In June of 2015, Tai Nguyen walked into the confined side room of Cherrywood Coffeehouse and scratched his name down to take place in the venue's long-running Wednesday open mic. He showed up early to make sure he got a spot but, being completely unknown, had his name shuffled down toward the end of the list; he performed four nervous minutes to just the host and the two comics going up after him. Two years and change later, he's filming an hourlong TV special at the Stateside. In stand-up comedy, this is like an expansion franchise winning the Super Bowl its second season.
But the 29-year-old Nguyen – who is virtually an Austin native, having moved here when he was 5 years old – reveals that the pinnacle of stand-up success is closer than many comics think. "People keep asking me how I got the special, who I knew, what connection I got in this town," he says. "I just sent the venue an email."
Nguyen is taking a huge risk, self-funding his taping in the hopes that a streaming service or influential comedian will spot it and launch his career. But it's not a sheer ruse: In his two years, Nguyen has proven to be a versatile and reliable performer, creating diverse outlets for his humor from goofy internet videos to comedy rap songs.
His primary focus, though, has always been stand-up comedy – much to the chagrin of his mother. "I didn't want to go the traditional route my mom wanted me to." All his brothers and sisters pursued higher education degrees and traditionally lucrative careers. "Comedy is my way of doing something different. My mom doesn't think I can do it. I showed her my video, and she said, 'Stop, you can't compete with Americans.' But who's going to outshine me on my own special?"
Nguyen does shine onstage. He's carefully cultivated a persona of the extremely strutting man about town, often wearing garishly colored suits, growing his hair long, peppering his sets with macho phrases. Standing out in the crowd, and subverting people's expectations of what this Asian guy might do onstage, has led to standout performances (including a star-making turn at the Moontower Comedy Festival this year) and national auditions.
Some of Nguyen's humor deals with the fact that he was born in Vietnam, an aspect of his comedy that plays a fairly large part in his stage presence because he speaks in a thick Hanoi drawl.
"In the beginning, I was worried people wouldn't understand me," he says. "So I learned to speak slower. Most of the time that a punch line doesn't hit, if it's worked before, I know I started speaking too quickly. I also like to walk with my shoulders back with a lot of confidence – and I'm sure that pisses a lot of people off, that I look all cocky, but it helps me get into a relaxed body position. And people kind of laugh at that, too, I think."
Nguyen pauses, thinking about his next sentence. "I'll be honest. A lot of times, I'm not sure why people are laughing."
But Nguyen says he's developed a deeper knowledge of how to make a long set work even in just the last three months. "I wanted to do it in June, but I'm definitely a better comic now," he says, talking about a recent turn from what he calls a "cartoonish" persona to doing more personal, revealing stuff.
"This whole hour is based on insecurity, to be honest," he says. "The confident person I used to play reached, like, peak confidence, to the point where he's comfortable talking about his insecurities. The insecurity jokes were hard for a nonconfident Tai to do. But now I can do them and people relate to that more. I'm as confident as I used to pretend to be."
Finding confidence among insecurity is such a huge part of Nguyen's humor, the name of the special itself – Pigeon Confetti – derives from the first moment he figured out how to return to the scene of an open mic bomb and try again.
"I was driving down the highway back to the scene of the crime, I guess you would say, feeling a lot of anxiety about doing comedy again, when a pigeon flew across my car, and I hit it with my windshield. It disappeared into feathers. You could barely see the mark of the pigeon. Just white feather confetti. And I took that as a sign to keep going. I was already killing that night."
Tai Nguyen performs with Andrew Murphy and host Chris Castles Tue., Sept. 19, 8pm, at the Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress. Tickets are $15 at www.austintheatre.org.
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