In a career where success often doesn’t come until later in life, if at all, comic Irene Tu has an impressive resume for her mid-20s.
Just this past year, the recent Berkeley grad performed her first hour-long comedy show, “Triple Minority,” at the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC) of San Francisco. Tu’s show “Man Haters,” coproduced with comedian Ash Fisher, was named 2017 Best Comedy Show by East Bay Express. She performed alongside established comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of the CNN series United Shades of America, and was featured on Bell’s live podcast recording of Kamau Right Now! with feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian and actor Danny Glover. Tu was also featured in a Viceland channel documentary on queer comedy.
The first time I saw Tu, she definitely had a big head—big enough to fit the side of a Muni bus, in fact. “KQED’s WOMEN TO WATCH,” the ad read, with Tu grinning broadly in a pair of sunglasses, her blue necktie blowing in the wind. A few months later, I would stumble into a comedy show at Feelmore Adult Gallery. There I found Tu in the flesh: short-haired, Chinese American, waif-thin, with head shrunk to normal size.
Crammed into a small space with an audience of 15, flanked by graphic novels and silicone apparati, Tu introduced herself with her trademark mordant drawl, specifying that yes, she’s a woman and not a teenage Asian boy—an opening joke she’s used frequently in her sets.
“People come up to me a lot and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, if I’m into your look, does that make me gay?’ Well if you’re a girl, yes, that makes you gay. And if you’re a guy…” Tu pauses. “That also makes you gay.” She purses her lips and squints her eyes, as if mulling over a philosophical question, as laughter ripples through the crowd. “Just got that twink look about me,” she says matter-of-factly.
Some months later at a Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, Tu would confide that this set-opener, though often deployed successfully to amused crowds, can wear on her.
“I kind of wish I didn’t talk about [appearance] so much, only because I feel like I wanna get past doing this layer of jokes about how I look,” Tu said to me, sipping a hot water with lemon. “But I think it’s the easiest way for people to get on board, and I haven’t figured out a way to branch out of that.”
A lot of Tu’s material is about race, gender, and being gay. Although she said her aim isn’t to be a political comic, many of the topics she discusses are inherently that, both in stand-up and in casual conversation. With the air of a bored teenager, she’ll wax sardonic about everything from successful mass-murdering dictators to feminism to drug-resistant yeast infections.
“Whatever I say, I like to be slightly provocative at minimum,” Tu said. “I don’t talk about boring things. I’m not like Jerry Seinfeld. ‘Hey, what’s the deal with the sidewalk? Why are there so many cracks in it?’ I don’t care.”
In comedy, there’s a cliché idea that on stage women only talk about their periods and bodily functions, Tu said, so if a woman does talk about those things, she runs the risk of being labeled “typical.” But Tu said she doesn’t let that affect her comedy. She talks about whatever speaks to her that she finds funny, and right now she seems to be in an open dialogue with her vagina, which she discusses flagrantly. In a Facebook photo, Tu sips what looks like period blood from a diva cup—which, in case you’re not familiar, is a silicone shot glass that women put inside their vaginas to cradle menstrual blood, until the cup gets full and they have to rinse it out with water. It’s a great way to reduce waste in the environment and save money on tampons—and make new friends at a public bathroom sink.
Hanging out with Tu is a lot like watching her on stage: She appears unassuming, even agreeable at first, but if you spend just one more minute with her, you’ll find she’s at least 10 degrees cooler than you and anyone else in the room. Intelligent but aloof, every once in a while delivering biting wit.
“She wants to try newer jokes and see how dark she can get, while also having this weird adorable factor to accompany [the] bitterness,” said Tu’s close friend, comedian Dom Gelin, who cohosts shows with her. “That’s a cocktail only she can pull off.”
For someone so seemingly lackadaisical, Tu puts a lot of effort into talking about how little effort she puts into comedy, going into great detail about several scenarios in which she didn’t care enough to prepare for a show. Like the time she did stand-up at Berkeley’s 2014 graduation.
“It was fine. I should have prepared more,” she said. “But I really like to procrastinate. I actually had to finish a final that morning, and then like an hour later do that stand-up.”
