Episode 511: Sheng Wang, Leyna Krow, Steven Hyden on Pearl Jam

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Sheng Wang onstage in Los Angeles
(C) Terence Patrick/(C) Netflix 2022

Comedian Sheng Wang on his Netflix special, “Sweet and Juicy.” Also, Leyna Krow talks about her debut novel, “Fire Season,” inspired by the Spokane fire of 1889. And music critic Steven Hyden on how Pearl Jam captured the attention of Generation X.

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  • An evolved and authentic Sheng Wang finds the funny in the Netflix comedy special, 'Sweet and Juicy'

    Editor’s note: The final video featuring Ali Wong and Sheng Wang contains language that may not be appropriate for some audiences.

    Comedian Sheng Wang shows off his comedy chops with some very funny jokes and a personable, relatable approach in his debut Netflix comedy special, “Sweet and Juicy.”

    Whether he’s talking about buying Kirkland pants at Costco, his constant efforts to beat the system, or why he might be better off as a train, the jokes and the laughs just keep on coming.

    In his Costco bit, Wang takes aim at the humble owner of the Kirkland pant.

    “When you buy pants at Costco, that’s when you don’t care anymore,” he said in the special. “That’s when we let go of our egos and begin our spiritual journey.”

    “You hear people say stuff and go, ‘I’m not concerned about other people’s opinions; I don’t care about what they think.’ That is just talk. Until you back it up with a Costco pants purchase.”

    We here at “BETA” are big Costco fans, and we affectionately refer to it as Keith Kirkland, as if Keith Kirkland is the founder of the big-box retail store. But he isn’t. Jim Sinegal and Jeffrey H. Brotman are the co-founders.

    So that got us wondering if Wang making jokes about Costco pants is a clever trick to get Keith Kirkland to start stocking a line of Sheng Wang Action Slacks, perhaps.

    I would be honored to collaborate with Costco. Yeah, that would be huge. I think that would be a bigger achievement for my parents to see than the special itself, maybe,” he said.

    Sheng was born in Taiwan, but he’s lived most of his life in the United States.

    “My parents immigrated to the states when I was like 2 or 3,” Sheng told WPR’s “BETA.” “So it’s not like I really understood what was going on. I mean, I think the culture shock just might be being a human being on this earth and also just being a child of immigrants in America.”

    He has great insight into what makes Americans tick and, more importantly, what makes them laugh, and he’s been doing that with his stand-up for 20 years.

    In that time he has developed his own, authentic voice, which he called the goal of the craft.

    Do comedy that is so original to you and so unique to yourself that no one else can copy or steal your jokes. And so that you are on stage performing and sharing what is true to your heart and having the most fun doing it.”

    Wang said he’s getting close to his authentic voice but recognizes that at least for now he’s always changing, evolving and learning.

    “And I think that’ll change as I change,” he said.

    Wang said that when he was starting out, he was a huge fan of the late, great comedian, Mitch Hedberg, whose deadpan delivery and wit captured audiences.

    “So many comics adopted his sound and his feel and his vibe,” Wang explained. “And when you’re starting out, it’s very common for people, artists or performers or writers to emulate the folks that inspire them. But at some point, you want to come into your own, find your voice and your unique way of doing it.”

    Wang said people have commented on his physical comedy — the use of his body to tell a joke. Wang said it’s interesting to hear that, because he never thought of himself that way.

    “I think because it’s on TV, people can see it,” he said. “That element is more pronounced because I feel like my physicality is pretty minimal and sparingly used.”

    Wang’s special premiered on Netflix in early September. Fellow comedian Ali Wong directed and produced the hour-long special, but the two go back much further.

    “We both started comedy in San Francisco, around the same time, and we’ve been kind of in the struggle together for a long time now. And so I was just grateful to work with her,” Wang said.

    Calling Wong a “homie,” Wang said she helped him get over worrying about making the special, well, special.

    When comedians have a special opportunity to make a special, Wang said, “they suddenly want to change what they’re doing and make it something different.”

    Wong told him not to worry about doing anything different and just to make his jokes as tight as possible so that they can be the best version of themselves. That was also Wong’s approach with visuals.

    “We weren’t trying to be super experimental. We wanted to shoot a very traditional looking special, just a beautiful red curtain, some lights and a stage and not do anything too radical.”

    As for the future, Wang has no big plans. Not at the moment, anyway.

