Face2Face with Bobby Lee
Stand-up comic reflects on days on "MADtv," prepares to embark on next chapter in career
By Joe Nguyen, AsiaXpress.com
May 5, 2009
Bobby Lee at the Improv, 21+
8246 E. 49th Ave. #1400
Denver, CO 80238 [map]
Friday, May 8 – 8 and 10:15 p.m.
Saturday, May 9 – 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 10 – 7 p.m.
For more information, call 303-307-1777 or go to www.improvdenver.com.
Bobby Lee took the road less traveled.
Growing up, his parents told him the only path to success was to get straight A’s, go to an Ivy League school and then become a doctor or a lawyer.
However, he had other ideas.
“I discovered another path,” Lee said. “You get F’s on your report card in high school, you don’t go to college, you grow your hair out until it gets really long, smoke pot a lot, and you get on TV shows.”
While that road probably isn’t going to work for most people, it did for the 36-year-old comedian who will perform from May 8-10 at the Improv in Denver. From his eight years on the sketch-comedy show “MADtv” to appearances in films such as “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Pineapple Express,” Lee has carved himself a niche inside mainstream American entertainment, but it’s been a long journey since his beginnings.
He moved out of his parents’ home when he was 18, he said, and took on jobs at restaurants and coffee shops while spending his free time skateboarding and hanging out.
“It was a bad time for me and my parents,” he said. “They were like, ‘What the f--- are you doing?’”
His venture into comedy was an accident, he said. In 1994, he was working in a coffee shop in San Diego. He went into work one day and found that it had closed.
“I just went next door to get a job,” he said, “which was The Comedy Store in San Diego.”
After working odd jobs at the club for a few months, he said he decided to try stand-up on one of the amateur nights.
“It was awful,” he said of his first time on stage. “I think I showed them my butt and made some noises and went off stage. It was embarrassing.”
Within a year, he met two comedians who helped jumpstart his career. Pauly Shore gave him his first taste of the big time while Carlos Mencia hired him to open on the road.
“Pauly was at open mic at one time ... he’d seen me go up last and for some reason, he thought I was good,” he said. “And so two weeks later he asked if I wanted to open for him in Vegas. He flew me out ... there were 2,500 people. I had never performed for more than 20 people.”
In 2001, Lee was hired onto the cast of “MADtv.” While it gave him national exposure, his inexperience acting in front of live audiences and lack of screen time caused him to hate being on the show early on.
“I couldn’t even get on the f---ing thing,” he said about his first two years on the show. “I would pitch and I could not get any of my stuff on.
“ ... The first two years were the worst two years of my life.”
Frustrated, he turned to drugs. He said he stopped showing up to work and tried to get fired. But he stopped his downward spiral by the end of the second year and became sober. At that time, the producers were giving him one final chance before they were going to fire him, he said.
“They were like, ‘If you don’t produce stuff in your third year, it’s not going to happen,’” he said.
As the only Asian on the cast, Lee was relegated to essentially playing all the Asian roles that were written – both good and bad.
“I dreaded doing Connie Chung,” he said. “I sort of dreaded doing those ‘Average Asian’ skits. Early on, I hated those things.
“I dreaded Bae Sung and going, ‘Uh-oh, hot dog.’”
Rather than creating characters and putting them in weird situations like most sketches, he said, he preferred to play himself.
“I just started doing my own thing,” he said. “I used to do sketches that were like I was playing myself and that’s when I found my voice on the show.”
One of Lee’s more popular skits are his spoofs about “24,” something he said were initially rejected by the producers at “MADtv.” So he hired his own camera crew and shot and edited the video on his own. When he brought the clip to the table read and played it in front of the network, their reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“Sometimes you just have to do stuff like that so you can force them to do it,” he said.
Since Fox announced it is cancelling “MADtv” after this season, Lee has been working on other projects. He just finished a pilot for NBC called “State of Romance” where he plays a character named Andrew. He said the sitcom takes place in Chicago and revolves around the lives of six people. Opportunities like these weren’t available to minority actors just a few years ago, he said.
“There was a time when I first moved to L.A. when no shows used an ethnic and I couldn’t even get an agent because no one was writing stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden it kind of changed – maybe Barack did it. I don’t know.”
Like with acting, Asian Americans have started becoming more visible within the comedy world, he said.
“Where 20 years ago there was no path. There are paths now and (the younger generation) can see it,” he said. “I think in the next 10, 15 years, you’re going to see all kinds of people doing it.”