'Pretty good kid': Get to know comedian Cassie Cao
Leaving a successful desk job behind for the stage, Cassie Cao is a smart and incredibly talented comedian leaving her mark on audiences across the country.
Cao is one of the featured comedians in the CBC Gem special The New Wave of Standup, which is available to watch online here.
We invited Cao to take our questionnaire, and here's what she had to say!
1. Where do you come from, and what were you like growing up?
I was born in China, but I grew up all over Canada. I was a pretty good kid, quiet, and pretty independent. I liked reading books and not going to sleep when I was supposed to (both are still true). I never thought of myself as particularly funny, and my dream was to sit in a nice office with a very large window. I think I achieved this dream too soon into my 20s, that I have now moved on to chasing the exact opposite: standing with a microphone in a very dark basement.
2. What kind of first impression do you hope to make on audiences when you step on stage?
My hope is for my comedy to appear light-hearted and fun and cute, but then pack in some truths that stay with an audience after they've gone home. I would like my comedy to have shared a new perspective, a new idea, just something maybe difficult or painful they've never thought about or wouldn't otherwise have been able to hear were it not wrapped up in a joke and delivered with a smile.
3. When did you first know you wanted to do comedy? When did you decide it was a career?
I was fascinated by stand-up when I first saw Chris Rock's "bullets" bit on YouTube when I was in high school. At the time I didn't even know what standup was and it never crossed my mind that I could do it too. I wanted to try comedy when I read Tina Fey's Bossypants and she described meeting all her friends and future husband at The Second City Chicago.
I found a job in Toronto the next year so that I could start studying improv at the Second City Toronto. Years later, I gave myself a challenge to do 100 days of standup, often multiple shows/open mics per night. Six months and some 300 shows later, I left my job to pursue comedy full-time and I haven't looked back since.
4. What was the greatest moment you've experienced on stage? How about the worst?
The greatest moments I experience on stage are never the big shows that I write about in my credits, because I've usually been crying in anxiety right before going on stage. The best times on stage are the times when a set unexpectedly goes in a direction I hadn't planned, in response to the reactions of the audience. I come up with new jokes in the moment, and my mouth is talking faster than my brain can think. That's the best feeling, when I come off stage and immediately have to write down what I just said before I forget it because the jokes were so spontaneous.
My worst time on stage was at my very first festival showcase set. At the time, it was easily the biggest and most important show I had ever done, with festival bookers specially invited. I had tailored my set to exactly what I thought they would want to see from me and religiously memorized my set like a script. By no means did I bomb my set, but it felt stale and rigid to me, and I was driven by fear of failure and desire to impress someone in the audience. I didn't end up booking the festival. Since then, I've refused to tailor my set for any other showcase or large performance. I now showcase with at least one new joke that I'm excited about even if it doesn't land, so that set feels fun and exciting for me. And then if the festival happens to want to book me, that's even better.
5. Who are your comedy heroes? Who do you look to for inspiration?
I try to consume as much comedy as possible, from all sources -- from comedians who are famous, unknown, ones that I like and don't like. I think it's just as important to learn from acts that I don't like as the ones I do like. There are certain comedians whose work I really admired before I started comedy (Chris Rock, Mike Birbiglia, Demetri Martin), though when it came to it, I found my own voice and style didn't end up fitting their model, and I'm not actually able to do what they do. For that reason, I now try to simply look up to comedians whose careers I admire, who make business decisions I respect (Whitney Cummings, who made her way into showrunning and directing without waiting for anyone's permission, but also didn't hesitate to walk away from opportunities that didn't serve her growth), who continuously prioritize a strong relationship with their fans (Iliza Shlesinger who tirelessly works for her fans, who in return unconditionally support any new direction her career shifts), and who commit to their own voice rather than pandering to what they think might be popular (Maria Bamford, who is so strange and wonderful, and has never betrayed her own voice and that led to success on her own terms).
6. What other fellow comics should Canadians know about?
There are so many talented comedians from Canada that simply don't have access to any platforms that could help them compete with American talent. I implore everyone to seek out voices that are different and unique and unheard of before. Here are five female Canadian comedians who genuinely have made me laugh in recent memory: Anasimone George, Michelle Shaughnessy, DeAnne Smith, Aliya Kanani, and Julie Kim.