While I began hobnobbing with reality TV stars, my mom started hobnobbing with the Chinese horoscope. She became a devoted fan of the popular Chinese radio show Master Ming’s Suan Ming Hour after meeting Master Ming in person at the Chinese New Year Festival in nearby Monterey Park. Master Ming had billboard ads all over San Gabriel Valley and was a local celebrity who was especially popular with the ladies because he was a handsome man in his early forties who claimed to have learned his craft from several generations of acclaimed fortune-tellers in China. He also wore a round hat and a mandarin robe like he was still in the 1800s.
After reading Master Ming’s fortune-telling books, the pages of which were printed on the thinnest of gray pulp, my mom relayed what she claimed were the zodiac’s predictions for each family member. At best, the future would be tragic and, at worst, apocalyptic. My dad was born on a year of the Dragon, and according to my mom’s horoscope readings, because September 2001 was a bad month for Dragons (as were January through August and October through December), she told my dad to brace himself for a car accident. Nothing ever happened, of course. Because fortune-telling is Chinese for bullshit.
Poor health was in my zodiac forecast, so Mom did all kinds of things to head off the storm of ailments coming to Hor Town. She checked the level of coating on my tongue daily. She changed her cooking based on whatever the Chinese newspapers claimed was healthy. She boiled herbs and forced me to drink bowls of those rancid, tar-like concoctions. When she picked me up from school, she’d have me hold these white crystal balls and point them in whatever direction the day’s horoscope said bad luck was coming from. I’d be sitting in the passenger seat, staring at a compass in my lap and waving my arms with those balls in hand like an air traffic controller. I started hoping we’d get in an accident.
“Master Ming is so good that he predicted 9/11,” my mom insisted one night at dinner.
“Choy! Crazy,” my dad said, shaking his head.
“Jesus knew about 9/11,” my grandma said. “Jesus made them do it.”
My dad was particularly drunk that night, and his eyes went around the dinner table, and I could see him wondering how he could possibly be related to us. He stared at my mom and me with a creased brow, and then he just got up, throttled his bottle of port wine, and left without a word while my mom asked repeatedly where he was going.
She waited for him, expecting to drive him to the night shift at the store. Eight p.m. came and went, and she left for Hollywood without him and worked that night with my uncle.
My dad didn’t return until after midnight. I pretended to be asleep while he stumbled through the living room, knocking over one of the plastic tea cups on our Buddhist altar.
He was sniffling. He had been crying.
“Dad?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
“Go back to sleep,” he said. “I wish you’d just . . . ”
I waited for him to finish, but he didn’t. “What?” I asked.
“I wish you’d just go back to sleep,” he muttered, before disappearing into the bedroom.
He brought home a scent that I’d become quite familiar with. The scent of cold, the scent of wood chip, the scent of rail.
I might not have been the only one in the family to make that walk to the train tracks.
When I wasn’t at the drugstore, I spent weekday afternoons at the Razzmatazz mansion. One day while I was over, doing homework with Veronica, Johnny was running on a newly installed treadmill in the living room when he began shouting my name repeatedly.
The cameraman looked at the boom mic operator. “What did you say, Johnny? You want a whore?” asked the cameraman. “Like, now?”
Johnny stepped off the treadmill, panting. “Get the fuck out,” he snarled. “I’m done. Okay? Done.”
The crew lowered their equipment and escaped into the garage, where Sherry was telling the director that she wanted to go to Cartier and Tiffany’s that afternoon. The boom mic operator groaned.
“Stepped in dog shit again,” he said while the cameraman laughed.
Sherry shrieked, “Janet! The dogs, for God’s sake!”
Veronica dropped her pencil on her notebook and tipped her head back, opening her mouth. “How many Hail Mary’s do I have to say to end this show?” she said.
“Hor!” Johnny shouted. “Can you write something down for me?”
I went into the den and rummaged through the desk drawers, which were filled with a bizarre assortment of items including a Bowie knife, bags and bags of microwavable popcorn, and a James Brown doll. I finally found a notebook and pen in the center slide-out drawer.
He told me an expletive-laced bit about his life being so boring that he found himself wanking to a woman on a reality show only to realize that she was his wife and the reality show was his own.
I read the bit back to him and added a little playacting, puffing my chest and jabbing my right hand like I’d seen Johnny do in YouTube videos of his old performances. He didn’t laugh. His expression was very serious.
“Might be something there,” Johnny said with a shrug. He removed his sunglasses and toweled off his face. “You’re funny when you cuss. You just don’t look like someone with a dirty mouth.”
“What do I look like?”
He gazed down upon me. That was the first time I’d seen him without his sunglasses on. His eyes were dollar-bill green against that pale face and smoke-yellowed smile.
