Books·How I Wrote It

Why Jonny Sun created an alien that helps us understand what it means to be human

The comedian and engineer tells us about the making of Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, a book partially inspired by his popular Twitter feed.
Jonny Sun is the author of Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too. (Alexander Tang/Harper Collins)

An engineer who writes comedy, Jonny Sun sometimes feels out of place in the various worlds he occupies. Yet he seems to excel in all of them: while working on his PhD at MIT, he's released his first graphic novel, Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, a highly anticipated debut thanks to his dedicated 477,000+ Twitter followers.

Told from the perspective of an alien, the book explores what it means to be caught between worlds. In his own words, Sun talks about the process of creating the book.

Finding a new comedy community

"I lived in Toronto my whole life until I went to the U.S. for my master's degree. The story starts in Toronto where I was doing sketch comedy with a few groups and trying to get into the Toronto comedy scene. When I moved to the U.S., I wasn't able to perform and write with everyone anymore. I found myself being online a bit more and I found a bunch of funny people on Twitter. I thought I could also start writing humour on Twitter, writing jokes and messing around with these guys, in similar ways that I used to write with my friends in Toronto. The Twitter account was filling this desire to keep the comedy brain sharp or at least not letting it die out.

"It's very important for me [to have a community to write with]. I feel like I've grown up - and I still do have this feeling - being the weird one out, being a bit of an outsider. If I didn't have other people to look up to and a community to be part of, I'd never get anything done. When I have this large community of people who are doing amazing different work, it inspires me and it gives me the confidence to pursue what I want to do."

Being an outsider

"I've always been split between this technical world and this creative world. I did my undergraduate in engineering, but while I was there, I was writing comedy, reading plays and working on some installation art on the side. I think because of that split I've never felt like I really belonged in any place.

"The other element is growing up as an Asian Canadian living in Canada. There's an element of my racial identity that lets me sit in the back. One of the superpowers of being Asian Canadian or Asian American is this ability to be accepted into any room, but also not command any attention in those rooms. There's this feeling of invisibility that I've investigated as I've grown up. I've been trying to find a way to use that role to an advantage, to be able to sit, observe and gather research."

His golden rule of comedy: Be compassionate

"My number one rule that I try to apply for all comedy is compassion and empathy. There's a lot of comedy that is mean-spirited. I maybe have developed this point of view specifically because I am an Asian male trying to be in comedy. There's not a lot of different types of characters for me to play and I think early on I resigned myself to playing "the Asian character" or sometimes the butt of the joke. I think that helps me understand the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. I try to aim for all my work to be on the laughing with someone's side. That's my general golden rule.

"We already have enough stuff out in the world that is actively trying to point out that people are different and make fun of that. What I'm trying to do is say, 'Well, we're different. But that's the best part of all of this. We get to celebrate our differences and can come together to use all those differences to our advantage and get along better.'"

Jonny Sun's comments have been edited and condensed.

From Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jonny Sun, ©2017. Published by HarperCollins. (Jonny Sun/HarperCollins)