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On July 26, Robin Tran took the stage at Hollywood Boulevard’s Fonda Theatre. The Roast Battle crowd roared, the Comedy Central cameras rolled and Tran turned to face competitor Alex Duong, a fellow Los Angeles comic who came dressed to kill in a Bruce Lee tracksuit. Tran, styled more discreetly in a burgundy dress, black boots and blonde highlights, nervously raised her microphone.
“Alex quit med school to pursue stand-up comedy,” she began. “He’s the only Asian to disappoint his parents more than I did.”
“You’re right, Robin,” Duong shot back. “I did drop out. Because like you, I can’t handle periods.”
“Alex is right, I am transgender,” said Tran. “So I’m just like Alex’s girlfriend and family, because we all have a useless dick we want to get rid of.”
By the end of the bout, Roast Battle’s judges were blown away.
“I predicted a great battle, and I was right,” praised lead judge Jeff Ross, a veteran comic known as the “Roastmaster General” whose closing set was the highlight of Comedy Central’s Roast of Bruce Willis. “Robin Tran — with those short, tight jokes, I just think you’re the best.”
Originating five years ago at Los Angeles’ famed Comedy Store, Roast Battle’s no-holds-barred insult-comedy competition has grown from a Tuesday open mic to a global brand with TV versions in the U.K., Mexico and South Africa. And 32-year-old Tran — whose episode airs Tuesday on Comedy Central at 10 p.m., kicking off the third season — is the first transgender comic to compete.
“It was probably one of the best nights of my life,” Tran, still buzzing, told The Hollywood Reporter on a phone call a day after the taping. “I had an out-of-body experience at one point. I forgot to have fun for the first two jokes. I almost flubbed one of my jokes, but I still got a big laugh. And that was the moment where I’m like, ‘OK — be in the moment.’ It was kind of a surreal experience.”
Tran’s cable TV debut comes on the eve of her first major comedy special — Don’t Look at Me, part of a six-episode showcase of Asian comics called Comedy InvAsion, which debuts Wednesday on Hulu.
It’s all a bit hard to absorb for Tran, who hails from Orange County, California. The conservative-leaning L.A. suburb was a challenging place for Tran’s low-income Vietnamese family to thrive. With eight people in a two-bedroom apartment, she shared a bed with her cousin as a toddler.
Her support system included an alcoholic father and a depressive mother, Tran says. She dreamed of pursuing theater, but bowed to family pressure, instead studying English at University of California, Irvine.
But Tran was always drawn to comedy. It’s a talent she says runs in the family. “My father actually did comedy when he was younger,” she says. “We don’t really get along about anything other than stand-up. So the one thing I like about him is the best thing about me.” Tran began appearing at open-mic nights in 2012, and spent her first three years on the scene performing as Robert.
She also inherited her mother’s mental illness. As Tran grappled with suicidal thoughts, it dawned on her that she may be a woman. She eventually came out in 2015 to girlfriend and fellow comic Cate Gary as a transgender lesbian. Within a year, Tran self-released a YouTube special and focused on becoming one of the best roast battlers in Los Angeles.
Roast Battle host Brian Moses originally knew Robin as Robert. “When she was transitioning into Robin, she became much happier,” he says. “Robin’s always been a big WWE wrestling fan, and a fan of roasting and roasts in general. Even in her first battle, she had such precise jokes.”
“She always had confidence,” adds Ross, who tracked Tran’s growth at The Comedy Store. “Robin always had this sort of stoic nature. It takes a lot of courage to even be trans in the comedy world, and then to go up and make jokes about it and own it — it’s more than I could imagine.”
Now living in Tustin, about an hour-and-a-half drive outside of L.A., Tran has been trying to take her recent breaks in stride. “I don’t really think about the future much. I just kind of go day by day,” she says. “A lot of the stuff happening recently has been very recent, and kind of overwhelming.”
Her parents are more supportive this time around, even if they don’t necessarily understand her choices. “I think he thinks that I dress up [as a woman] for the jokes,” she says of her father. “I don’t want to burst his bubble because I don’t feel the need to explain it to him, and I don’t think he’ll get it anyway.”
Having recently quit her day job, Tran now devotes almost all of her time to “thinking about jokes.” She recently began combating depression with medication and therapy — but she credits stand-up comedy with giving her purpose and peace.
For Tran, Roast Battle helps combat notions that trans people are weak or have no sense of humor. “I’m taking all the jokes in stride, I’m laughing, I’m smiling along — and then I’m delivering jokes of my own, which are pretty brutal,” she says. “I like that I can show off that side of me that I don’t think is really shown on television or movies, this side of trans people that we can be very funny, we can roast back and forth, and we can take it as well as we can give it.”
For Tran, inclusion is paramount — and she’s quick to dismiss the recent debate that comedy in the age of identity politics is dying or dead.
“Comedy is in a better place now than it’s ever been,” she says. “There are a lot more critics, absolutely, because of the internet. But anyone who thinks comedy is in a bad place right now isn’t paying to attention to what is actually out there.”
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