Life in the Midwest might not seem to be particularly rich material for a comedian based in Los Angeles.
But for Tony Vinh, it’s his niche.
Vihn has performed at clubs and comedy festivals all over the country, as well as in Asia and Europe, with a comedic style largely influenced by his background growing up as an Asian-American in Kansas City, Kansas.
“The neighborhood that I grew up in itself was pretty diverse. We had people of all colors and races. And so going to school was the same way,” Vinh told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “But you know there were instances when I got bullied or whatever. The first things kids attack is your appearance.”
This month, Vinh returns to Kansas City to record his first live stand-up album. He'll spend about a month in town, visiting family and checking out old haunts, before heading off to a touring gig in Chicago.
His parents moved from Vietnam to Kansas shortly after the Vietnam War. When he was a kid, that decision stood out to Vinh.
“They somehow ended up in Kansas when every other Asian ended up in California. So I grew up in KCK,” he said. “As far as I can remember, at least in my universe, my family was the only Asian family until I got to high school.”
Though he had few early encounters with other Asian Americans, Vinh said he he appreciated the diversity of Kansas City, Kansas.
“Oddly, I’m very happy I grew up in that environment. No one was ever outright racist to me. But I think people were curious about the culture and everything.”
The intersection between different ethnicities and cultures continued to play a role in Vinh’s life as an adult. After college, Vinh began a career in advertising.
“Surprisingly, in advertising there’s not much diversity,” he said. “At least in some of the places I worked at and at least for an Asian person.”
“It’s weird. Because as much as every company and corporation wants to celebrate diversity, at the same time they have to have target demographics,” he explained. “Just the nature of what it is, you have to pigeonhole groups in certain areas.”
The tokenization of ethnicities and lack of proper representation in the industry drove Vinh to leave his career.
He found advertising to be almost paradoxical in nature.
“I got tired of seeing that,” Vinh said. “As well as wanting to do my own thing. I wanted to get more honest with myself and pursue this thing.”
After quitting his advertising job, Vinh moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. Having control over his own artistry was breath of fresh air.
“The beauty of it is that you are your own gatekeeper. Depends on what you want to say, your own opinions. You can say what you want.”
But Vinh’s freedom to speak his mind sometimes depends on the venue.
“At the end of the day, it’s business. It’s commerce. When so much money and jobs are at stake, people have to be on guard with what they put out,” Vinh said. “In comedy, if no one is going to pay me, or they’re paying me in Buffalo wings or drinks, I may voice my opinion a little more on things.”
And he does use comedy to take on serious topics in a light-hearted manner.
“I talk about stereotypes. And it’s a delicate line. I’m coming from a place where I’m like, ‘Hey — don’t assume this about Asian people,’” Vinh said.
Vinh named his debut album “A Country of Legends and Liars.”
“I didn’t want to do a title that is very stereotypical. Like ‘Asian Invasion,’” said Vinh. “I looked at my act as a whole and it’s me calling the B.S on stuff. Including myself. Everything we just kind of believe that we’re supposed to believe.”
Listen to the full conversation here.
Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR’s Central Standard. Reach out to him at email@example.com.