“You look like a nice kid,” he said. “Polite. Well-behaved.”
I hated that he thought that about me. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be like Chris Rock. I wanted to be a truth-teller. I wanted to be a star.
“Do you want to be my assistant?” he asked.
Of course, I instantly agreed. Despite his drugged-out TV persona, he had never stopped writing. He had shoeboxes of mini-cassette tapes that needed to be transcribed.
When I told my mom I wanted to work two jobs: shifts at the drugstore and at the Razzmatazz house, she was dead set against it.
“Master Ming says you will not be lucky this year. Who is this man?”
“A funny man.”
“Does he take drugs?”
“I don’t know,” I lied.
“Those white people take drugs!” she exclaimed. “This is a bad luck time for you! A bad luck time!”
I told my mom I couldn’t live my life based on her horoscope readings. She stopped washing dishes and faced me. For once, she looked me in the eye.
“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me in this family?”
She was right. It wasn’t just me who disregarded her. We all did. I felt guilt about it. Still do. Ignoring women is part of the Chinese culture, part of my family. My dad was the boss. Chinese people don’t ignore women like Americans do. They don’t do it politely and then feel ashamed after the fact when someone writes about it on the internet. Chinese people are like Nike. They just do it. And then they claim that the Chinese way of doing everything is the best way. They’ve got the zombie-eye disease and they’re proud of it. I tell you because you should know the type of culture you come from, Maryann. Don’t even spend an extra split-second waiting for someone to listen to you if they don’t hear you the first time. My mom should’ve left my dad and our shitty family long ago. If you want a better life, never wait for permission. You make it happen. You just do it.
“This is what I want to do,” I said. “Please? He’s on TV. He’s famous.”
“TV? No way, Jose!” she said in English, before adding in Mandarin that I shouldn’t see so many people because “Your skin is so bad and you are so ugly!”
My jaw clenched and I tried not to cry. “Mom,” I said. “Stop it.”
She shrugged and looked away when even she saw that she had hurt my feelings. “Ask your grandparents,” she said, turning back to her dishes.
That was her way of ending the conversation. She knew I wouldn’t ask them. They were too Chinese. I was losing my ability to speak Mandarin altogether. My mom asked my grandparents whether I should work the second job. She recapped (again) my horoscopic disadvantages. My grandparents were sitting as far from each other as possible on the living room sofa.
“What does his dad say?” my grandma asked.
“Who cares?” my mom said. “He’s never here!”
“Hor must work at the liquor store,” said my grandma. “A son must learn from his daddy.”
That set off another argument between my mom and grandma about whether my dad was out “drinking condensed milk” again. As usual, my grandpa remained silent, reading his newspaper.
Because Johnny couldn’t work a computer (or TV or microwave), one of my only school-worthy skills became useful: I had good handwriting. Every so often, while I was transcribing Johnny’s jokes, I got an idea for one of my own, and I’d jot it down in a second notebook that I took home.
I enjoyed the work so much that I even preferred it to hanging out with Veronica. I couldn’t wait to get through my German homework so I could retire to Johnny’s den to dive into the world of jokes. (That’s the way you’ll feel when you find your passion—that one thing you do best that means the most to you. The rest of your life and everyone in it will suddenly feel like background music.)
One afternoon, Johnny walked in and saw me writing in two notebooks and asked what the second one was for.
“They’re my jokes,” I told him.
“You write jokes? Then tell me one.”
“‘I had an unhappy childhood,’” I read. “‘And I’m still having an unhappy childhood.’”
Johnny raised a brow, but didn’t laugh. “That’s very Hedberg,” he said.
“Yeah, he has that joke: ‘I used to do drugs, I still do, but I used to, too.’”
My chest puffed a little. Johnny was comparing me to Mitch Hedberg!
“Can’t do it,” he said. “It’s so close you’re almost stealing the joke, and that’s a no-no.”
I felt myself shrinking. “I didn’t mean to.”
“That’s okay,” Johnny said. “You have good writing instincts. Keep doing it and the good jokes will come.”
I nodded and saluted him like a sailor. “Aye-aye!”
“So tell me,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Why is your childhood so unhappy?”
I told Johnny about my mom’s growing obsession with the Chinese horoscope.
“Why don’t you try having a point of view about her superstitions? Tell us how absurd you think she is and why. Do an act-out or an imitation. Write it all out. Then categorize everything into a premise, a setup, and a punch. Pick one of each, put them together, and you have a joke.”
Johnny explained what all those terms meant—the basics of joke construction. A premise is the topic, the way a comic sets expectations with an audience. A setup leads them a little further along those expectations. Then the goal of the punch is to surprise, subverting what the audience expects. Later that day, I read one of my new jokes to Johnny:
My mom lives her life by fortune cookie. She uses the Chinese horoscope to make big life decisions. I told her she should have used it before marrying Dad.
