Often edgy, always fiercely intelligent and hilarious, stand-up comedy rising star Robin Tran is performing in Los Angeles this week as part of Netflix Is A Joke: The Festival. Named one of Just For Laugh’s New Faces of 2021, her comedy frequently deals with her identity as an Asian trans lesbian and her experience of navigating depression in a way she describes as “tapping into universal emotions”.
When the doors of live comedy venues were closed during the first waves of the pandemic, Tran took the laugher online and gained an impressive social media following for her videos on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. A writer on Netflix’s Historical Roasts, Tran has headlined stand-up shows from Brooklyn to San Francisco, and appeared on Comedy Central’s Roast Battle, Howie Mandel’s All Star Comedy Gala on the CW, and Netflix Is A Joke Radio’s Are You Still Listening? Her first one-hour comedy special, Don’t Look at Me, is streaming on Hulu, Spotify and iTunes.
Ahead of her live shows for Netflix Is A Joke, Robin Tran spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about how she first broke into stand-up at high school, her advice for writing comedy about being trans, and the LGBTQ+ culture that had an impact on her before she came out.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: when did you first realize that you had the ability to make people laugh and how did that manifested itself?
Robin Tran: “My dad used to be a comedian. He wasn’t exactly doing stand-up, but he would always make people laugh and he used to do a Vietnamese radio show in Little Saigon here in California, so he was paid to be funny. He was always the class clown type and would make prank calls when he was at work at his refrigeration shop. If we were at temple and it was boring, he would elbow people and pretend to be falling asleep! What I loved about that, was seeing my mom trying to tell him to stop being a bad influence on me, but she’d be laughing despite herself! He was so funny that my mom couldn’t help but laugh, and I didn’t really like my dad, but he still made me laugh too. I always thought that was such a fun thing to be able to do; to be so funny that people laugh even though they don’t want to!”
“Then in 1999, I saw Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker comedy special on HBO. I was watching it thinking, I want to be able to do this one day. I thought it was so cool to have a microphone and talk to the audience and make them laugh. When I was in 10th grade at High School, there was a student at the talent show who did stand-up and then the following year, 2004, my friends were encouraging me to do it. So I went along and auditioned for my high school talent show and I bombed in front of the seven people I was auditioning for, who were my own classmates. After every joke I would cry and apologize! The person behind me was auditioning for in his band and after every joke he would do that Ba Dum Tsh sound with his drums. So I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry for wasting your time!’ Then the next day they told me that they didn’t have enough acts, so anyone who auditioned got in.”
“Before I performed at the show, I knew I had to learn how to be more confident and a classmate of mine was like, ‘If you’re nervous just pretend that you’re confident. You’re in drama class, so act like you’re confident.’ So I just pretended that I was confident. I would walk around the campus before the talent show and I would say something and if it was funny I would write it down. That became my set. I ended up winning the talent show and I got a standing ovation. Eight years later, I signed up for my first open mic. It took me eight more years to get the guts to sign up.”
That idea of pretending to have confidence, is that something that you continued to have to do for quite a long time?
“Absolutely. The concept that you can just lie that you’re confident was really helpful for me because it took away having to be genuine about my feelings. It was more like I had no choice, because I tried to be insecure on stage and that didn’t work, so the only other choice was to be confident.”
How do you approach discussing your identity as an Asian trans lesbian and coping with depression in your comedy?
“I feel like I talk about those things, but I don’t really talk directly about them. I’ve been told that my comedy is very specific, but that it also feels universal. I think the reason why it’s universal is because I take people through the monologue of how I’m feeling about being these things. It’s more like my reaction, in my own judgemental brain, to other people’s reactions to me. I don’t present discourse about what it academically feels like to be Asian and trans or whatever. It’s more like, I’m just trying to live my life and then people will give me these dirty looks and I’m like, ‘Wait, why are they giving me dirty looks?! Oh my God, I’m wearing a dress, I forgot I was trans!’ It’s about these human moments of being too lazy to dress up or being annoyed that I’m already depressed and when someone’s looking at me with transphobia I’m like, ‘I haven’t even dealt with the depression yet, and now I’ve got to deal with transphobia?!’ It’s about tapping into universal emotions like jealousy, anger, sadness, or whatever else.”
What advice do you have for other comedians who might want to approach telling jokes about being trans, in terms of creating material that’s funny without perpetuating any transphobia?
“That’s tough. I think I walk that tightrope because I try not to say the wrong thing. That’s always in my brain because there are certain things that it’s just not cool to say. Then I also think to myself, don’t try to say the right thing either, because if you try to say the right thing then you’re going to be too moralistic. So I think it’s about saying what feels true to you, but also be open to the fact that you might be wrong about it and treat it with some humility and an awareness that this is just your own subjective opinion. If you’re honest about how you feel, and you’re not defensive about it, you can get away with pretty much anything if you structure the joke correctly.”
