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Joe Wong, Man of Comedy and Science

Casey McDonald

For the past decade, Joe Wong has lived two lives, a cancer researcher by day and a standup comedian by night

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In Washington, DC on 17 March 2010, molecular biologist Joe Wong stood in front of a room filled with journalists and politicians, including the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. The pressure was on. His impossible task was to entertain and make the austere individual laugh.

“Definitely the most stressful crowd I’ve ever done, if you bomb there, they’ll talk about it on every channel,” says Wong. But despite his nervousness, Wong preformed admirably at the 66th Annual Radio and Television Correspondence Dinner, peppering his routine with political humor and immigration jokes. By the end of his routine, he had the bipartisan crowd in the palm of his hands.

Cancer researcher turned comedian Joe Wong debuts on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2009. Source: YouTube

On September 1st, Joe Wong will make his third appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Source: Joe Wong

For most of the past decade, Wong has lived two lives, a cancer researcher by day and a standup comic by night, not to mention his roles as a husband and father of a 4-year-old son.

Raised in the Jilin Province of China, Wong came to the U.S. in 1994 to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and cell biology from Rice University in Texas. In 2001, he moved to Boston where he screened drugs targeting tumorigenesis at the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis. While in Boston, Joe discovered his knack at writing jokes and took a couple of comedy classes, eventually becoming popular in the city’s comedy scene.

Comedy is very much like a science experiment, according to Wong. For instance, says Wong, jokes and drugs are a lot alike, they both have to been screened. “Jerry Seinfeld says if he wrote 10 jokes, and one of them worked, he’d be very happy,” says Wong. Furthermore, tweaking a joke by changing the wording or timing is very similar to making minor changes to an experiment in the lab. In both of his pursuits, persistence is necessary.

But persistence always pays off, and results are always in the context, says Wong. “[In comedy,] every word and every phrase can be a punch line as long as you find the right context,” says Wong. The same is true in biomedical research. “Mold is pretty boring stuff, but when you find it in a Petri dish with bacteria, that’s how penicillin was discovered.”

Another necessity for both professions is humor. With failed experiments, faulty equipment, and publication rejections all too common, every lab could use their own personal comedian to lighten up the tension.

Recently, Wong’s standup career has become so successful and all-consuming that he has stepped away from the benchtop. In 2010, he won the Great American Comedy Festival and was named Boston Comedian of the year. He has become one of Ellen Degeneres’ favorite guests, having made multiple appearances on her show. And on 1 September 2011, he will make his third appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

But all that success hasn’t necessarily made his life any easier. “I went from a nine-to-five job to a 24-hour job,” says Wong.

For now, Joe’s family and standup keep him pretty busy, but Wong is in negotiations with Letterman’s production company World Wide Pants Inc. about a possible sitcom. “The failure rate is stupendous, but you never know until you try it,” says Wong.

To see Joe’s show dates, go to:

Keywords:  Comedy Joe Wong