    “I think my main goal is to continue writing jokes and try to figure out what another hour will look like,” he said. “That’s really it. Just be healthy, be a good person, work on the craft and try to live life.”

  • In Leyna Krow's debut novel, 'Fire Season,' two con men con a town and are out-conned by a woman

    At about 6 p.m. on Aug. 4, 1889, a fire devastated the downtown area of Spokane, Washington (known as Spokane Falls at the time).

    There was no water pressure when the fire started because of a faulty pump station. Firefighters tried to control the fire by blowing up buildings with dynamite. As the winds calmed down, so did the fire. But it was too late. By then, almost all of Spokane’s downtown was gone.

    Only one person was killed. Nobody ever figured out what caused the fire. This lingering question inspired Leyna Krow to write her debut novel, “Fire Season.” It’s a riveting, propulsive story focused on three intriguing characters whose lives intersect in the aftermath of the Great Spokane Fire — a banker, a con artist and a woman with the ability to see the future.

    Krow lives in Spokane. After she finished graduate school there, she worked for a summer as a city tour guide, where she frequently told the story about the great Spokane Fire that devastated the city’s downtown, she told WPR’s “BETA.”

    “And it was really a pivotal event for the city. But a funny thing about it is that nobody can agree how it started. There’s no factual, historical record. They know where it started, they know when it started, but nobody knows what caused the fire.

    Krow said that she considered this to be “an interesting door to walk through as a fiction writer.”

    Krow decided that she would try to tell the story of somebody who tried to exploit the fire to benefit himself. That somebody would be Barton Heydale, the manager of Spokane Falls’ only bank. As the town’s citizens rush to the bank to cash out their insurance policies and take out loans, Barton discovers a way to have the power that he yearns for.

    Krow originally conceived of “Fire Season” as a novella rather than a novel focused on Heydale. But she said that was unsatisfying, so she opted to add other characters in and flesh out the rest of the story.

    Heydale’s nemesis is a professional con artist named Quake Auchenbaucher. The Spokane Falls police chief hires “Inspector” Auchenbaucher to investigate what caused the fire.

    Krow does a great job of taking the reader inside Quake’s brain to paint a vivid picture of what goes on inside the mind of a con artist. How did she do this?

    “I think that’s sort of the luxury of writing about a kind of person in a period of time that very much does not exist anymore,” Krow said.

    We’re very much living in an age of con artists, but I think they’re quite different from Quake. So he was a lot of fun to write, and I felt this freedom in him,” she said. “I think that there’s just something about the human desire to take what there is to take that’s very accessible. We all probably feel that to a certain degree.”

    There’s a very interesting dynamic between Quake and banker-turned-con-man Barton, as Krow explained. Barton was at one point an upstanding, honest man. He turns himself into a con artist by using the fire to “get the better of people.”

    And for Krow, two con artists are better than one: “So if you have one con man, why not have one even connier so he can just show up and do all the cons way better.

    Krow said that she doesn’t really like the idea of a nemesis relationship where one person is pitted against another person. In her story, Quake becomes sympathetic toward Barton, and a “rocky friendship” develops.

    “I wanted that complicated nature because I feel like that’s how real relationships in the real world most often are,” she said. “If you’re a person at all, you almost always find empathy for the people you’re around, even when they’re driving you bonkers.”

    In “Fire Season,” Krow also explores the greed and misogyny of the American West in the 1890s.

    “I think that just as a woman in the world, you’re kind of always thinking about greed and misogyny,” Krow said.

    The role of misogyny in the West is told through the story of the third main character, Roslyn Beck — a sex worker who is a lifelong alcoholic and really down and out when the fire occurs.

    “It’s impossible to tell her story without looking at the role that men have in her life and how what she has to do in order to live the sort of life that she wants and how much easier everything would be for her if she was a man. I feel like that’s an element of the time that I was writing about, but it’s also an element of now. It’s an element of everywhere all the time.”

    Roslyn possesses magical abilities that she, up to this point, has been using for her own survival.

    “She winds up using her magical abilities to become the ultimate con man and get the better of both of these other dudes,” Krow said.

    Image courtesy of Jon Merrill.

    That theme of using magic to shape events is not original to “Fire Season.” In fact, a short story that Krow wrote for a fundraising event in Spokane called “Sinkhole” featured a magical sinkhole in a family’s backyard that could transform any broken object thrown into it into something brand new.

