Irene Tu Travis Jensen
Irene Tu (Travis Jensen)

Women to Watch: Irene Tu

Women to Watch: Irene Tu

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Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.

It's one of those "why didn't this already exist?" ideas. Seeing a need for a safe space where women and queer comics could build material and community, standup comics Irene Tu and Jessica Sele began hosting the Hysteria Comedy Open Mic Night just one year ago.

“A lot of the open mics you go to are a lot of straight white dudes, to be blunt,” says Tu. “It’s kind of hard to start, if you’re a woman in comedy.” Now every Tuesday night at San Francisco’s Martuni’s, Tu and Dominique Gelin (Sele has since relocated to Los Angeles) welcome everyone from seasoned storytellers to beginner comics in the bar's cozy back room, where a supportive crowd keeps the spirits high and the laughter rolling -- no small task when it comes to fresh, untested jokes. But then again, Martuni's famous martinis don't hurt.

Where do you live?

I live in Berkeley, California. I moved there about 4 years ago. I’m from Chicago originally.


How would you describe yourself in one word?


What did you do last night?

Last night I was supposed to do a show but it got cancelled or they never told me it was cancelled, so instead I stayed home and watched my two favorite shows on TV right now, which are Jane the Virgin and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

What can’t you live without?

My Gmail. And Facebook, but I’m trying to quit.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Probably just LA, I know it’s really boring.


Irene Tu
Irene Tu (Photo: Travis Jensen)


Who is your personal hero? Why?

Ellen Degeneres, hands down. She’s my favorite comedian and life coach. I actually wrote my college essay about Ellen. But then I subsequently didn’t get into the colleges I wanted to go to. I’m sure it had nothing to do with her, I thought it was a great essay.

I just like that she’s so funny and also likable. Everyone loves Ellen. There’s no way you can’t not like her and if you do I think you’re a psychopath. I just want to be that likable.

How did you find your creative voice?

I think I am still trying to find exactly my voice in comedy. I think I’m getting closer but I still don’t know exactly what it is yet.

The moment I realized that I was probably going to keep doing comedy after college was when my adviser asked me to do stand up at my graduation.

What is something most people don't know about you?

I say this when people ask me, that I kind of hate people. We’re doing terrible things. I wish we would stop doing that.

What do you do when you feel uninspired?

I like to go out and watch my friends do live stand up comedy.

Irene Tu
Irene Tu (Photo: Travis Jensen)

What was your biggest 'learning moment,' and what did you take from that experience?

I hadn’t been doing comedy very long and I saw someone posted they were looking for comedians to do this show. I sent a clip and [the promoter] was like, great, why don’t you come do a feature set. I had never really done more than, honestly, 10 minutes. So when I get there he was like, okay do 20 minutes. And I was so ill-prepared for that. I did like, okay, you know, but I was not ready.

I had carpooled with another comedian who was like way more established than me. And then he went up after me and killed it. That was the moment where I was like, okay take a step back and work on some jokes.

What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?

I feel like my greatest achievement was in high school, the first time I told a funny story in front of a large group of people. I told this story about how my mom forced me to go on the Tower of Terror when we went to Disneyworld when I was like ten and I was still mad at her. That was the first moment when I realized I could be funny and people liked it. It’s just been downhill since then.

Coffee or tea?

Can I say neither? I like Coca-Cola. The Mexican kind with a lime.

What does a perfect day look like for you?

Sleep in till noon. Eat brunch. Watch Ellen at 4pm. Eat dinner. And then go do some shows. And between all that I’d be writing, but the highlights for me are eating, watching Ellen and sleeping.

Irene Tu
Irene Tu (Photo: Travis Jensen)

Who are your local inspirations?

Jessica Sele. I love Karinda Dobbins and W. Kamau Bell.

What is your favorite meal?

My mom makes these snails that she kind of stir-fries with soy sauce.

What upcoming show are you excited about?

I run a show every month, every fourth Thursday that's called Man Haters. That’s probably my favorite time of the month. It’s at the White Horse.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Living in LA, hopefully in a nice apartment. I mean ideally, on some TV show or in some movie.

If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play, song or painting what would it be?

Book one of Harry Potter and I would be Hermione Granger.

Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, and videos.


Do you know a Bay Area artist who is doing amazing things? We want to hear from you! Highlight her efforts using #BayBrilliant.