The Jon Wan Interview: “Glamazon Prime”
Those who have seen him perform at UCB or the Duplex, know that Jon Wan is a talented, hilarious, perceptive performer. But what the audience doesn’t know of Jon is something less perceptible in a brief evening set: it is his kind nature and big heart.
Far from being a treacly soundbite, that is simply the truth.
It’s said that the most successful people are often the kindest; they are the type of people who others want to work with and for. Tom Hanks, Meryl, and Beyoncé — they all have a reputation for being kind and generous.
Jon is among the kind and generous, and his talent is icing on the cake. I spoke with him in late 2016 in his Harlem apartment.
What do you prefer — Jon or Jonathan?
Jon Wan is how I’m known to friends. Jonathan is reserved for school teachers. And my mom.
How did you get into performing, and can you describe your act?
I’ve been performing since I was a kid in summer camps, church choir. I started piano when I was seven so that was always a through line. I am pretty rusty now, my russian piano teacher would be v e r y disappointed.
Comedy began in a sketch group at Skidmore College. It was my first time thinking about being funny and performing that. It was casual though, more just for each other the experience of working together as a group. Lol, I wouldn’t say we were funny all the time, or if our ideas always landed with the audience.
Skidmore hosted an annual College Comedy Fest, and college groups from all across the nation came — one year we saw BriTANicK and it was a delight. Every year the festival would end with a professional group and a UCB tour group would usually come. We would just lose our MINDS.
I loved it. And that was always in the back of my head as one of the reasons to move to New York City after school (along with continuing my very awesome fun college indie rock band the Artifacts!!! we have since disbanded). . Once I did move to the city, and finished the remainder of year working full time and feeling fully existentially lost (but also I had the best fling of my life?), I thought: I can not feel like a B-side Girls ep anymore, I should sign up for something! So, I signed up for 101. I met people, started rehearsing outside of class, formed some indie teams and that’s how it all began!
What made UCB stand out to you, over other New York improv places like Annoyance and Magnet?
Truly, I just had the memory of their college visit and knew it was the one I wanted to sign up for. My very first drop-in class was at the PIT though, so I could get a sweet sweet taste of what was to come. Looking back, I like UCB because I work well with structures and really like the way they teach game. I am boring in that I like clear outlines and rules. I liked how they encourage following the fun, but also keep an ear out for the unusual thing.
Being at UCB helped me to find what’s funny, why it’s funny, and most importantly what I find funny. I remember really paying attention to what I was laughing at, and seeing if anyone else was laughing — if not, then it was even even funnier. I had never been self-reflective or aware about comedic choices and that’s what I loved about class.
How do you identify yourself — Writer? Comedian? Performer?
I KNEW this question was gonna come up [laughs], and I don’t know! It’s easier to just tell people I’m a comedian. I studied studio art in college, so that was my first formal training in thinking creatively and experimenting. If I were to name myself, I’d say I’m a creative person, and I love performance right now, and comedy has been a great vehicle to drive that. I feel most alive though when I am experimenting, mixing together different interests or ideas that seem like at first they don’t fit. Kiko and Tuna was truly a result of weaving together what seemed at first very far-fetched.
How would you describe your show Kiko & Tuna?
Kiko and Tuna is a character driven cabaret partly improvised, partly not. I am Kiko, Hannah is Tuna. I met Hannah through a musical improv class at UCB and it was fate. Each time Hannah and I perform the show, we write new material and loosely retell the origin story of two unlikely friends who recall their famous lives as child starlets. But now that their well has run dry, they’ll do anything for a dollar. Some songs are written, some are covers and some are made up on the spot! When writing we perk our ears up at things that delight us and we try to focus on the absurdly positive. Come if you like glitter and free temporary tattoos.
New York can sometimes be a pessimistic, cynical place — how important is it to you to bring that positivity to your act? And do you ever worry that New York audiences will be put off by aspects of the show that are happy and positive?
omg, This is a question for my memoir [laughs]. I think I am at my worst when I worry too much about what audiences will think (comedically, and perhaps in my life in general). Truly, I am a genuinely positive and happy person and can be so so sentimental and corny. I mean, I will cry over a pet adoption commercial set to well timed sad music. I like to believe what people show you they are and I hate wasting energy thinking about people’s ulterior motives, if any. I would rather be straight forward and honest. I think New York teaches you to have some healthy skepticism and tough skin though. But, I also think you can’t let any environment overpower your spirit.
What kind of challenges have you faced that led you to live more creatively?
I think a big lesson in life so far has been to really be comfortable with myself, loving myself, and the skin I’m in. I think that growing up, I had a battle between saying and doing things to please other people and be in their favor (my parents, friends, in learning settings) versus letting a freak flag fly and nurturing a more off-beat part of me. I am weird, but I was also a people pleaser.
