San Quentin Prison Report: How an introvert became a comedian

May 19, 2015

 Jonathan Chiu is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. He was born in Hong Kong in 1982 and moved to the United States with is family when he was eight years old. Soon after that, Chiu discovered his love of comedy. Writing jokes helped him cope with adapting to life in a new country. And comedy continues to help him adjust to life at San Quentin, where he regularly does stand up.

“I love watching movies, but coming to America watching American movies I really couldn't relate to them. You know, Star Wars is one of my favorite films, but what I  couldn't understand was in a galaxy far, far away, there's no Chinese people,” Chiu joked at a recent performance. “I mean, I thought R2D2 was made in Japan. And I thought the death star was outsourced.”

Chiu loved watching movies growing up. Watching Jackie Chan made him laugh and helped him escape his problems. His passion for comedy movies continued, and he eventually developed a sense of humor of his own. Chiu began to see humor in everyday life – and he felt he could be as funny as the comedians on TV. So one, day he wrote down some funny thoughts into a journal.

Chiu says his first joke “wasn't really a good one … but I guess it made certain people laugh.”

Once in America he started writing jokes about his culture. A lot of his material was poking fun at the Chinese stereotypes he encountered on the school grounds.

“But you know I got adjusted,” Chiu says, beginning another joke. “I love country music – it's kind of relatable. Songs about my girl leaving me and my dog. For me, it's like she left me because I ate our dog.”

When Chiu came to prison his material changed. He geared his comedy around incarceration and things he was experiencing behind the walls.

“Coming to prison, you know, I was a little scared not knowing anything about it,” Chiu says on stage. “I thought I would need protection. I thought I needed a weapon and medieval reverse chastity belt so that I won't become some guy's concubine. 

Hidden behind Chiu's comedy is his challenging past. Chiu suffered from physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his parents. Growing up, he never discussed the abuse, and keeping these secrets made him socially reserved.

“I don't really talk to a lot of people,” Chiu says. “So, the first time I performed, I was a little scared, you know, looking out into the crowd and seeing all these sets of eyes on me. My heart was racing and I didn't know where to put my hands because the mic was in front of me. I’m trying to remember all my lines it was kind of difficult because I had people looking at me… and I was more focused on looking at them than actually telling a joke.”

Eventually it would be his comedy that allowed him to open up about his past.

“You know there was physical abuse in the home. And you know my parents beat me and called me stupid and, I think in the back of my mind, you know, ‘When is grandpa coming over to beat you guys for having such a stupid kid?’”

Chiu says comedy has changed him for the better; with the help of his humor, he is now more at ease socially and he is learning to accept his difficult past. 

“Now after my performance, I've actually had people come up to me now saying that I'm a comedian,” Chiu says. “This actually made me feel awkward at first, because usually I don't have people coming up to me and giving me compliments. But, I've developed new relationships with other people now.”

Chiu hopes to expand on comedic opportunities. His dream would be to do stand up professionally and be a writer for sitcoms. That is something he continues to passionately work towards, one performance at a time.

KALW has partnered with the award-winning San Quentin Prison Report, bringing you stories told behind prison walls by inmate reporters.