Johnny managed a single, barely audible snort. “Try it out in front of an audience,” he said. “That’s the only way you’ll know if it works.”
“How do I do that?”
“You can do it with me.” Johnny said he could book a night at a club in West Hollywood named The Funny Bone. “Do five minutes before I go up.”
I immediately felt an urge to pee. I was in disbelief. A chance to do what my heroes did on those CDs? A chance to speak truths? A chance to make people laugh?
“No way,” I said. “I’ll be so bad.”
“I’m just as scared as you are,” he said. “I haven’t been on stage in ten years. What’s the worst thing that can happen? We bomb and then we’ll get up and try it again.”
On the night of the performance, I told my mom I had to work at the drugstore, and Johnny picked me up there and drove us to the club. He wore what he always wore on TV: the leather jacket, the sunglasses, the spiked hair, and the cologne that smelled of bubblegum and cigarette smoke—the persona of The Sleaze. I wore one of my knockoff velour sweatsuits. Only years later did I realize that The Funny Bone was an underwhelming imitation of The World Famous Comedy Store, where every big star from John Belushi to Robin Williams had once performed. Outside, The Funny Bone had its own wall of performers, but it was just a chalkboard of names no one recognized, faded and erasable. Johnny had chosen the club because it was a D-list one in the city—low pressure, perfect for working on material.
“You ready?” Johnny asked in the green room, which was painted the color of puke. There was no door or curtain. We were right next to the stage and faced straight out into the crowd.
I was more nervous than I had ever been or ever would be. I could feel my heart drumming all the way in my balls. But I told Johnny I was cool.
“Then what’s with your knee?”
It was going up and down like I was stomping grapes.
Johnny ordered a Tanqueray and tonic. One of the waitresses soon returned with the drink—clear with a lime—and placed it on an end table.
“Drink up,” he said. “Go ahead. It’ll relax you.”
My first taste of liquor was a good one. Too good. To this day, I remember my buds prickling, my saliva like soda. Bittersweet.
A balding man with a brown goatee walked in, and Johnny gave him a big hug. He introduced himself as Maury Polivakis, Johnny’s manager.
“Who’s the kid?” he asked.
“The feature,” Johnny said.
“How old is he?” Maury glimpsed my drink. “You’re going to get me arrested!”
He scrutinized me like I was a broken appliance, like he was my mom. He pinched my oversized sweatshirt and shook his head. “You know the crowd paid money tonight, right?” he said to Johnny.
“It would be shitty if they didn’t get to see my very best,” he said, grinning.
Maury rolled his eyes. “Still a fucking asshole.” He asked for my name.
“Hor Luk Lee.”
“Whore Luckily?” he said. “Do you think you’re a pornstar or something?”
“Maybe we should come up with something better,” Johnny said.
“Seriously,” Maury said.
Johnny took his sunglasses off and looked me up and down. “Seriously,” he repeated. “Sirius Lee.”
Maury raised a brow.
I spoke my new name aloud. I sounded like an American for the first time.
Before I went on stage, Johnny grabbed my arm and whispered, “Remember that no one expects you to be funny unless you take off your shirt or buck your teeth or something. In fact, no one even expects you to be interesting. So anything remotely surprising is going to get a laugh.”
“Good to know that the bar is so much lower for me.”
Johnny shrugged. “You people are shorter.”
I didn’t laugh.
“I’m just kidding!” he said. “So sensitive.” He pushed me out of the green room.
On stage, the lights were hotter than I expected. My mouth was dry. I was sweating profusely. There was a long moment of silence before I pulled the mic out of the stand with a thump and slowly untangled the cord. The room was huge and smelled of stale armpits. It was a quarter full even though there were about forty people. Of the crowd, I saw mostly silhouettes, scattered in groups of six to eight. In front of the stage, there was a man whose eyes were closed and legs were splayed like he had been knocked out cold. I tried to remember my set. Blank. Not a word appeared. For a few long seconds, I was sure I was going to die out there. A woman loudly sucked her drink like she wanted to make sure she got the liquor before the ice did. That’s when I remembered my first joke.
“My mom is very superstitious,” I began, my voice sounding lower-pitched than usual, like someone older. “She’s like super into feng shui. So much so that when she had me, she made sure her vagina was pointed east.”
A few chuckles.
“My dad is pretty nuts too,” I said. “He thinks I’m going to be a C-E-O. He thinks that See-Eo is a word in the dictionary that means: ‘guy who funds his gambling addiction.’”
To my surprise, that got a big, rolling laugh. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I felt like I was levitating. Like another person inside me had started speaking for the first time. People were looking up to me, listening, waiting for what I would say next. I was being heard.
I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.