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Cal Comedians

Maz Jobrani, Sheng Wang, Ali Wong, and more

May 31, 2024
by Dano Nissen ’18
Illustrations of Cal comedians Illustrations by Patrick Welsh
Illustrated headshot of Cal comedian Jackie Keliiaa

During her time in college, Jackie Keliiaa ’08 said she was “heavily involved with the Native community on and off campus,” helping plan the annual UC Berkeley Pow Wow and college outreach to tribal communities across the state. Now, she hosts and produces an all-Native stand-up show called Good Medicine. “On stage, I continue to critique structures of power like patriarchy and colonialism,” she told California. She said many of her early jokes were informed by her ethnic studies degree and by comedians like W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu. The Oakland-based comic has regularly performed at Bay Area mainstays like SF Sketchfest, Punch Line San Francisco, and Cobb’s Comedy Club.

Illustrated headshot of Cal comedian Irene Tu

Irene Tu ’14 spent a lot of her time in college performing off-campus gigs. “I could do improv and theater at Berkeley and also take a short BART ride into Oakland or San Francisco to do stand-up.” The Chicago-born Tu transferred to Berkeley, then decided to stay in the Bay Area after graduating. “I loved how diverse the Bay Area comedy scene was compared to Chicago,” she said. Tu relates personal stories about her identity and its relation to gender and race with a laid-back, shoulder-shrugging stage presence. Tu hosted a monthly show in Oakland called Man Haters, featuring women and queer comedians. She’s performed at Netflix Is A Joke comedy festival and has opened for Patton Oswalt and Taylor Tomlinson.

Illustrated headshot of Cal comedian Sureni Weerasekera

Upon learning the definition of a paralegal, Sureni Weerasekera concludes that she, along with all immigrant children, are, by definition, paralegals. Joking about all the paperwork she has to do for her parents, she says, “You’re telling me I’ve been running an H&R Block out of my living room? For free?” And when her mom asks, “What’s a dependent?” she replies, “You, bitch!” Weerasekera, who attended Cal as an American studies major, emigrated from Sri Lanka as a baby and grew up in San Diego. She started stand-up at 17 and was active in the comedy scene as a student, hosting her show Certified Fresh in downtown Berkeley. She runs a monthly show in Brooklyn called Earth Tones and has been featured on Don’t Tell Comedy.

Illustrated headshot of Cal comedian Maz Jobrani

Tehran-born Maz Jobrani ’93 delivered Berkeley’s 2017 commencement speech, memorable for discussing the immigrant experience, a focal point of his comedy. “It was a time of anti-immigrant sentiment, and I felt it was an opportunity for me, as an immigrant, to show how much we contribute to America,” he told California. In his speech, he mused that being an immigrant, on top of being an alumnus, motivated the university to select him. “That’s right! Immigrants. Taking your jobs,” he quipped. Jobrani studied political science at Cal and took one acting class. “That teacher encouraged me to keep performing,” he said. And, despite his parents’ wishes for him to become a lawyer, he did. Jobrani, a regular on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! also performed as a founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. He has released seven specials.

Illustrated headshot of Cal comedian Sheng Wang

Cal’s Asian American theater troupe, Theatre Rice, started in 1998, when Sheng Wang ’02 was a freshman. He told NBC News that seeing the group perform on campus sparked his interest in comedy. “I was so pumped, and I wanted to promote it…. I was all about it,” he said. Wang intones his succinct punchlines with a Houston drawl, often riffing on mundane subjects to absurd lengths. For instance, his nine-minute bit on the difference between breakfast and dinner. Wang was a 2015 top-ten finalist in the comedy competition show Last Comic Standing, wrote for the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat about Taiwanese immigrants in the U.S. like himself, and released his 2022 Netflix special Sweet and Juicy, directed by Ali Wong.

Illustrated headshot of former Lair of the Golden Bear staffer Ali Wong

She may be a UCLA graduate, but Ali Wong is also a former employee of the Cal Alumni Association, publisher of this magazine. She worked at CAA’s Lair of the Golden Bear between her junior and senior years of college. As a kid, Wong, whose dad graduated from Berkeley, attended the camp one week every summer. In her 2019 book Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life, she wrote that her job was “serving tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches from a cart.” The rest of the time, her “whole identity was wrapped up in being wild.” Many of her “wild” exploits are fodder for her bawdy brand of humor. Wong currently has three specials, two of which she performed while pregnant. In 2024, Wong won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her lead role in Netflix’s Beef.

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