    “And then the question becomes, what happens if you put a human into the sinkhole?” she asked.

    There was a bidding war and several offers to turn that story into a film. Eventually, the film rights for the story were optioned by Universal and Jordan Peele’s production company, Monkeypaw. So why did Krow choose Jordan Peele and Issa Rae?

    “I thought that they were going to make something really cool out of it, and also that it would move the story beyond what I had written in a really interesting way, because the work that they do is so different even from the genre that I was writing in,” Krow said. “I thought it would be cool to see the story have a life so far beyond anything that I could have intended for it.”

  • Music critic Steven Hyden on the unexpected resiliency of Pearl Jam

    It’s nearly impossible to overstate Pearl Jam’s impact on mainstream culture in the early ’90s. After the overnight success of the Seattle-based rockers’ debut album, “Ten,” they were anointed, perhaps unwillingly, as one of the founding faces of “grunge” along with their hometown rivals, Nirvana.

    As tragedy and changing musical tastes have rendered that era to merely a moment in rock history, Pearl Jam has outlasted both their peers and imitators to forge a surprisingly sustained career and a devoted global fan base.

    Music critic Steven Hyden tracks the group’s resilient journey in his book, “Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation.” It’s a personal approach and valuable critical companion that does a great job of contextualizing the band’s various life cycles.

    Pearl Jam’s genesis

    Hyden told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” that every Pearl Jam bio has to begin with the band’s notorious origin story. He likens it to how every Batman film must show you the fate of Thomas and Martha Wayne.

    “I was talking about the ‘momma-son‘ tape, which is a famous demo tape that was sent to Eddie Vedder, and it included some of the earliest Pearl Jam songs. And that was basically his entrée into the band,” Hyden said.

    The story goes that after the death of Mother Love Bone frontman, Andrew Wood, his reeling bandmates Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament put three of their songs on a demo tape in search of a new band. This tape found its way to Eddie Vedder, a struggling singer who was working the graveyard shift at a San Diego music club as a roadie.

    Eddie’s childhood hero was Pete Townsend of The Who. Inspired by The Who’s penchant for concept albums, Vedder devised his own mini-rock opera.

    His lyrics for the demos formed a trilogy and his powerful voice swayed Ament and Gossard to invite him up to Seattle.

    The result altered rock history. The songs were “Once,” “Alive” and “Footsteps.”

    When those songs were performed together, they tell a story. Early on when Pearl Jam would perform those songs in sequence, Eddie Vedder at one point jokingly refers to it as like their Nutcracker Suite. I think he was trying not to appear pretentious,” Hyden said.

    Hits and consequences

    “Once” and “Alive” were huge factors in the success of “Ten,” helping it go platinum 13 times over. The other major factor was the heavy rotation of the music video for the band’s hit song, “Jeremy” on MTV.

    Hyden said that this video was groundbreaking at the time for its dark and chilling story. It also gained a level of infamy for a curious choice from MTV that has had tragic consequences.

    “It’s interesting seeing it now because it’s easy to roll your eyes at it a little bit. It’s very earnest and it’s very over-the-top. But at the time, you watch that that video, and they’re showing kids pledge allegiance to the flag in a classroom. And then they intercut it with the kids doing the Nazi salute. And it just opened up the world in a much bigger way,” Hyden said.

    The video was based on a real-life incident of a young man who committed suicide in front of his Texas classmates. MTV censored the video, but left the ending of a horrified class covered in blood. The result was confusion on what actually occurred and was used as a rallying image by future school shooters.

    I guess the idea was that they didn’t want to show a teenager taking their own life. But in doing that, they arguably made it worse. Actually, not even arguably. They did make it worse,” Hyden said.

    Pearl Jam retreated from making further music videos to support their songs. They wouldn’t need to. Their sophomore album “Vs” continued the band’s stratospheric rise going platinum seven times. Futhermore, the success of “Ten” and of Nirvana inspired record companies to promote a series of “grunge” acts in the imitation of Pearl Jam to cash in on the moment. Hyden said that one of the things that separated Pearl Jam from these other acts was Vedder’s ability to write songs that center women and underdog characters.

    Atypical alt-rock tropes

    One of the lasting songs from “Vs” is the ballad, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town,” and it takes the point of view of an aging working-class woman. Hyden said that even though grunge was, for the most part, pretty progressive, that it was still heavily male-dominated and focused.

