“I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change” says the ex-Cambridge mathmo, later professional poker player, and now comedian, Ken Cheng (@kenchengcomedy). Having won Dave’s Funniest Joke of the Fringe Award in 2017 with this punchy one-liner, Ken continues to catch people’s attention with his witty, intricate, and quietly cynical sense of humour. When we meet on a grey afternoon in early January, we discuss Cambridge (both the comedy and the clubbing), change, and his upcoming tour, ‘Best Dad Ever’.
As he pours himself a cup of Green Tea at the pub that we are sitting in (which actually, funnily enough, has “a passion for wine and real ale”), Ken opens up about his university experience. He says quite unapologetically “I’m just very anti-Oxbridge. I rejected Oxbridge and they rejected me in a way.” When asked why he felt that way, he continues, resting his arm on the maroon-leather sofa, “A lot of people at Cambridge don’t necessarily deserve to be there beyond the fact that they know how to act or behave [in a particular way]. So it seems like Cambridge isn’t for everyone when it really should be for anyone who is good.” Ken is very honest about the fact he did not enjoy his Maths degree. “We had 2 hour lectures at 10am every Monday to Saturday and the guy would just talk at us … it’s a bad system.” He’s fiddling with the laces on his vintage white Converse as he adds thoughtfully, “Cambridge was not for me. It’s a shame … I always knew that something wasn’t quite right.”
I ask for some of his fonder memories of Cambridge, and he is quick to mention the comedy community. He was a member of the Footlights, alongside the likes of Phil Wang. “It’s a good scene to start in”, he says, “more so than London. If you are in London, you might have no audience members unless you rely on the ‘bringers’ … I sort of got into comedy by accident after I did a gig in front of a 100+ people.” He admits that he used to be quite shy and even suffered from stage-fright. But when he says this, his tone is more confident: “the 18-21 year olds in Cambridge who are hoping to go into comedy might be feeling a little insecure … they should just really go out of their comfort zone and do it”.
Ken’s jokes have always demonstrated a piercing awareness of logic and language: maths meets comedy. Fringe reviewer Steve Bennett describes his style as “super-nerdy”. His hilariously rational attack on the proverb ‘killing two birds with one stone’ during the finals of the BBC Radio New Comedy Awards reflects Ken’s philosophy on the mathematics of calculating jokes. He explains “I think the nitty gritty of joke construction is quite a maths-y thing because it’s about the intricacy of word order”.
We get onto the topic of Ken’s upcoming Best Dad Ever tour. It is largely a rerun of his award-nominated, sold-out performance at the Fringe in August 2018. He hints, however, that his themes will be less abstract: “it’s going to be about growing up”. He retains his mathematical sense of humour, but in recent years he has come to the realisation that, yes, base level comedy is about being funny, but that’s really only the minimum. “What people really want is for them to be able to engage in your own life. And when you come to terms with the fact that all you have to do is talk about your stories, it becomes easier.” I feel privileged to have been able to hear so many of Ken’s stories this afternoon.
Ever since his BBC Radio 4 series entitled Ken Cheng: Chinese Comedian, he has also started to explore “avant-garde racism” in greater depth in his sketches. His comedic persona rises to the surface as he jokes: “whether I have another Edinburgh show in me this year depends on how much racism I get – ideally about 55 minutes, perfect for a show”. He gently shifts his tone, though, when asked if he ever feels an obligation to address issues of racism in the position that he is in. “I think there certainly is a responsibility. It’s important not to be too offensive as a comedian. I think my comedy used to be less conscious of the message it was trying to make, but now I’m trying to make the message of tackling racism or race in an interesting and funny way. I don’t want to make my audience feel uncomfortable.”
I ask if he ever finds it frustrating or limiting whenever he is prematurely categorised as a “British-born-Chinese” comedian. He pauses for a moment then shakes his head as he comments “It’s not so much being pigeon holed as that, it’s more coming and saying that I am British-born-Chinese. I think with identity politics now it is good to own that. You see, there has been quite a big surge in new comedians who can offer different voices in recent years. For a long time the scene’s been dominated by white male voices (not that there is anything intrinsically wrong about that), but it has been all the same. Now there’s just a wider range, and I think that’s exciting.”
He says that he is looking forward to going back to Cambridge for the tour. He has already starred in five or six Comedy Debates at the Union, so delivering jokes in front of the current undergrads is nothing new to him. But that doesn’t change his naturally modest demeanour; he cannot quite hide his reservations about ticket sales. “I would like as many people as possible to come. Maybe I should be making stuff up about the show to persuade people. Give them something free…” He glances at me, then shifts his gaze to the ceiling. “What do Cambridge students like to eat nowadays? Avocado? Let’s go with a free avocado.” (This is in no way being guaranteed by TCS).
Ken Cheng is a cultural commentator, a contemporary thinker, and though he has trepidations about Oxbridge, he is still probably someone’s great-great-great college grandparent. And the best thing about him? He doesn’t emanate an outlandish, arrogant, “I-know-I’m-funny” kind of attitude. He’s just funny.
Ken Cheng will be performing in Cambridge on January 30th, and you can purchase your tickets here. If you can’t catch him at the Cambridge Junction, you can see him hosting The Hangover Game on E4 in February.