No One Could Have Predicted Ben Frank’s International Comedy Career
By Matt Levy
Every comedian has an origin story unique to just them. It’s what makes comedy podcasts so durable- no one gets into comedy because their parents urge them to “enter the field of” comedy like they would with finance, law or medicine. No. Starting comedy is an especially personal endeavor and each story has its own flavor. Take Shanghai-based comic Ben Frank for example. He started doing stand up by accident. There’s no better story than that.
As Ben tells it, “I always envisioned myself in some sort of traditional career. My whole early life was built around studying hard so that I could get into a good university and set myself on that path. Being an artist of any kind was never a consideration.”
Comedy wasn’t on his radar but he was always funny. Here’s proof:
When Ben was five-years-old, every night, his mom prepared his wardrobe for the next morning. She would put them on top of the dresser, and he would wear whatever was there. One night, Ben’s grandmother (whom he calls “Bobbie”) was visiting and did laundry. While her grandson slept, she put a stack of dry clothes on top of his dresser. He woke up the next morning and went downstairs wearing five outfits at once. Ben had his arms stretched out horizontally since he was wearing five sweatshirts. He looked like a kid imitating a plane flying. When he saw his grandmother, Ben was practically crying and said desperately, “Bobbie, why did you give me so many clothes?”
She immediately stood behind Ben, to help remove the many layers, but also to hide her hysterical laughter. This kid had funny in him even if he didn’t know it.
Ben was born in the small town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, best known as the starting point of the Boston Marathon. He lived there until the age of 13, when he moved about a 90-minute drive west to Northampton, a vibrant liberal community on the other side of the state.
Growing up, Ben spent most of his free time playing sports like baseball, basketball, and later track & field. “I was pretty mediocre at all sports,” Ben explains. “I was always good enough to not be the worst on my team, but I was also rarely one of the best.”
That said, Ben always loved the competition and equal opportunity aspect of sports. “I think a weird thing about me is I’ve always been a huge proponent of meritocracy, even from a young age. I liked that sports had rules in place to give everyone an equal chance to prove that they could be the best.”
Aside from studying and playing sports, Ben played the trombone for a few years, even qualifying for the Massachusetts Central District Band in 7th grade, but even that sort of performing art was a far cry from what he would later pursue as a comedian. “Trombone felt like more of a technical skill than an artistic pursuit,” Ben remembers. “At that age, you’re simply playing whatever music is given to you, rather than creating original work.”
So the big questions is, what changed? How did Ben Frank go from the tunnel vision of tirelessly pursuing a traditional career to being a top headlining stand-up comedian in Asia? Ironically, he was nudged toward comedy by the very corporate environment that often stifles creativity.
“I had just gotten a job working for the NBA in China,” Ben recalls. “As a lifelong basketball fan who had studied Mandarin in college, this was my dream job, or so I thought. A couple months after I started working there, the company put together an internal event where all the departments gathered to discuss their goals for the upcoming fiscal year. Knowing that this all-day event was likely to become a snoozefest, the organizers decided to spice things up by having an employee talent show. I volunteered, despite having no clue what I would do. One day shortly before the event, a colleague asked if I could do impressions, and I thought ‘yeah, I can do impressions.’ So that’s what I did, and it went well enough where I thought to myself ‘I need to do this again.’”
Now THAT is an origin story. Comedy was so far outside of Ben’s plans that a confluence of events all had to conspire just to get him on stage for the first time. “When I talk to other comedians,” Ben elaborates, “A lot of them mention how they loved stand-up for so many years and always wanted to get on stage, but it just took them a while. That was not the case with me. I was aware of comedy’s existence, but it never occurred to me to try it until the very moment I actually did it.”
Soon after his first experience on stage, Ben began performing regularly at open mics in Shanghai. Although Ben admits that the Shanghai comedy scene does not compare in size or scope to those of western cities like New York or Los Angeles, it is still a community that has developed some very good comedians over the years. “Just because I was doing comedy in China didn’t mean I could just show up and be the best from day one,” Ben remembers. “I was still an open micer starting from the very bottom rung. Some of the folks who were established comedians in China when I started are now regulars at top clubs in New York, so I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from some talented people who were farther along than I was.”
Doing English stand-up comedy in China is not the typical beginning to a comedy career, and Ben is aware of that. He takes pride in some of the ways that his experience has been unique, at least when compared to his counterparts in western countries. As Ben explains, “It’s a bit weird regularly performing in English in a country where English is not the primary language. You have to bring your perspective of who you are onto the stage, but still package it in a way that’s entertaining for people from China and all over the world. In expat comedy scenes, a show with 50 audience members could have people from 20 different countries. You have to be capable of making everyone laugh.”
And Ben has done just that. He has gone from being that “bottom rung open micer” to someone who has headlined comedy clubs across 10 different countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea.
Ben has even come full circle, showing off his comedy chops as a bilingual emcee for official NBA events in China that have featured past and current basketball stars like Kawhi Leonard, Paul Pierce, and Dominique Wilkins. “Getting to meet guys like that through work is something I’ve been really lucky to do,” Ben gushes. “I have so much respect for how hard they’ve all worked to be the best in their profession, and I try to apply a similar work ethic to my comedy.”
Once COVID-19 hit, the hardworking international jokester continued to stay busy. While the world has slowed down, one of Ben’s big goals is to improve his online presence. He’s posted a number of hilarious videos on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube of his spot-on impressions like Seth Rogen, Michael Caine, Bill Burr, and Dr. Phil to name a few. That said, Ben is still getting his stage time, as Shanghai is one of the few cities in the world where live comedy has persisted for most of 2020. He hopes everyone all over the world can get back to performing as soon as it’s safe in their respective cities, but feels lucky he’s been able to live a decent life over the past few months. Ben added, “I never thought I’d say this, but given the current situation in the world, I’m somewhat happy to be trapped in China.”
Although the pandemic has given Ben the perspective to appreciate his current life, he knows that if his longterm plan is to be a comedian, he probably can’t live in China forever. “Sometime after the world settles down, I do see myself moving back to the states and making a run at doing comedy professionally in New York,” Ben proclaims. “I don’t know what comedy in America will look like at that point, but I’m optimistic that the industry will be resilient and that people will always want to laugh.”
Despite Ben’s goals to eventually leave China, he is incredibly grateful for all that the comedy scene here has given him. Additionally, he is extremely passionate about maintaining and growing the various comedy scenes in China and its surrounding countries. As someone who has worked with nearly all of the major comedy promoters in Asia, Ben is in a unique position to give comics from other regions a lay of the land. “Now is obviously not a great time for travel or performing,” Ben concedes, “but I encourage comedians from North America, Europe, and around the world to consider performing in Asia in the future. There are a lot of great rooms out here, so if you are interested in learning more about comedy here and how to go about getting booked, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram.”
Not bad for a guy who discovered comedy by accident. Now he wants to help you discover comedy in a different part of the world. That’s what it’s all about. Slide into those DMs.