Profile: Jen Kwok '04
“I’m lucky because I’m starting to make a living at it, three or four years into my career.”
Eric Michael Pearson
"I would rather be onstage for five minutes bombing than filing papers for five minutes.”
Jen Kwok ’04 wasn’t your average School of Management student. She had three concentrations — finance, marketing and management information systems. She was in all kinds of clubs, was a resident assistant, an orientation advisor and a tour guide. To relax, she studied classical piano.
“I was just hardcore,” she says. “I got the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.”
She thought her future was all laid out when, at the end of her senior year, she landed a lucrative job at one of the Big Four New York City accounting firms. Hers would be a life of money and luxury. But, she found out, it would also be a life of conservative, corporate behavior, as evidenced by a dress code dictating that her accessories could be any color, as long as it was neutral.
“It lasted probably a good eight months,” she laughs, talking about the job. “Once I got into the business world, I realized that it was not for me at all.”
So she took a job at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where she could use her talents advancing things she was already passionate about: arts and music. In fact, her three college internships were all in the arts — Atlantic Records, Tri-Cities Opera and the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts.
But her work at Lincoln Center just made her realize she wanted to be the artist, not the support. About a year after she started there, she worked up the nerve to try standup at a staff talent show, performing for an audience of former opera singers and Broadway stars.
“I was so nervous, I don’t think I did any work the entire day,” she says. “I felt like I was going to vomit for six hours straight, which I don’t think is humanly OK for anyone to do.”
She killed. “Jen Kwok, have mercy!” Wynton Marsalis begged.
“I’ll never forget that,” Kwok says. “This guy has the Pulitzer Prize for Music.”
Suddenly, Kwok had a new career focus. She has followed her passion for music by writing funny songs and adding a pink ukulele to her act.
There have been ups —finishing in the top 10 on NBC’s Standup for Diversity competition and being flown to Los Angeles to perform for important industry people — and downs — during one show, Kwok completely blanked and literally ran off stage. “I had stage fright so bad I couldn’t go near a stage for almost a year.”
Now she sometimes performs 10 nights in a row and is working on a single one-hour act. Kwok still works part-time jobs outside of comedy; she’s been a preschool summer camp counselor and done bookkeeping for a nonprofit agency. But more of her earnings are coming from the stage.
“I have been touring colleges since I had a viral hit with my video Date an Asian, and I’ve been getting more work as an actress, including a small role in Eat, Pray, Love.
“I’m right on the cusp now,” she says. “I’m lucky because I’m starting to make a living at it, three or four years into my career.”
Kwok says her business training has helped her advance her career quickly because she understands how to present herself in e-mail and knows what kinds of promotional materials are important.
Of course, had she stayed in the business world, she’d be making a lot more money, but she says she’s stopped questioning her decision after a particularly bad performance.
“It was the first time I realized I truly loved doing this,” she says. “I was playing a burlesque show (I don’t do the burlesque, I don’t own any tassles). It was a totally different audience, and I didn’t know how to handle the audience yet. And I didn’t totally bomb, but it didn’t go well. I went offstage, and I was so upset and beating myself up. Then I realized I would rather be onstage for five minutes bombing than filing papers for five minutes. I try to think of that moment whenever I have any doubts.”
More at: http://jenkwok.net/