Anyone who has flipped on the television in the past few years looking for something funny to watch late at night has probably cringed their way through a couple of sketches on MADtv. While doing so, they might have seen a sketch featuring Bobby Lee (a.k.a. "that other hilarious Asian guy from Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle and Pineapple Express") and thought, “Hey, maybe this isn’t the worst sketch-comedy show on television.” Of course, they'd be wrong, as evidenced by just about every skit that doesn't feature the San Diego-born comedian. Not that Lee is complaining about how one of the most oft-maligned television shows in recent history has helped his career. Prior to a weekend stint at the DC Improv, Lee—a MADtv veteran from 2001 until the show's cancellation last year—spoke with The A.V. Club about his reinvigorated stand-up career, impersonating Connie Chung, and why MADtv is like The Velvet Underground.
The A.V. Club: Hello, Bobby.
Bobby Lee: Hey. I’m watching The First 48 naked.
AVC: I’m glad I caught you while you’re naked.
BL: I’m always naked. [Laughs.]
AVC: I want to talk about MADtv.
BL: Why? [Laughs.]
AVC: MADtv got a bad rap during its run. Why do you think this is?
BL: For me, MADtv has been a good thing and a curse. We were never a show that knew what we were. Every year, we kept trying to figure it out and we were never able to find it. Were we an urban show? Were we the alternative to SNL? NBC backs SNL, but we never got backing from Fox, because Fox didn’t own MADtv—it was owned by Warner Bros. It was one of those weird shows where the numbers were decent, and that’s how we survived ... Half of it was good, half of it was the worst sketch comedy you’d ever seen. At the end, it wasn’t that good. When I got on the show I didn’t even know it was a show. I’d heard of it, but never seen it. I spent eight years on it. Every year I was offered more money. I don't know how it existed.
AVC: Maybe people thought they were going to see Alfred E. Neuman on television.
BL: Yeah, it’s weird. But I don’t understand how Twilight is a huge phenomenon. Honestly, I don’t know why certain things are great. It’s like The Velvet Underground. When that first album—you know, the banana one with Nico on it—came out, it didn’t sell a lot. But over the years it did. I’m hoping that, over the years, people will come back to MADtv and think it isn’t that bad. We had some really talented people on there.
AVC: Are you comparing MADtv to The Velvet Underground?
BL: No! [Laughs.] What I’m saying is, I want it to come back. When I go on the road, people love it. The reason I sell tickets is because people watched it. After 14 years, you can’t knock it. You have to ask yourself why. They wouldn’t have kept it on for 14 years if it didn’t have some quality to it. Actually, I do want to compare MADtv to The Velvet Underground. [Deadpans.] I’m sticking with it.
AVC: Would you have stayed with the show had it not been canceled?
BL: What I did in the last four years of MADtv was, I would do a year-to-year thing. I would do the pilot season—I did two for NBC, one for Fox, and one for Comedy Central. I did my own pilot, and when it didn’t get picked up I’d sign on for another year. The last year, when MADtv got canceled, I did a pilot called State Of Romance that didn’t get picked up. If MADtv had come back, I would have signed on. At the end of the day, I was bummed. Luckily, I can do stand-up, which is a blessing. I hated it at first. I never wanted to be road comic.
AVC: Did you have some bad stand-up experiences?
BL: No. I just don’t like going into towns and doing radio and waking up at 5 a.m. and worrying about ticket numbers and the pressure of being a headliner. To me, it’s like Brian Regan or Dom Irrera or someone who has been doing it for 25 years should headline. I felt like a fucking phony [as a headliner]. But comics know who I am now... I’m more comfortable now. For a while last summer I was depressed because nothing was happening. It got to the point where—I don’t want to name names—people like me were getting films, so I decided to focus on stand-up. It kind of saved my life. I hate to be that dramatic, but I got a girlfriend and refocused my life on being more real and living a regular life rather than pursuing this other false goal [television and movie stardom].
AVC: How much do you still do stand-up?
BL: Every week, about nine times a week in L.A. I’m on the road more than I ever have been. I’m taking on everything—the Middle East, Canada, everywhere ... A lot of people ask what I’m doing. They say, “You should do movies!” Right now, the real thing in front of me is stand-up. I’ve decided to focus on what’s real. [People say] “I got a deal!” That’s fake shit—it doesn’t mean anything. It isn’t real. Stand-up is real.
AVC: Is this because you aren’t just reading someone else’s lines when you do stand up?
BL: Yes. It’s about control. When I was on MADtv for the first three years, I had no control. I just did what they wrote, then gained some popularity and had the support of fans... I’ve done some films and guest starred on The League, where I had no control, but I had a great time. Stand-up is the only thing I have complete control over. There’s something to be said for that.
AVC: Who are some of your favorite people to impersonate?
BL: Connie Chung. Literally, my impressions are how I feel about them ... When I’m in Connie makeup and getup it makes me feel good, it makes me feel like her. Also Kim Jong-il. I always wanted to do my father on the show, so I turned my dad into Kim Jong-il. Who knows what he sounds like?
AVC: You can really expand on a character like that because people don’t have a good idea what he sounds like.
BL: It’s all about facial expressions.
AVC: You’ve been in two “stoner” movies—Pineapple Express and Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle. Do you identify with weed comedies?
BL: For me, it’s like, this is something people know about: I’m sober. I go to meetings. I’ve been high a lot in my life, so I understand it. I guess I’m a stoner at heart. Harold And Kumar ... I’m more a part of that. Now, you get in that Judd Apatow camp and boom. It doesn’t have to do with talent, it’s knowing when to say yes and knowing when to say no.
AVC: Has there been anything you’ve regretted saying no to?
BL: No, but there was a time where I didn’t show up for things. I was notorious for not showing up for things—I was either too busy or I felt like I was the shit, and I behaved that way. It bit me in the ass. If I would have shown up for things, my life could have been different. My life isn’t bad; it’s great. I don’t want to be specific about it, [but] you do make decisions in retrospect that aren’t the greatest ones.
AVC: How about playing stereotypical Asian characters? Any regrets there?
BL: I don’t have problem with it. It depends on how you do it. People say, “Why do you have to play Connie Chung?” I also play John McCain, which is fucked up because Asians captured him. [Laughs.] Why does a black guy have to play Bill Cosby? I’ve done characters with thick accents and ones without. When me and Ken [Jeong] did Pineapple Express they wanted accents. I wasn’t going to say no—we were [playing] Asian assassins. In Harold And Kumar, I didn’t need one; it didn’t call for it. I’m a team player.