Esther Ku

Interview with Esther Ku for By : Kevin McCarthy

KM: Thanks for talking with us. To start off could you tell us a little about what drove you to be a comedian and how you got your start doing stand-up?

EK: Sure. Well I was always a writer in my high school and I wrote for the school paper and all these kids at school would always come up to me like “I read your articles first cause they’re funny!” So when you’re a kid and somebody tells you you’re funny, you’re like “Oh, I’m gonna be a comedian.” You don’t ever think of the practicality of “Well, I’m gonna be broke for ten years.” And once you hear like, people coming up to you telling you your funny a few times, you’re like “okay, yeah, maybe I can do this.” So, when I graduated college, which I should’ve never gone to college, I think that was a mistake, but I was trying to lose my virginity and I didn’t know any other legitimate way to go about doing that. So after I graduated from college, I moved to Boston and I started with the open mic scene over there. So that’s how I got my start really.

KM: So you said you wrote for your school paper, what did you write about? Because I imagine it’s a bit different than your stand-up material if it was for your school paper.

EK: Yeah, I just wrote like, I knew that kids had really short attention spans, because we were forced to read for an hour every Wednesday, so I was like, I know they’re not gonna read a whole article, so let me just write a little column like “You Know You’re a Freshman When…” “You Know It’s Winter Break When…” You know what I mean? Stuff like that. Just little jokes in the form of columns for the school paper.

KM: Yeah. So I was listening to an interview you did with NPR a few years ago, and you’re talking about how you were still working towards being able to make comedy your sole source of income, and you said you were working part-time at a dentist’s office.

EK: Yeah! Did I say that?

KM: Yeah, that was a few years ago. I think it was 2008. Was that true, you were working at a dentist’s office?

EK: Yeah, I was actually working for a dentist who was also a comedian, Dr. Michael King. I met him at a comedy club when I first moved to New York and said “I just moved here from Boston.” And he said “Do you have a job?” I said “No.” He said “Well you can answer phones for me.” He’s a really nice guy, I worked for him for a couple of years.

KM: So you’ve made comedy your sole source of income then? You don’t do anything to supplement your pay besides comedy?

EK: Besides whoring myself out on my nights off, no. [laughs]

KM: So you said that was your main goal as a comedian at the time. So I’m wondering, what was that moment you realized you could quit your day job and make a living in comedy. Was it Last Comic Standing or anything like that?

EK: Yes, Last Comic Standing helped a lot, but I think just building up the time. Because when I did Last Comic Standing I literally had five minutes. It’s not like I could just go on the road with five minutes. It’s just been about getting on stage every single night and building up a bigger set for me to be able to go on the road on my own, rather than piggybacking off of somebody.

KM: So you’ve been working in stand-up since 2004 from what I understand, is that about right?

EK: Yeah.

KM: So about a decade, so I was wondering, there’s been a lot of talk about how in the past decade the role of women in comedy has changed a lot. Like, that female comics have a much more prominent place than they used to. So I’m wondering, as someone who’s been working for the past decade, from your experiences as a female comedian have those attitudes changed throughout your career?

EK: Well, I think any female comedian who decides to pursue this career path really knows that the majority of comedians are still male and will always be male, and so, if anything I look at it as an advantage. I think it helps us stand out, and we’re more memorable just because there are so many guys. So when women do make it and make a name for themselves, people will remember us, you know? So I even look at it as an advantage. I’m sure there’s tons of disadvantages, but I don’t like to focus on that, you know? I’m not one of those comedians who are like “Well, all the guys give rides to each other, and all the guys play poker and open for each other…” It’s like, who gives a shit? We stand out, so we win.

KM: Yeah, I was about to ask a follow-up to that question, since you’re also Korean, and Asian-American comics aren’t very well-represented in comedy, but it’s also given you a lot of the subjects of your stand-up. So I was wondering if having that identity helps you stand out as a Korean female comedian, but I guess you sort of answered that.

EK: Yeah, I guess it helps me stand out, but I feel that there are two worlds of comedy, that there’s the mainstream world, where the white comedians and the white audiences primarily go, and there’s the urban comedy world, which is where a lot of the black, Latino and etcetera go to perform. So I oscillate between both worlds, like I’ll do a mainstream, regular comedy club, but I also love playing urban clubs. But you know, the comedy circuit for Asians hasn’t really popped up ever. You know? So it’s like I constantly have to be borrowing my audiences from other sources, I feel like. Cause Asians are too fucking cheap to pay 20 dollars and then a two drink minimum, they’d rather just watch us on YouTube and judge us from there. But I think every race thinks that their race is the cheapest, right? [laughs]

KM: Yeah, I guess so. [laughs] So let’s go back, I mentioned you were on Last Comic Standing before, could you talk about your experiences with that, how it did or did not further your career?

EK: Well I think I was like, way in over my head at the time. I was going up against some heavy hitters who had been in the game for a long time and I was sort of a deer-in-headlights. But I still had fun with it, and I learned a lot from being on the show, and I’m able to parlay that into my experiences now with MTV.

KM: Yeah, with Girl Code, right?

EK: Yeah.

KM: Okay, so that was my next question. So you’re on Girl Code, which seems to me a more popular show than Last Comic Standing was, but you’re also not really doing your stand-up routine on the show, and it also premiered pretty recently, it premiered a few months ago, so I was wondering if you could talk about how that’s had an impact on your recent career.

EK: You know, I think the impact it’s had on my career is that it collects all the female fans out there into one place, which, I’ve always said that I wanted to play to the females in the audience. But when you go to comedy clubs, it’s mostly couples, so you have to speak to both guys and girls, but my point of view is relatable to females because I am female, and I can speak about my experiences openly about relationships , and things that young girls can relate to, so I’m really happy to have that as a medium because I’ve always wanted to speak to girls but it’s sort of hard because you have to collect them all in one place, but it’s doable through Girl Code.

