Wednesday, January 17, 2007

He speaks the truth softly, at a show called Talkingstick:

Known by his friends as William Lee, this tall, long-haired Chinese-American has been a fixture in the Village for 20 years. He started doing street shows in Washington Square Park when he was in college, first as a juggler, then as a kung-fu comic incorporating jokes, fire tricks, and martial arts. Thousands of NYU students, drug dealers, tourists, and neighborhood grifters undoubtedly remember his immortal words: “Ladies and gentlemen! I, Master Lee, will break this board” (dramatic pause) “with my HEAD. But first!”

For five years he did standup in comedy clubs, garnering spots on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Showtime at the Apollo, but returned to street shows because they gave him a visceral jolt he couldn’t find anywhere else. Eventually Master Lee and Washington Square Park outgrew each other: he wanted to evolve artistically, and the Giuliani administration wanted to ban open flames from the park.

He immersed himself in the alternative comedy scene on the Lower East Side, especially Faceboy’s Open Mic and Reverend Jen’s Anti-Slam. In these free-for-all art spaces, he took creative risks that were impossible in street shows or comedy clubs. He experimented with playwrighting and created new performance characters, the boldest and strangest being a uber-surrealist Salvador Dali who pulled fish out of his pants and played kickball with squid (to the delight of alt-comedy audiences and the horror of his girlfriend).

Then he turned 40, and had a mid-life crisis in reverse: instead of buying a sports car and escaping into a macho fantasy world, he retired his hyper-masculine, over-the-top stage characters and started performing as himself, William Lee, with no props and no jokes — just true stories about his life.

4:08 PM