Man thrusts fist at viewer

For eight seasons on the shameless sketch comedy series MadTV, comedian Bobby Lee cracked audiences up with his impersonations of celebs like Connie Chung and Kim Jong-il…but just as often by simply running around naked, even to the point where one sketch featured an Intervention-style sit-down with his concerned co-stars. It was a career-launching experience for the California native, who makes his Montreal debut this week as the host of Just For Laughs The Nasty Show. With his successful podcast introducing him to new fans, the 47-year old is happy to reflect on the good ol’ Mad days and share just how nasty he plans to get.

James Gartler: How did your popular TigerBelly podcast get started back in 2015?

Bobby Lee: My girlfriend asked “how come you don’t have a podcast?”And I said, “No one will listen if I have one.” So, she went to the store and bought all the equipment and told me “Well fine, I’m going to do it on my own then,” and for a couple of weeks she did. One day I just walked by the room and she was sitting by herself looking so sad, so I said “Fuck it, okay, I’ll do one with you”.

It turned out really well and we started accumulating a couple of episodes and building some good traction and eventually I was able to get really good guests, like Jordan Peele, Eric Stonestreet, Craig Ferguson and others. It kind of reinvented me in a sense. People wanted to see me again. So it’s been great.

JG: Do you feel podcasts are great medium for comedians? It seems like an open-mic night that can go on for as long as you want it to and no one can censor you really…

BL: Also you find your real audience that way, I’ve done a lot of different things – a couple of lines here and there in movies, TV shows and whatnot – but podcasts were the way to reach the people that share my real sensibilities and people that enjoy what I have to say. It’s reinvented my shit, man, and I’m pretty happy.

JG: Have you never performed in Montreal before?

BL: I’ve never performed in Montreal before. I’ve done Vancouver a bunch of times, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, all those rooms, but Montreal is the one festival I’ve never done, which is weird because I’ve been in the game for so long.

JG: You’re hosting JFL’s The Nasty Show, which is a popular ticket. How do you decide what material works best for that kind of evening?

BL: Well, not every joke I’m going to tell is going to be a dirty one. I feel like I’ll do an act that I would do in L.A. and that’ll suffice. People say that I’m really dirty – I don’t see that. I could have done The Ethnic Show a couple of years ago, but I decided that maybe the dirty one was more up my alley.

People think that when I perform that a lot of Korean people come out. I have no Asians come out. My audience is a mix of everyone. Obviously, I have Asian people that like me, but I wouldn’t say that’s my audience. If you see someone like Jo Koy, he has a huge Asian audience. I don’t think Asians like me that much.

JG: Why’s that?

BL: I won’t tell you who it was but many years ago there was a Korean actor at The Comedy Store who saw me perform and he came up to me and said: “you’re a disgrace to your people”. So that’s when I knew, “ohhhh, I don’t really connect with them really” (Laughs). Like, if you look at my audience, the people have tattoos on their eyeballs, or they have some weird thing they’re doing with their hair, they look a little dirtier, much like me. I’m just a dirty ethnic guy.

JG: On MadTV you showed a real propensity for running around naked. Did they request it or did it evolve over time?

BL: I just had this thing growing up where I just kinda liked being naked. It’s a control thing, to be honest with you. The other reason why I do it is because I never thought that I was that sexy, but once I started getting naked and being more comfortable with my body is when I feel like women started going “Oh – he thinks it’s good. Maybe it is good?”

It was a way to build my self-esteem, really to be honest with you. And also, getting naked on MadTV was nothing – I used to do some crazy shit. I used to poo in people’s dressing rooms. I pooed in the executive producer’s office once. So being naked is not the worst thing I did.

JG: So by comparison they overlooked it…

BL: Oh yeah. But MadTV taught me so many things about life. It really influenced me because it was so difficult being on that show, especially in the late 90s/early 2000s.

I was a little Korean guy on an American sketch show and that rarely happens.

For me to be able to get that show and learn how to act and memorize lines and perform on TV was so valuable. And also it taught me that “oh shit – maybe you can make it”. Getting there was so important to me on so many different levels.

JG: And a lot of the cast has moved on to great things. Alex Borstein, of course, has her great voiceover career and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are doing well for themselves. Who are most jealous of, from your costars, if anyone?

BL: Honestly, I’m not jealous of any of those guys because those guys are all family. I’m more jealous of people who are more my type. When people my type do better than me, then I get a little crazy.

JG: What’s your type?

BL: I think my fear is that when other when other Asians make it people think that I’m that person. Like when Ken (Jeong) got Hangover and it became a big hit, I would walk down the street and people would roll down the window and yell “Hangover!” so people thought I was Ken for years. That’s what I dread the most – when other Asians make it and people think that I’m them.

JG: Was there a backlash for MadTV alums after you left the show? The material didn’t pull any punches. You made fun of everything and everyone and it was hilarious. Was it hard to go into an audition and say “hello and yes – I’m the guy from MadTV”?

