Interview #90 — Lawrence Leung
Lawrence Leung is a screenwriter, actor and award-winning stand up comedian. He has created and presented TV shows, and performed acclaimed stand-up comedy shows around the globe about his obsessively geeky and obscure pursuits.
He once solved a Rubik’s Cube in a skydive before pulling the parachute. This year, Lawrence returns to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with tall tales, big concerns and dubious solutions in his latest Growing Concerns. Book your tickets here.
Lawrence spoke to Elizabeth about Venn Diagrams, psychology, and the connection between sandwiches and philosophy.
What’s the first joke you remember telling?
I can’t remember the first joke I told but I do remember playing pranks. For some reason, I was really into slapstick as a kid, and I thought it was hilarious to make people think I had critically injured myself. I would trip over, pretend to open doors into my face or act unconscious while sprawled at the bottom of staircases. When people ran over to me, I would then spring to my feet like a fully-healed jack-in-the-box, like nothing had happened. In hindsight, I think I found it more side-splitting than my parents and teachers. Thankfully, I never had that Boy Who Cried Wolf paradox of seriously hurting myself in actuality and having people not believe me, à la oh I’m not falling for that! It’s just tomato sauce.
What was the most successful of these pranks?
The most successful was that one I mentioned above where I screamed and banged my hands on the final staircase steps to simulate the sound of a body tumbling down the whole flight… then lying on the ground pretending to be passed out.
For some reason, I was really into slapstick as a kid, and I thought it was hilarious to make people think I had critically injured myself.
You’ve created a career out of your passions—how did you get to this point?
Sometimes I feel like it’s been all an accident. I obsess over nerdy or obscure topics that I find intensely interesting. The next logical step was to construct stories to communicate my passion for them. I’ve written stage shows about Rubik’s Cubes and jetpacks, TV shows about ghost hunting in Scottish castles, and I’ve done an ABC Catalyst special about the science of sleep. If my work was represented in a Venn diagram, I hope to exist in the intersection where the Funny circle and Fascinating circle meet. The fact that I referenced Venn diagrams is a clue to the type of comedy I make.
A lot of my projects explore human nature—I majored in Psychology at uni—and how people can fool themselves and others. So I have made documentaries that take a sceptical look at the paranormal (Unbelievable), a feature film about con artists (Sucker) and theatre shows full of psychological stunts and interactive mind-games (Very Strange Things). I’ve been very lucky. The arts/entertainment industry—and even the science communication field—seem to be drawn to my Venn intersection of funny and fascinating. People want to laugh as well as learn more about themselves. It’s the comedy of curiosity.
When your job is an intersection of so many different things and you have the flexibility of freelance, how do you decide what to focus on at any given time? Is it one project at a time, or many threads running alongside each other?
I’ve always loved how comedy is a genre and not a medium. You can apply a comic outlook in film, theatre, podcasts, documentary, books and TV. The tricky thing for a freelancer is working out which projects to prioritise more of your time on. The reward versus work ratio isn’t always compatible with your interests in a topic. So I tend to have a scattergun (or scatterbrain) approach of having different projects within different mediums at the same time. It’s a mindfuck to juggle, but it’s great being busy with projects I am excited by.
People want to laugh as well as learn more about themselves. It’s the comedy of curiosity.
When your work is focused on the things that interest you, how do you stop work from draining the joy from your hobbies?
Work is work so it’s not always supposed to be fun. One way to make it more fun is to collaborate with like-minded folk. Another way is to remind yourself that the end result can be the fun part. For example, the satisfaction of completion, enjoying how an audience relates to the work or just feeling like you’ve successfully challenged yourself or extended your skillset. For me, writing a TV show or stage show can be brutal, but I love hearing how audiences feel about the TV program or how they respond to my jokes on-stage.
Your live comedy shows each year have a strong thematic focus. Most recently you managed to make determinism and philosophy not only entertaining, but funny. How do you decide what to home in on each year?
I was fascinated with the challenge of writing a philosophical comedy show. The result was my stand up show The Man Who Stopped For A Sandwich that I toured to comedy festivals around Australia. Discussing material determinism, fate and free will at a Comedy Festival was actually awesome fun and audiences were fantastic. Someone described my show as “TED Talk meets stand-up comedy meets Derren Brown.” I was actually quite inspired by the Netflix show The Good Place. They proved to me you can marry deep musings about moral philosophy with really dumb jokes and it works. The challenge was to do it on stage alone as a stand up.
The topics I choose to turn in to projects have to have a hook that captures my curiosity. I used to do shows about topics that I was already well-versed in. But lately, I find it immensely satisfying to choose unexplored areas where I actually learn more about the topic as I develop, research and write the show. When I made the Catalyst science documentary about sleep, I actually learnt strategies to improve my own sleep, which improved my own health and happiness. Creating projects shouldn’t just be a job, but something that enriches you.
Work is work so it’s not always supposed to be fun. One way to make it more fun is to collaborate with like-minded folk.
How do you think the public perception of a career in comedy differs from the day to day reality?
I think a lot of people think it’s easy being funny. The job of a comedian is to appear off-the-cuff and natural on stage. In real life, my act is highly-scripted and honed over tons of performances. I always road-test new material at small gigs and trial shows before stepping out in front of full-paying festival audiences.
When it comes to film and TV, it’s more a collaborative process. There may be many iterations of an idea and many compromises in terms of budget and production requirements. It’s fascinating seeing the writers’ room process for some the shows I have worked on. We pore over every tiny detail, punchline or plotline. It’s the golden age of TV at the moment, and I think audiences are very savvy and demanding. So we are always working very hard behind-the-scenes to continually surprise and satisfy audiences.
What is a typical day for you?
Sadly, there really isn’t a typical day. Yesterday, I was squeezed inside a box with a smoke machine for a photoshoot. This morning, I was at Bunnings and Officeworks buying materials to build props for my new show. This time last week, I was at the Adelaide airport carousel waiting for three roadcases of luggage for my performance that night. Some days, it’s all admin and emails.
That reminds me, I have some invoices I need to send… I sometimes wish I had 9-to-5 predictable office job.
In real life, my act is highly-scripted and honed over tons of performances.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Feed your passion. Read. Watch. Be a fan of your area of interest. Look for mentors and study your heroes. Collaborate with like-minded artists. Join the community. Write the thing that you would like to see or read as an audience member. Fail. Make mistakes. Develop a thick skin for rejection. Listen to criticism. If you have writers’ block, go for a walk around the block and get a coffee. Your first draft is always shit. Turn off social media when the deadlines loom. Try to get 8 hours sleep (at least once a week). Find your voice by putting your work out there. Ignore reading advice (including all of the above) and just write. Writers write.
Who are you inspired by?
I think it’s important to have role models but to never meet them in case they turn out to be jerks. Creative people I admire include graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, comedians Daniel Kitson and Ali Wong, podcast producer Ira Glass and magical thinkers Teller and Derek Del Gaudio. Lately, my partner and daughter inspire me the most—I’ve met them and they are not jerks.
How do you practise self-care?
Surrounding myself with friends and loved ones. Playing with my toddler.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
When you grow up in-between two cultures, you feel different. In my teenage years, the tension of Otherness made me particularly angsty at times. As I have gotten older, I’ve learnt that normal is boring and difference is what makes everyone unique. Our difference can be a rich mine for stories, perspectives and humour that come from honest experience.
Our difference can be a rich mine for stories, perspectives and humour that come from honest experience.
This year, Lawrence returns to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with tall tales,
big concerns and dubious solutions in his latest Growing Concerns. Book your tickets here.