But I’m not trying to knock down the people pleaser in me either, I think it can be a great quality to want harmony and be aware of others’ needs, I think I sacrificed some of myself in that though. I was trying to please and prove so much. And I think that’s part of what living a creative life now has been about — reclaiming that part of myself that I’d lost, and the joy in discovering it again. When you let go of what others’ think, there is a blissful freedom in being yourself.
How do you move past focusing on how your work will be received?
When Kiko and Tuna guest on someone’s show, we try to do or test a new element. Recently we’ve been improvising pop songs with a synthesizer. We’re not carrying the show so the stakes are low, who cares if people laugh or not? Of course, we AIM to entertain!
Dylan Marron recently said to me, “Don’t worry about making comedy and worrying if people will laugh. All you have to do is like something and really stand by it.” He is doing the Lord’s work on Seriously.tv these days!
Do you have a favorite venue in New York where you perform?
I am paraphrasing RuPaul here, but I think if you’re going to do something, you owe it to yourself to have a stage, a spotlight and a goddamn mic that works. Put on a show honey!
You hang out in social circles comprised of other New York artists and comedians and musicians; how important is it to you to surround yourself with creative people?
Social circles! This is my social circle [Jon points to his dog Yahoo]. If you are creative, I think it’s important to not only surround yourself with like-minded people, but also people who support you (and you support them) whether creative or not. I try and hope I seem authentic in my relationships. I think it’s important to work with open-minded people and those who may challenge or open your mind too.
But also, true to some twenty-something’s BuzzFeed list, you know, “don’t surround yourself with toxic people”… it’s true! You have a certain amount of energy, and some people will try to rob you of your mental energy or they’re going through something and it bleeds over into the thing you’re creating and trying to build together. At least for me, I have had trouble protecting my energies. I have let some people drag me down before.
That’s why when you do meet those people you really click with, it’s important to be open and grateful and honor it. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people also keeps you very motivated. Being around other creatives is really important; finding your tribe.
How important to you and your work is social media, in terms of building your brand and getting the word out about your shows?
Social Media is fun and I mostly try to keep it that way (for me)! I think the problem with Facebook sometimes is that we as a people can get caught up in talking the talk, or projecting a part of ourselves we want to see and then make no changes in our actual lives, which creates a big disconnect. Obviously please come to every single show I have even if it is in a broom closet.
You’re good at posting funny observations; how do you curate what you find funny and then also what other people will respond to?
I think that what delights you is a good instinct to follow! I am a visual person, so often I will be struck by something that is beautiful and perfectly stupid. Often I’ll do something that’s 500 times fiercer, majestic and over the top (ex. be a supermodel when irl I am a bag of actual bones). One of my favorite photos, Glamazon Prime, was when I was flattening some boxes from Amazon and then decided to make the packaging into a robe/dress. It was whimsical and very dumb mostly because it was literally trash. I would say that people respond to my dog. He is much more popular than me. Wow, if I didn’t have a heart of gold, I’d be Regina fucking George.
You’re such a unique person — do you ever have any fear or insecurity about being so completely yourself? And if so, how do you overcome that fear?
Oh, every day! I think generally my coming out story is pretty plain but it was an act that demanded some fearlessness. I went through so many years where I didn’t really love myself, and I didn’t like the skin I was in and I had set up so many mechanisms to bury parts of myself and present myself in a way so that I was in popular opinion.
It came to a point where I was so angry, just so much repressed anger and sadness that it was starting to spill over When I was 19, I was like, really really drunk (and totally using alcohol as an escape mechanism) and I said something that was really hurtful to a friend at the time. It was mean. That’s when it clicked. I thought,: that’s not me, I don’t have any intention to be hurtful, and it’s time for me to figure out who I am. So, I checked myself into therapy on campus, and that was a really hard but rewarding time in my life. I wanted to write my own script and stop living from a place of fear.
What do you think is one of the most important qualities for a performer?
I love to watch performers that are really committed to whatever they’re performing — even if it’s tanking!
What advice would you give someone who wants to perform or do something artistic but is afraid to?
Do it anyway. That should be an indicator it’s something you should do: that it scares you a little bit. You have nothing to lose. You’ll never know until you try.
And I’m a big champion of, if something seems too intimidating what’s the smallest possible thing you could do? And that’s true for anything. If you want to run, but you can’t run a mile, can you just put on your shoes? What matters most is just committing to something and making it into a habit. So just start.
Now we’ll have to end with a song, and a sunset, and throwing glitter into the air [laughs].
ANNE McCARTHY is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Ms. Magazine, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today, and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London. She is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City, and the Soho Theatre Writers Lab. She lives in New York City, where she is writing a memoir about life in London.