October 16, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Leland Cheuk's novel No Good Very Bad Asian is moving, unsettling, and one of the funniest books I have read in a long time.
The Brooklyn Rail wrote of the book:
"The balance between comic and serious is crucial in literary comedy. Stray too far in either direction and you fail, becoming simplistic on one hand, boring on the other. While a perfect balance is admittedly impossible, never mind a matter of taste, Leland Cheuk does an admirable job in his latest, No Good Very Bad Asian, achieving a true synthesis of heart and humor highlighted by the fluidity of his first-person voice and a steady diet of sharp turns of prose."
My novel No Good Very Bad Asian stars a fictive famed standup comedian named Sirius Lee, who tells the story of his life to his estranged seven-year-old daughter. Despite his successes, Sirius’s life is one weighed down by racism as well as his own mistakes. It’s a book that I felt like I quite literally bled for. For research, I did standup for two and a half years. Then I was diagnosed with cancer, very luckily receiving a life-saving bone marrow transplant, and during the long recovery, finally figured out what the book was about, and finished it numerous times and somehow found a publisher to take it after a full year of rejections.
Like Sirius, despite the many ups and downs in my life and my writing, I never stopped laughing, in large part because of the comedians on this playlist.
“Energy Policy / Fat Kids” Greg Giraldo from Midlife Vices
The late, great Greg Giraldo is one of my favorite standups. Best known for being a roast comic, his albums Good Day to Cross A River and Midlife Vices are underappreciated classics. This bit about America needing big cars like SUVs to “haul their fat f--king kids up hills” is ten years old and feels every bit as relevant today.
“Crazy People and The Guy in the Garbage Can” Dov Davidoff from The Point Is
Like Giraldo, Davidoff is a comic’s comic. In recent years, he’s been most visible as a character actor in TV shows like HBO’s Crashing and NBC’s Shades of Blue. But he’s still performing on the road and authored a very funny memoir entitled Road Dog: Life and Reflections from the Road as a Stand-up Comic. The punchline from his first and only album (“How the f—k am I supposed to eat soup without an envelope?”) always gets me.
“Looking Inward” Sarah Silverman from We Are Miracles
We know her best for her irreverence, but Sarah Silverman is simply a genius-level joke writer. Vanity Fair broke down one of her bits from her recent Netflix special A Speck of Dust here—it’s one of the best bits I’ve ever seen. This bit from 2013’s We Are Miracles is made up of one brilliant joke after another (“To women of a certain age: your heartbreaking and drastic attempts to look younger are the reason your daughter doesn’t dream about her future.”)
“Crazy White Kids” Chris Rock from Bigger and Blacker
No Good Very Bad Asian is, on some level, a political book. Sirius Lee, the protagonist, talks very frankly throughout the novel about race and class. I included this bit from Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker because of what’s not in it—the best and most famous joke. In the original special, this bit is in it: “You don’t need no gun control. You know what you need? We need some bullet control. Man, we need to control the bullets, that’s right. l think all bullets should cost $5,000.” For some reason (the NRA? Corporate censorship?), Spotify has excised the entire “Gun Control” bit from its version of Bigger and Blacker. It can’t even be found in Rock’s greatest bits album Cheese & Crackers.
“No Frills” Ronny Chieng from Just For Laughs 2015
Audiences probably best know the Malaysian-Australian comic Ronny Chieng from Crazy Rich Asians or his time as a correspondent on The Daily Show, but he’s also one hell of a standup. This bit from Just For Laughs, the biggest international comedy festival in the world, held annually in Montreal, showcases Chieng’s observational gifts related to class (“When did the taxi ride to the airport start to cost more than the flight?”).
“Private School Asians” Ali Wong from Baby Cobra
Back when I was doing standup, I’d treat myself by going to Comedy Cellar to see Ali Wong, then far less famous than she is now. This bit touches on a number of truths you have to be Asian to understand (“Fancy Asians…host Olympics. Jungle Asians host diseases.”) and yet Wong makes them funny for a wider audience.
“Everyone is Stupid” Jen Kirkman from I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)
How do you make climate change and the possible end of the world funny? Jen Kirkman does it here in her terrific recent Netflix special. I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) is her third album and it seems like she’s been funny for two decades and only in recent years, is she getting the acclaim she deserves. Her memoir I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids was a New York Times bestseller in 2013.
“Being Black Saved My Life” Dave Chappelle from Just For Laughs 2000
How can you have a standup playlist without a bit from Dave Chappelle. He excels at everything as a comic: he can act, he does great impressions and act-outs, and he’s a superior joke writer. This bit is from almost two decades ago, but it’s just as funny and relevant today. The subtext that makes the bit work (“Terrorists do not take black hostages.”) is the low value the American government places on black lives.
“Hello, I Have Cancer” Tig Notaro from Live
“Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Tig Notaro says in this famed bit revealing her breast cancer diagnosis on stage at Largo in Los Angeles in 2012. (It’s convenient to forget now that this set went viral thanks to an effusive praise tweet from current persona non grata Louie C.K.) Notaro’s set, which was raw, had few punchlines, and was meant to be a private workout, reminds us that comedy has the power to address the ultimate universality—the thing that we all have in common: eventual death.
Leland Cheuk and No Good Very Bad Asian links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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weekly music release lists