A Polish-American writer-director-producer-editor and a Chinese-American stand-up comic walk into a San Francisco bar…
That’s essentially how Edwin and I met, and not long after that we started collaborating on what would eventually become this project. I was working nights as a dishwasher at two of San Francisco’s comedy clubs and he was often hosting the shows. I ended up meeting a lot of the cast from the movie while doing this work.
I started shadowing Edwin with a DLSR Camera and a Zoom recorder. I was curious about the process of comedy -- eager to uncover a world unknown to me – but I never thought at the time that I was doing research for a feature.
I was at so many of Edwin’s shows I memorized most of his comedy. It’s fascinating who a person is on stage and how their stage persona may differ. Since I can remember I’ve always been drawn to the secret life of exhibitionists, entertainers, extraordinary people. I learned that onstage comedy is exhausting, requiring a unique vigor and energy. I saw how comics draw inspiration from everywhere, everyone and everything. Yet I also discovered I was interested in showing the slow, quiet and even humiliating moments in an amateur comic's everyday life. Then I became eager to draw that link between the personal and how it affected stage persona.
After about four months of research, on January 2nd 2011 I called Edwin first thing in the morning and hastily told him that we’re going to make a film. I continued to follow Ed to clubs all over the Bay Area. One of those clubs was The Purple Onion, which later closed down as we were crowd funding our production budget. The place had a resonance, a feeling in that basement cellar. It’s where Lenny Bruce got arrested for saying “cocksucker” on stage and hosted everyone from Mort Sahl to Woody Allen to Robin Williams.
During all this time in comedy clubs I found myself asking Ed, what would Johnny do in a situation like this as a Chinese American? But I quickly discovered that when you frame things like that you’re already setting yourself up for some kind of stereotype, generalization - so we moved away from that and focused mainly on the characteristics of a tragic figure.
Johnny has moments of miserable awkwardness, but through the film he progresses as a person and enjoys small victories as he grows more confident with himself and his comedy. Johnny’s appeal is found in his relatable weaknesses and his struggle to overcome them. In crafting the story of “The Purple Onion,” Ed and I emphasized nuances and character over any kind of social message.
We realized that our main characters could be of any ethnicity. The supporting cast reflects a hopeful San Francisco in which two people’s lives can intertwine, each changing the other. Since completing and showing the film to a few invited audiences, we learned the movie fulfills a largely ignored appetite for stories about diverse people in humanistic roles.
Matt Szymanowski, San Francisco, July 2015