    “This is 1993 that the album comes out, which is really the time when alternative rock is reaching critical mass,” Hyden said. “And part of the appeal of alternative rock — and I think ‘Vs’ specifically — is that it is a confrontational album.”

    “I think it really does show that (Eddie) wasn’t going to just repeat the standard rock-and-roll tropes. You know, most guys in his position would have been singing about scoring women on the road or getting drunk or living the rock and roll lifestyle. And here’s this guy singing about an older woman working in a store and reflecting on her life. I mean, that’s a pretty profound thing.”

    Vedder and Pearl Jam actively rebelled against their fame. Their next release, “Vitalogy” featured several experimental songs, and the lyrics on several tracks reflected Vedder’s growing discomfort with celebrity.

    Pearl Jam
    Pearl Jam members, from left, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard appear at a news conference in Mexico City, on July 17, 2003. Jaime Puebla/AP File Photo

    “It’s an album that sold 6 million copies in America and yet you have some truly demented songs on that record,” Hyden said. “But then you also have incredibly commercial songs like ‘Better Man’ and ‘Nothing Man’ and ‘Corduroy.’ I think that’s what’s so fascinating about it. They really walk a tightrope between accessibility and chaos on that record.”

    Taking on giants

    The chaos would continue on the tour for “Vitalogy.” Fed up with Ticketmaster’s practice of price gouging fans with excessive fees, Pearl Jam would take on the corporate giant. They vowed to only play venues that wouldn’t use Ticketmaster as an overture to their fans and hoped other big acts would follow. The feud played out much differently.

    “They were really criticized for going after Ticketmaster because it really made seeing Pearl Jam live inconvenient at the time. And I think for a lot of fans, they were just frustrated by that,” Hyden said.

    “This was like one of the only bands that didn’t just talk about being anti-establishment. They took a substantive step to try to change the system, and they were on their own, and they got crushed,” Hyden continues. “We can see now that things have just gotten way worse since then. So, at the very least, I would like to think that when people look back on that, that they admire the attempt.”

    Hyden felt like that tour was a pivotal year for the band.

    He pinpointed a Red Rocks performance in the summer of 1995, saying that the concert was noted for being fairly clumsy at the outset as the band experimented with a new format. Hyden said that this motivation to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks was new to their live performances and a bellwether of their next phase as a live band.

    It’s also the only time they played a song called “Falling Down.” Hyden said that with a little work, the song would’ve been another surefire radio hit.

    “For whatever reason, they opted not to do that. So, we just have this one recording,” he said. “To me, that just felt like a metaphor in a way for what I think Pearl Jam became, which was not this big radio band, not this big band on MTV, but a band that makes its reputation night after night. A band that goes from city to city and tries to play an honest, spontaneous show that’s unique to that moment.”

    It turns out leaning into becoming a live band would be integral to their longevity. As other bands from the era succumbed to tragedy or break-ups or changing musical tastes like nu metal, Pearl Jam retained a devoted following for their live shows.

    In its early years, the band was always known for its ferocity and energy on stage. Now, it was following the blueprint of Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead where the live show became the destination. Pearl Jam was no longer touring in support of a new album. In fact, in the late aughts through today, the band’s album releases have been incredibly scarce and are often given little fanfare.

    But Pearl Jam wouldn’t totally escape tragedy. While playing the Roskilde festival in Denmark on a rainy day in 2000, nine fans were tragically killed when the audience rushed the stage to hear them play. Hyden said that the way Pearl Jam handled this situation was both in character and character building at the same time.

    “It seems like whenever that the anniversary of that concert comes up, Pearl Jam always acknowledges that. They always talk about the victims. I feel like a lot of artists would maybe try to sweep this under the rug,” Hyden said.

    “I think Pearl Jam has always been pretty straight on in confronting grief and trauma in a way that seems very healthy. And I think it’s helped to sustain them over the long haul,” he said.

    In 2017, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hyden noted that this is a seminal moment for Generation X, but ponders how new generations will regard Pearl Jam.

    “I think the jury is still out yet on what their relevance will be,” he said. “To younger listeners, is this going to be a band like The Who or Bruce Springsteen that younger generations feel almost obligated to listen to because they’re so important to music history? Or are they going to be looked at as like a ’90s band? I don’t know the answer to that question.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Sheng Wang Guest
  • Leyna Krow Guest
  • Steven Hyden Guest

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