KM: So Girl Code is based on a show on MTV2, Guy Code, which is the same thing but it’s catered to guys. Were you familiar with that show? Did it feel good to be able to speak for women?

EK: Yeah, I was familiar with Guy Code. Guy Code had billboards up in Times Square, so when they chose me for Girl Code I was really excited, like “Oh my god, this is gonna be awesome.” It was great, because when Guy Code first came out, no one knew how it was gonna do, but it did really well. It’s kind of been easier for Girl Code, because people are familiar with the format.

KM: Yeah, the format of Girl Code is that they give you a topic, things that pertain to women, and they ask you to talk about it. Was there ever a topic on the show you were like, “Yes, I have so much I have to say about that,” that you were excited to talk about?

EK: Yeah, for a lot of the topics I do stuff like that. Farting was one of them. I’ve always had a passion for fart jokes. [laughs] Growing up with three brothers, there’s never such thing as too many fart jokes. But also, you know, the things that are taboo to talk about, like masturbation or sex on the first date. Things that we as women were not supposed to talk about. But when I do talk about it, girls come up to me after comedy shows and are like “I do that too! I masturbate too!” or whatever, so it kind of gives us a cool way to unite with each other.

KM: Well while we’re on that subject of taboo subjects, I was wondering about your YouTube videos, like your song parodies. I was wondering how that came about; was music always part of your life, and what inspired you to take these oldies songs and make them about…you know, “Fistin’ the Night Away.”

EK: Oh, you did your research! [laughs] Well I actually grew up playing music at the church that I was forced to be a member at. So I just always played music and enjoyed expressing myself with music before I learned what comedy was. So when I got my driver’s license and I started driving, I would always listen to the oldies station on the radio, and I just loved the oldies, because they’re like, you know, if you listen to today’s music it’s hard to even understand the lyrics that the artists are trying to sing, whereas oldies tell a story, you know? They tell an entire love song in a two-minute song, and I just love the melodies. So my friends and I would just jam in Central Park, and I would just come up with these wacky lyrics, so I don’t know, I guess it just came organically, it’s not like I was trying to make parody songs or something.

KM: Have you ever done any of the songs live? Like in your stand-up routines?

EK: Yeah, I’ve done the songs live. You know who helped me a lot, when I went on The Howard Stern Show, Dan the Parody Man. He’s the one who taught me how to write a parody song, he does all the parody songs about boobs and all that stuff. So he’s been a big influence in my career.

KM: The reason I asked about performing them live is like, I was looking through the YouTube comments and I feel like the female commenters all find it very funny, but its some of the guys who are weirded out by it. So you talked about how you wish you could perform the women, so I was wondering how people react to those songs live in like a mixed crowd.

EK: Well I wasn’t aware that that guys online are the ones who don’t like it, that’s funny, but you know, people seem to enjoy them. People seem to really get into them, and if people are really drunk I make it into a sing-along for everybody, so we can act like drunk kindergarteners in the club.

KM: So I was told you recently moved from New York to Miami, is that right?

EK: Yes.

KM: We were just wondering about that, because Miami is not very well-known for its stand-up scene, especially compared to New York, so I was wondering what inspired that move.

EK: Well, you know, I was in New York for seven years, and I thought I would never leave, but I loved it and I was like, this place is awesome, I’m so inspired, I meet so many people all in one day, but then it just sort of grew on me. Well, not grew on me, but I just sort of got sick of it [laughs] and was like, “I need a little breather.” So I decided to come down to Miami. But it’s actually been fine, because whenever I go back up to New York, I could just see everybody in a short amount of time rather than just sit there and be ignored half the time [laughs] like if I was there all the time, you know what I mean.

KM: Yeah. So we talked about your stand-up, your TV appearances, your YouTube videos, is there anything I’m missing? Are you working on any other projects right now that you want to talk about?

EK: I mean, I think that’s everything. Well, we got picked up for season 2 of Girl Code, so I’m really excited about that.

KM: That’s great. Girl Code just ended its season, right? So it’s on break right now?

EK: Right. We finished season 1 two months ago and we’re in production now for season 2.

KM: Oh okay. So that’s good. So, I have one last question; I wanted to go back to a question I asked earlier but I figured it would be a better question to end on. So in that interview I mentioned that you did with NPR, you talked about working for the dentist’s office, and then later in the interview the subject becomes about how different comedians have different measures of success for their career, like some people won’t consider themselves a success unless they have their own HBO special or TV show or something, and you say that your measure of success for your career at the time would just be to be able to just do comedy and quit your day job. So I’m wondering, having achieved that, what is your ideal goal as a comedian right now? Like what’s your next benchmark of success?

EK: Let’s see, so you’re saying I should’ve had a better goal back then, right? [laughs] Well, I think…I do have bigger goals, but sometimes it’s hard to express them to other people because you’re afraid of, what if it doesn’t happen, you know? So I want to share my goals, but I’m also shy about sharing them. I don’t know, I want to travel the whole world, you know? Like I want to be influential to women in all parts of the world, you know what I mean?

KM: Yeah.

EK: Because I feel as though I’ve liberated myself from the very religious upbringing that I had, and I feel like I’ve become a whole new person than who I was supposed to be, the life that my parents had designed for me. So I want to show women not to be afraid to step out of their comfort zone. Whether it’s through my stand-up or my performances or my songs or whatnot…I mean, I guess that’s my ultimate goal, to just aid in the sexual liberation of women. I know we had this ‘60s movement, and women are now allowed to vote and everything, but I think we still have a long way to go still.