Dallas comedian Peng Dang recently found himself in the national spotlight but not in a way he or any other comedian hopes to be.
Last May, he performed a solid 10 minutes in Austin's Vulcan Gas Co. that included stories and jokes about topics that touched on a variety of targets including racism, immigration and guns, all through the lens of his perspective as a Chinese native living in America.
"How can you hate Asian people but love guns?" Dang said during his set. "We invented gunpowder."
Shortly before his set, Dang was asked to introduce comedian Tony Hinchcliffe, the host of the popular comedy podcast Kill Tony, who's also written for the Comedy Central celebrity roasts of Bruce Willis, Justin Bieber and James Franco. After Dang's intro, Hincliffe went on a rant, calling Dang a racial slur, doing a bit about how Austin's bat population attracts people of Asian descent and mocking Asian accents. A video of the exchange placed both comics into several media and Internet debates about the moving line between art and racism in comedy.
"Somebody in the audience filmed [Hinchcliffe's] set, but it was the one I posted that went viral," Dang says. "The person who filmed it sent it to me. He wanted to film my set because he liked my set, and he started right in the middle of my set but the end caught the beginning of Tony's set."
Dang says he went back and forth for a whole week before sharing the video of Hinchcliffe's response to his intro but decided he should because "I still gotta stand up for myself."
The video got sucked into the Internet's viral vacuum and is still being debated and shared long after it happened. Dang did some interviews about that night with TMZ and Vulture, but since then, he's chosen to stay out of its way and focus instead on honing his contribution to the discussion through his comedy. This Friday, he'll headline a special stand-up showcase at the Stomping Ground Comedy Theater called Immigrants ... We Get the Job Done with a roster of local comedians born from the other side of America's borders.
"As an immigrant who came here when I was 25, I was having a hard time adjusting to the environment, to the new culture," Dang says. "I realized very early on that a sense of humor in this country is a privilege."
Dang started doing stand-up five years ago in Atlanta. He worked in social media marketing and crafted a stand-up act that he planned to perform at a company function but the head of the human resources department thought was "very inappropriate for a corporate event like this," Dang says.
"My coworkers actually liked it and said we'll go to an open mic and watch you," Dang says. "After that open mic, I just kept going back."
He moved to Dallas for work and some time later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down venues and open mics and cost him his new, full-time job. The quarantining "gave me a lot of inspiration," he says, and helped him focus on getting "really serious about stand-up."
"It changed my understanding of comedy," Dang says. "Before that, I was doing maybe a lot of the clever jokes, jokey jokes. I care about the structure of a joke, all that kind of technique and stuff like that, but then I just feel like I need to be more real and more personal and talk about my real struggle and physically be more real."
During the outbreak, he had to move out of Dallas and into a more affordable place in Garland. One night, someone broke into his home, and it gave him an opportunity to do some more honest comedy.
"My stuff was laying around, but I found out they didn't take anything from me," Dang says. "That to me was more devastating than getting burglarized. They didn't think I had anything worth to steal. So that same night, I wrote a bit about getting robbed where nothing was taken and it really hurt my self-esteem. I felt like I was stood up by a hot date."
Dang took full advantage of his newfound free time to fine tune his stand-up for the clubs' slow but inevitable reopening. He was one of the first comedians to perform at the Addison Improv when the venue became the first post-pandemic comedy stage to reopen in May 2020. Since then, performing has become his primary focus at venues around DFW and beyond Texas' borders. He's even embarking on a Texas-Oklahoma comedy tour with Leanne Morgan.
The infamous incident with Hinchcliffe in Austin came a year after his return to the stage. Dang says he felt "shocked" the first time he heard Hinchcliffe's jokes about him after giving him "a warm intro."
Dang says he Hinchcliffe's roast was a case of "bad timing" due to May being Asian Pacific American History Month and the rise of incidents of targeted harassment and violence against Asian Americans. The month of March, prior to the set, was marred with violence by the Atlanta spa shootings in which Robert Aaron Long killed eight people, including six of Asian descent whom he targeted in three separate attacks at Asian-run businesses.
Dang talks candidly and openly on stage about the shooting and how it affected him, especially since he says he was in Atlanta near one of the shooting locations at the time it happened. He posted a video of the set he did at the Addison Improv following his return to Dallas, which got 10 million views in China but "didn't make much impact here in the States."
"I was on stage talking about all those issues," Dang says. "I was affected by the shooting because I was in Atlanta the day it happened. I was right down the street. A few days later, I came back to Dallas and the Addison Improv where I did a show there and I talked about the event and did a whole bit about the event and going to the Stop Asian Hate Rally."
Dang says he received a wave of overwhelmingly positive supportive, but the negative responses continue to this day. "It's been six months and they still can't get over it," Dang says.
"I actually don't like the attention because I think I'm a funny person and I bring different perspectives to comedy," Dang adds. "I want to be remembered by my act and don't want to be remembered by this one incident."
The online attention may be bothersome, but it hasn't stopped Dang from pursuing his comedy on his terms.
"My big thing is to do my comedy, and I guess my standard is not to shit on my own people. ..." he says. "I hope my community comes out and appreciates what I do."