Tu said she puts so many things off because she gets away with it. She doesn’t like rules, and if someone gives her a deadline, she’ll find a way to just ignore it.
“Because I’m like—you’re not in charge. I’m in charge,” Tu said. “So, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is due tomorrow,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s Wednesday, can I give it to you now?’ And people always say yes! So I keep doing that instead of actually putting in the work.”
Case in point: When Tu and I began corresponding, our first phone call was scheduled for 11 a.m. on a Friday. She called me at 6 p.m. “Is it cool to talk now?” she asked.
I said yes.
Despite the devil-may-care persona, she’s definitely less relaxed when in show mode—giving off a vibe of eager distractedness before taking the stage. When I went to see her host at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco’s Mission District, she had a frantic flicker in her eye. Maybe because she was truly excited to perform—or maybe it was just because her eyes were twitching from being “SO DRY!” and she wanted to know “Do you have any eyedrops?” and “It’s cool, I’ll find eyedrops. You good? OK,” and then she was glued to her phone and walking away.
Several of Tu’s friends assert that no matter what she says, she’s a hard worker, and even a powerhouse when it comes to producing.
“Sometimes she’ll [text and] say, ‘Hey, have we done X, Y, or Z?’ And if I’m at work or sometimes away from my phone, maybe I won’t respond within 10 or 15 minutes. A little while after that she’ll be like ‘I’ll just do it,’” said Gelin.
“I’m not mean. I just like to get stuff done quickly,” Tu said unapologetically.
It’s Tu’s drive and efficiency that allow her to pull off juggling multiple shows at once, including “The Mission Position,” “Millennials Ruin Everything,” “Comedy x Pop Up Food,” and “Man Haters,” a queer/female comedy show that always features one “token gay dude.”
Local comedian Jim McVeigh said he met Tu at an open mic about two years ago, and before he knew it, she “took over the city,” producing shows and constantly getting booked, all because of her work ethic.
“I wish I could buy stock in Irene Tu,” McVeigh said. “I don’t know if she’ll ever have coattails big enough for me to ride, but I’m pretty sure Irene is gonna be one of the Bay Area comics who makes it.”
Tu first got the idea that she could be a comedian after giving a speech in high school. She told the story of how her mother wanted to get on Disney World’s Tower of Terror—a ride in which a haunted elevator plunges down 13 stories, then climbs back up, and then down again. Tu begged her mother not to go, but to no avail—and the 7-year-old tiny Tu was forced to plummet into her own personal hell and back out again, on repeat, for five-plus minutes.
“It was me and a bunch of people in my class and we all had to give a speech—like ‘tell us why you like your parents’ or something like that,” Tu said. “So I told this story about how my mom is a piece of shit. And apparently, it was funny, and she was there and she thought it was funny.”
It was also around this time that Tu started taking acting and improv classes at Second City in her home town of Chicago, from which myriad famous comedic minds have emerged, including Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Dan Akroyd, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert and more. She’s been performing ever since.
When asked about her earliest comedic inspirations, Tu said she didn’t watch much stand-up while growing up, but she did have an obsession with Ellen DeGeneres. It was Ellen’s 1990s sitcom that made Tu feel good about being gay and in the closet. “I would just watch it over and over again. I own all five seasons on DVD. I would watch it on YouTube [even] after I bought it. I think I have all of her books, and then I went to four of her tapings. I just love Ellen,” Tu said.
Tu admits that she’s since toned down her obsession.
“I’ve been more passively a fan of her, because I think that I was too aggressive and I was focusing too much on Ellen. And now I’m like, you know what? She’ll come to me. It’s fine,” Tu said. “So now I’m just chill about it. But I will mention her every time I get interviewed. I love Ellen. Please tell her I love her! But other than that, it’s kind of like, oh if I’m home, I’ll watch her. I don’t dedicate my day to her anymore… I’m sorry, Ellen.”
When asked what she’d like to achieve next, Tu quipped, “Meet Ellen.”
When asked whether she had aspirations beyond that, Tu gave a detached shrug, and said she hoped to hit up Spats bar in downtown Berkeley soon. “They have 25-cent wings,” she explained. “And darts.”
Krissy Eliot is Senior Associate Editor of California and occasionally does stand-up. She talks about her period a lot.