BL: At the time when we were doing it, it felt like… We had no control over what the show was.

When Keegan and Jordan and Ike (Barinholtz) were there, I knew, even though we weren’t really a hit, we were under the radar, but I still knew that the level of talent on MadTV that could rival SNL. I’m not saying we were better, but I was able to see so many good guys.

When I joined the show, Alex was still there, Will Sasso, Michael McDonald…all those guys are my friends and it was just a great introduction to comedy. Keegan and Jordan and Alex and all these people being successful only helps my cause. I feel like Key & Peele reinvented the way the industry views MadTV. I know that Key & Peele was their own thing, but they are MadTV people and they met on MadTV. The kind of talent I was exposed to completely and utterly blew me away.

And also, I got sober on that show. I discovered recovery on that show. I relapsed, I got sober and that’s how I was able to do movies after that. So even though there was some darkness, I have fond memories when it comes to Mad.

The Nasty Show runs July 17 to 27. Tickets are available at hahaha.com or by calling 514-845-2322. Follow Bobby Lee on Twitter @thetigerbelly.

Mental illness is a topic a lot of people are uncomfortable with. Though society is getting better at discussing illnesses like depression, anxiety, grief and others, we owe that in part to the entertainers who have bravely come forward to tell of their struggles. Among these you find comedians like Hannah Gadby and Adam Cayton-Holland.

Adam Cayton-Holland’s story is one of moving beyond grief and turning pain into power. He is returning to the Just for Laughs festival after six years away.

The reason for his hiatus is a sad one. Shortly after he played the festival in 2013, his sister died by suicide. Cayton-Holland was the one who discovered her body.

Following her death, he battled grief and depression and underwent therapy which helped him to cope. He eventually came out with a memoir of his struggles, titled Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir. His show, Happy Place, is loosely adapted from that memoir.

I had the opportunity to speak with Cayton-Holland about his experience overcoming grief and his return to Just for Laughs. He was surprisingly cheerful on the phone given the tragedy he’s endured, saying he’s excited to come back and that he loves Montreal.

When I asked him for specifics, he talked about loving the food at Au Pied de Cochon and that he’s looking forward to eating at Joe Beef this time around. When I asked him whether he preferred New York bagels to Montreal bagels, he pointed out that being from Denver, Colorado, he doesn’t have a dog in this fight.

“I’ll take Montreal,” he laughed.

Pleasantries aside, I asked about the tragedy he endured.

“I came to Montreal in 2012, and I came back in 2013. I came home, and two days after that my little sister took her own life.”

I asked if she was ill and he said she was clearly so but that things only became clearer in hindsight, describing how looking at the timeline, the last two years of her life were characterised by mental illness that turned his sister’s brain in on itself.

I asked him if the grief and depression he endured as a result interfered with his ability to do comedy:

“Oh my god yeah. And I sort of stopped doing standup for a while. It was this odd thing where you know, for a comic from Denver, Colorado to be a New Face, it was a big deal, it was a big career moment, and then two days later your sister takes herself out. So it’s like all things you’ve been caring about in your career and comedy and Hollywood and then you’re just quickly reminded: oh none of that matters at ALL and I’m broken and my family’s broken. My friends and I sold our TV show, Those Who Can’t, which had three seasons to TruTV right around that time so we had to make a pilot and I was sort of doing the best I could but I had a couple of breakdowns and I had to have aggressive therapy and it is as awful as you can imagine. It was THAT awful.”

I know some people, when dealing with grief, tend to work harder to try and forget, so I asked Cayton-Holland if this was the case with him. He said that he tried, but everything happened seven years ago and he hasn’t been talking about it in standup on stage.

Writing the book, then, became his way of mourning. Now that he put the book out, he wants to talk about it in a one-man show format, describing said show as:

“Not standup per se, a little more serious.”


For Cayton-Holland, writing was therapeutic and cathartic, helping him process what he was going through, though he went into the writing process with no hyperbole in mind.

“I’d sit at my laptop and sob, but it helped me. There was a normalization of it. I don’t want this to be a dirty secret. I don’t want this to be something I’m ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of her, not ashamed of what she did. I just feel like mental illness took my little sister out and so writing about it helped me kinda come around and get through the normal feelings of grief and anger and shame and guilt. Writing really helped me with that.”

When he mentioned sobbing, I asked if he wanted to fight the stigma about men crying. In response Cayton-Holland pointed out that the stigma is a little dated and feels like there’s something wrong with a man who can’t cry.

“I lost my little sister. You expect me not to cry?”

When I asked about the response to his memoir, he said it’s been amazing:

“If anything it’s shown me how prevalent this stuff is: mental illness, depression, suicide. I cannot tell you the amount of messages I get all the time, sometimes it’s really big overshare. I put myself out there so people relate. I wrote honestly and tried to normalize it and a lot of people are like ‘Thank you because my family went through something similar’ and just share- It’s the power of story, and people seem to really respond to that.”