How has being at home for a lot of the past two years impacted your comedy, especially now you’re returning to live gigs?
“When the pandemic started and they said you have to stay at home, I’ll be honest with you, my lifestyle barely changed! That’s how much of an introvert I am. The beginning of the pandemic was actually the greatest period of my life. I felt like I was so burned out. I’m pretty agoraphobic too, so when it was like, I can’t go out because I have no choice, there was no guilt about it which was nice.”
“I love being funny anywhere. I’ll be funny on Twitter. I’ll be funny on TikTok. I’ll be funny on Instagram. I don’t need the drug of stand-up, even though it’s my favorite drug. I think being at home actually made me a better comedian. When I came back to it after an 18 month hiatus, my first set was the Just For Laughs audition. I only said yes to it because I got the vaccine 14 days before that date. Part of me wanted to take a few more months off because I was having so much fun doing TikToks and making memes and everything. When I did my first live set I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so much healthier and I’m rested.’ I also realized how much I had missed it, but I really think that taking a long break was the best thing that ever happened to my stand-up. Until something is taken away from you, you don’t realize how much you love it.”
“When I told a joke and I got a laugh from a live audience for the first time in 18 months, I had this moment of going, ‘Wow, that felt weird!’ It felt weird to think that this is my job and they were laughing at what I was saying. I was thinking what kind of job is this?! This is silly! The audience was getting used to it again too after such a long time, so I felt like we were on an awkward first date where we were kind of navigating this together and luckily it ended up working out.”
I guess even if you get a great reaction to something you post online it’s not the same as standing in front of a laughing audience?
“This is going to sound crazy for a comedian to say, but I feel a thrill in a different way. Like I said, the thrill of performing live is this amazing drug, but it also takes a lot out of me. If I tweet something that goes viral it means that I just made thousands of people laugh and that feels really good to me. That’s as real as doing it in real life. The Internet’s been around for 30 years or so now, so I don’t have the idea that the Internet’s not real and only real life is real!”
Can you give us a flavour of what we can expect from your Netflix Is A Joke show?
“I want people to watch it and laugh and then go, ‘Wow, what a piece of shit!’ But in a funny way! I like to make people laugh at how silly I am and then on the car ride home, they go, ‘You know, some of that was actually pretty sad’, but they were too distracted by how funny it was at the time and just laughed at it. I have a lot of subversive stuff in there. It’s going to be about subverting some trans expectations. I get to do my joke about how I don’t like Vietnam War movies. It’s my favorite joke that I’ve ever written and I’m glad that a lot of people will be able to see it.”
Stand Out at the Greek Theater, a night celebrating LGBTQ+ comedians, is part of the Netflix Is A Joke festival. What do you make of the fact that so many LGBTQ+ comedians are going to be on the same bill?
“I think it’s great, but sometimes people get kind of lost in the trees of how great it is for LGBTQ acceptance. I agree with all that, but for me, what’s great about diversity—and I wish people could talk about this part of it more—is having different perspectives in comedy is just better. I was watching a show where every comedian was female and then a guy came on halfway through this 10-woman show and I was like, ‘Oh, good, a guy!’ Because we hadn’t had a guy up there yet. The idea that there are now more LGBTQ+ comedians is great. It means that we can hear more perspectives of what a different kind of life is like.”
What’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“I remember watching the first episode of Transparent and being really triggered by it. It was before I came out and my partner was like, ‘Why are you so mad at this?’ And I was like, ‘Well, in some other life I could have been a woman, but you don’t hear me making people call me she and her. And she was like, ‘Well then, why aren’t you just a woman?’ And I was like, ‘How dare you?!’ Then two weeks later, I came out as trans.”
“In terms of other people who’ve been influential, I try to be my own hero. I know that sounds really cheesy, but I try not to look at other people and what they’re doing. I feel like what’s great about being trans is that when I came out of the cis boxes that society had put me in, some people tried to put me into this trans box of how I should act, but I was like, ‘No!’ I want to be a rebel almost. I feel like being trans should be a freeing, liberating thing and it’s a personal thing to you. I like to show people that you can be whoever you want to be. Like, I’m a big wrestling fan, I like to roast battle, I like monster trucks, and I like social justice; so just be whoever you want to be too.”
You mentioned roast battles, which you’re incredibly skilled and funny at. Is there a secret to doing that well, because it seems so on the edge?
“I use empathy for evil. I pretend that I’m the other person, then I talk to myself as them until I hurt my feelings as them and then I write it as me attacking them! That’s how I approach it. Roasting is why I got into comedy in the first place, I love it.”
By James Kleinmann
Robin Tran will perform at The Elysian Theater in Los Angeles as part of Netflix Is A Joke: The Festival on Thursday, May 5th 2022, purchase tickets here.
See Robin Tran at the Punch Line Comedy Club in San Francisco on Saturday, May 14th at 9:45 PM. Click here for tickets.