In no particular order, starting out in stand-up comedy and moving to a faraway country whose language you don’t know are probably the first and second biggest fears for most Americans. Joan La Rosa is the exception. A few months after first dabbling in stand-up in Milwaukee, she took a job in remote China to learn the language through immersion. After winding up in Shanghai, she returned to stand-up at two English-speaking clubs in the world’s largest city.
Three weeks after returning from her two-year Chinese relocation, La Rosa has new perspective, loads of material inspired her Asian excursion, and much more experience and credits than most other (relative) comedy newcomers. Before she performs at her first showcase as a Milwaukee resident, Milwaukee Record asked La Rosa about her time away and what she has planned next.
Milwaukee Record: My initial exposure to you was last fall when you headlined a show at Club Garibaldi, but you lived in Shanghai before that, right?
Joan La Rosa: Yeah, I was living in Shanghai for about a year. I’ve been in China for two years, and I just got back to America.
MR: What led you to China?
JLR: I wanted to move to China because I was always obsessed with learning Chinese. I thought it was the coolest language ever. The best way to learn a language is to go live there. I got a job teaching English at a university in a third-tier city there, so I lived a year in this city nobody’s ever heard of called Yancheng. Through some connections, I ended up living in Shanghai, which is the biggest city in the world and it’s super modern and cool.
MR: And before you left Milwaukee, you did stand-up a few times. After you got to China, how long did it you to reintegrate into comedy?
JLR: I did it here for about six months, but only casually. I wasn’t obsessed with it. Then when I moved to Yancheng—I mean, there were only like 12 foreigners in the town, we didn’t even have a Starbucks—obviously there was no comedy. I did like on show that year, and it was at some Easter brunch thing that was like a six-hour trip. When I moved to Shanghai, I found out that there were two comedy clubs there, so I jumped in right away and started mic-ing every night. I pretty quickly got put on their showcases and stuff.
MR: Being an English-speaking comedy club in such a massive metropolis, did that expedite the process of getting stage time compared to living in a competitive comedy market like New York?
JLR: Yeah. I mean, it is a huge city, but the English-speaking community isn’t that big, so the stand-up scene is small. There’s only like 30 comics total, but you can progress really fast because there’s always new people coming in, and people on one-year contracts. If you do a good job, you can get a lot of great opportunities. I got to open for some big names that I definitely wouldn’t have been able to open for if I’d done my first proper year in Milwaukee.
MR: Like who?
JLR: I think the most famous people are Tom Rhodes, Sam Tripoli, and I got to go on tour with Mike Ward, which was really cool. Then I opened for Butch Bradley there and then came back to America and opened for him in Las Vegas.
MR: So as you were learning to live in a new place and how to speak another language, you were also developing this new skill and getting all these opportunities. Usually someone’s learning just what to do and how to hold a mic in their first year in comedy. Do you think you benefited from this crash course in comedy?
JLR: I don’t know. There was a lot of help pushing me by the comedy club. It’s a close club and the guys who run it took me under their wing and gave me feedback after every set. All the open mics are at the comedy clubs, so it’s not just random bars or basements. So every night, you go to the comedy clubs, then I’d perform Friday and Saturday showcases at the comedy club.
MR: What were the audiences like? Not to generalize, but New York and Boston have their own types of audiences. Los Angeles is more open to alternative comedy. Even Milwaukee seems to have its own audience vibe. Now that you’ve been doing stand-up more in the states, are you noticing certain material lands better over there?
JLR: Yeah, that’s been a huge difference for me. The audience in Shanghai is mostly foreigners, and if there were Chinese people there, they’ve usually lived abroad or appreciate foreign comedy. They were super attentive. They would come in, order their drinks, and sit right by the stage and pay attention to the comics. As far as the humor, I think it was easier to get laughs because we were all sharing an experience together. All of us [non-natives] in China were going through the same thing. We all had food poisoning and are being called fat. We all have the coworkers who eat durian in the office.
MR: Are there any lessons you brought back? When you travel, the hope is to gain new experience and perspective. Like, now that you’re here, are you seeing any things in a different way?
JLR: I think I’m more interested in the world than some audience members. I’ve actually really been struggling with that. I have about three minutes of material about cockroaches that was my bread and butter in Shanghai. I did that last year and it was just crickets in the audience and I had the shocking realization that nobody in Milwaukee has ever seen a cockroach.
MR: How long have you officially been back?
JLR: Three weeks. I left Shanghai to compete in Stand-Up Siam in Bangkok. It’s the Thailand international comedy competition. I won the semi-finals and then lost the finals, then I went to Japan and did two shows there.
MR: So now that you’re back, are you hoping to kind of reset and build up more material while you plot your next move? What are your goals?
JLR: I came to Milwaukee to recombobulate because I need some time to readjust to America and readjust my comedy to America because I have a lot of work to do to and I have to write a lot more material and develop. I want to take a year to chill…and by “chill” I mean mic every night and write every day.
Joan La Rosa is performing at the Sorry Not Sorry showcase at Riverwest Public House on Saturday, March 4. The FREE show starts at 1 p.m. She’ll also perform at The Underground Collaborative on Friday, March 17 as part of Caste Of Killers’ SHOWcase.