He said that in some ways the experience made him less lonely, in some ways it made him more so. He says that telling his story has helped nip any shame and awkwardness in the bud.

“It’s 2019 and we still whisper the word ‘suicide’. I’m comfortable with it but I understand the stigma around it.”

His show is called Happy Place because the therapy he underwent to overcome his grief involved retreating to a happy place in his mind when a traumatic memory – in this case finding his sister’s body – became too intense. The show is based on excerpts from his memoir, but Cayton-Holland says you can expect tons of new material as well.

Happy Place is on at Just for Laughs from July 23-25. Check it out.

Ronny Chieng is one of the few comics to bring an Asian perspective to the Just for Laughs stage. He is playing the Just for Laughs festival as part of his Tone Issues Tour but you can also see him on The Daily Show and in Crazy Rich Asians, his first role in a major motion picture. 

I had the chance to speak to Chieng over the phone. Being half-Asian myself, I know about the expectations Asian parents often have for their children so I asked if his family had different hopes for him career-wise. Chieng appreciated the question because one of his very first jokes at Just for Laughs addressed that.

He spoke of being sent to Australia to study law but he was a poor student. He became a comedian because he couldn’t get a job in law, and comedy ended up paying better. He even said that he didn’t tell his parents about his new career directly – they found out about it when he appeared in the local press in their home country, but they’re okay with his career choice now.

Since Chieng now works in America and a lot of his comedy is political, I asked him if he thinks Trump is good for comedy. He feels it’s fair to say that Trump is good for comedy.

“He’s bad for life, bad for the planet, and bad for the country, and bad for mental health everywhere. At The Daily Show we talk about him every day, so I’d be hard-pressed to say he’s not good for comedy. Would I want that? No, I would rather have someone else – he has more cons than pros for the comedy world.”

Though Chieng doesn’t like the Trump Administration, he doesn’t feel that comedians working in America should feel obligated to criticize it in their comedy.

Great stand-up, in his eyes, comes from really authentic points of view and pandering to trendy topics if you’re not personally passionate about them is not going to make for good comedy. 

While comedians shouldn’t feel obligated to talk about it, he feels that everyone – comedian or not – has an obligation to say something if they feel that something isn’t right.

Chieng’s comedy centers a lot on being Asian in predominantly white countries so I asked if his work was more about dispelling stereotypes or just about laughter. At first he joked that it was about making money, but then said that he is about fighting stereotypes or at least give them a little more nuance. 

“If there’s a stereotype, I would like to explain why that’s a stereotype and maybe take the stereotype to another level – explain the full story behind the stereotype or break the stereotype altogether if I feel a stereotype is unfair. I try to address it because I feel like no one is talking about it in society. I wanted someone to talk about it when I was growing up so that’s the kind of comedy I do. I hope I do the kind of comedy I wanted to see.”

While a lot of Chieng’s comedy is about lived experience, he does research on occasion to make sure he knows what he’s talking about. When it comes to his favourite topics in comedy, he said it’s mostly things that make him angry, saying he has an hour of such examples in his Just for Laughs show.

Crazy Rich Asians was Ronny Chieng’s first film role, so I couldn’t help asking him about it. Chieng loved doing the film because it was shot in Malaysia and Singapore, where he’s from, which allowed him to see family and friends during filming. 

The film was considered ground-breaking because it supposedly opened the door for more Asian characters in film when Hollywood still didn’t think it was possible. While Chieng doesn’t consider the film to be the be-all and end-all of films featuring Asian characters, he thinks the fact it was so well-received is amazing. 

“What the movie was really good at was not over-explaining Asian things and showing Asian characters as complete three-dimensional characters with complicated needs and wants. Some of them are good guys and some of them are bad guys, some of them are in between, they fall in love, they fall out of love, they have complicated lives. I thought that was very useful. I think it also established a baseline for Asian storytelling moving forward. I think there’s no context for Asian stories usually in the West, so a lot of movies can’t be made because there’s no baseline understanding so I feel like Crazy Rich Asians is a very good baseline story for Asian people in the West.”

There have been criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians as only showcasing paler-skinned Asians. For example, Filipinos like myself tend to be darker. Chieng sees the problem in the fact that in North America, Asian is considered a single voting block despite the diversity in Asian nationalities and cultures among the Asian diaspora. 

“You got Koreans, you got Japanese, you got Burmese, you got Thai, you have Filipinos, you have Malaysians, you have Chinese people, not to mention Chinese Indonesians, Chinese Malaysians, Chinese people who live in Japan, Chinese people from different parts of China with all the different dialect groups. Then you have the same number of people Americanized… and each of those groups are very distinct cultures. To expect one movie to cover the entire diaspora of Asia is an unfair burden placed upon it by Western views of what Asia is,”

In terms of criticisms that the film only showcased wealthier Asians, Chieng considers the movie satirical and that it showcases the extreme wealth that’s in Asia right now because that’s how the West experiences Asia in 2019.

Ronny Chieng is playing Just for Laughs from July 23 to 25. Check him out.