JR De Guzman Has All The Makings Of The Next Big Comic

To a kid who grew up watching legends like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee on television, getting to be a part of that world is magic.

The 26-year-old JR De Guzman, who has released his first comedy album “Dual Citizen” not long after winning the comic talent diversity program StandUp NBC, is that kid.

“I feel validated in what I’m doing, after six years of doing this,” De Guzman said, speaking of the new opportunities that have opened to him. The win means he’s now got a one-year talent holding deal with NBCUniversal. “I spent a lot of time watching TV when I was young, seeing [Chan and Lee]. Now I think, ‘I can be one of those people,’ and inspire other Asian Americans.”

Born in the Philippines and raised in Sacramento, De Guzman — who is nary seen without his guitar, with which he performs stand-up — is a former music and voice teacher.

His lightly delivered, comic-next-door material ranges from the post-college struggle of a millennial to imitations of his immigrant parents and, to certain crowds, even historical references (“I teach third graders music, and one of the songs I teach is ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,'” he once told a crowd at the Crest Theater in Sacramento. “You know who loves that song? Little kids. You know who hates that song? Chinese immigrants from the 1860s.”)

Then there are the self-written songs, about failed prom dates and interracial babies, that have carried over into “Dual Citizen,” which debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ comedy chart on Feb. 24.

De Guzman has used his unique meshing of music and laughter to overcome 600 competitors in the stand-up program and found even more eyes and ears through television, where he’s appeared on slots in MTV’s “Acting Out,” Comedy Central’s “Hart of the City” and Hulu’s “Coming to the Stage.”

NBC’s diversity and inclusion initiative works with groups like the Groundlings, Second City and East West Players to find talent in communities across the country, according to Karen Horne, senior vice president of the network’s Programming Talent Development & Inclusion. The stand-up program, which started 14 years ago, picks up comics like De Guzman and helps them find larger audiences. Its alumni includes stars like Deon Cole of “Blackish” and W. Kamau Bell of “United Shades of America.”

“[JR’s comedy] is especially universal,” Horne said. “We all have a grandmother like his, whether we are Asian or not, and his stories speak to everyone. It certainly spoke to our team. We all relate to him — he’s accessible.”

JR De Guzman's "Dual Citizen" (Courtesy photo)
JR De Guzman’s “Dual Citizen” (Courtesy photo)

De Guzman started out singing in a choir at Catholic school before taking voice lessons and picking up musical instruments like drums and the guitar. For a while, he was juggling both leading private lessons and doing stand-up. “I taught voice lessons during the day and [comedy] shows on the road at night,” he said.

One thing — a hard-earned connection with audiences — has made it all worth it. “You can’t make a crowd laugh without connecting to them,” De Guzman pointed out. “I did a lot of bar shows. There’s people on the side who are there to watch a sports game. The first goal is, how do I connect to them?”

When you find it, he said, it’s addictive. “Comedy over drugs,” he joked.

De Guzman’s dream, of creating his own musical comedy series and using it as a platform to reach more people via tours, may just become reality with NBC.

Before that happens, he will headline the program’s regional semi-finalist showcase later this year, and continue promoting the album. As the Sacramento Bee put it, he’s on his way to the big time — and no one’s happier than his parents, who work in the dental world and who until recently wanted their son to join the field.

“My parents are the most proud they’ve ever been,” De Guzman laughed.