambridge tests your material. People here are smart and won’t entertain a lazy attempt at a rape joke. However they are all very lovely and it took me some adjusting to realise that real-world audiences won’t just laugh because they know you from lunch in hall.

What has been your worst heckle so far?

At last year’s Girton ball, someone shouted out that I wasn’t fat. You might think that’s a nice thing to say but it really messed up the premise of my material.

And the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid you?

Well, Dan Antopolski, Greg Davies and Jack Whitehall have all expressed an appreciation for my stuff. But Varsity did once call my material “groaningly cheap”. So maybe that. It’s always fun to agitate Varsity.

You are known for your professional stage presence and smooth delivery- do you ever suffer from nerves or do you go into an unfaltering autopilot mode?

I always get the tremors just before I get on stage, but that’s normally just the adrenaline and that helps make it a good gig. If you do a bit of material enough you do develop an autopilot though, and it’s important to try and keep it feeling fresh.

How and where do you usually come up with your material?

I normally write best in Cambridge as I find it more of a creative environment. Usually an idea for a joke will pop into my head and I’ll write it down or pop it into my phone and work on it later.

You’ve been doing comedy since your first year- are you not getting bored of the Cambridge comedy scene or is it as exciting as ever?  What do you enjoy and loathe the most it?

As long as there continues to be new people trying out new things I don’t think Cambridge comedy will ever be boring, at least not to me. I enjoy the camaraderie and support you get from the other comedians. I can’t really think of anything I loathe about it. Maybe…reviewers?

You’ve had the opportunity to perform along professional comedians at gigs like the Wolfson Howler and the King’s Jest- who’s been your favourite so far?

Having Ed Gamble at Kings was a blast. He was brilliant and managed to make jokes about our bust of John Maynard Keynes. Perfect.

If you had to go to some mystical comedy desert island and could take four other Cambridge comedians, who would you take and why?

Jenna Corderoy to organise our survival, Pierre Novellie to make funny faces and hunt, Emerald Paston to serenade us, and Dannish Babar to remind us we were all just going to die anyway.

What’s been your proudest achievement at Cambridge yet?

Becoming Footlights president.

Is there anything else you’re gagging to achieve in your remaining time here?

I’d love to write one of the big Footlights shows, which I haven’t been able to yet. We’ll see.

So lastly- what would be your advice to someone looking to start their climb to comedy greatness in Cambridge?

Keep writing, keep auditioning, keep performing, pay no attention to The Tab.

Phil will be performing in The Comedy Zone at the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as taking his show The Life Doctor.