On this episode, we talk to television writer and former software engineer, Irving Ruan. After spending his early career as a software engineer, consultant and even startup founder, Irving began pursuing comedy and writing in his spare time. We talk about changing career paths, telling stories that engage the head and heart, and his experience working in his first writer’s room on the upcoming NBC/Peacock series, Twisted Metal.
Check out some interview highlights below: You were born in China, grew up in Montana, and then California, you mention all these in your bio. What is it about these three very different environments that you think shaped your comedic sensibilities?
I feel like for me, as an immigrant, one of the things that stands out is observing things from the outside. Growing up, for me, at least took a while to acclimate to American culture. And I think so much of comedy really is looking at things from an outsider's perspective, not quite belonging to any group. So because of that, gives a certain vantage point or at least a certain perspective that, not quite belonging to A, nor are you quite belonging to B. You're just existing between modalities.
You went on to study computer science at UCLA and then had a whole career as a software engineer.
Yeah. Going into computer science was one of the most fortunate things, but also something I didn't really expect. My parents come from the STEM world and so it felt natural to go into an area of study that I know my family has done. I felt like at the end of the day, it may have not been the thing I should have done lifelong, but I didn't know that. You know, hindsight's 2020, But yeah, I think going into Box, I was doing a startup of my own at a certain point, I joined another startup straight out of school, so I felt like doing software engineering work was really my bread and butter. My time at Box is actually really cool because I went into there as one of the engineering team members. Once I realized that I wanted to do more customer facing stuff, I started doing more of the consulting work. So this is where I started, talking to a lot of Box's clients and that allowed me to marry some of my engineering background with some work actually dealing with people and understanding their problems and helping them solve it.
So it was really the best of both worlds. And it was around that time when I had started doing consulting, when I was really dipping my toes in the world of comedy and writing. So much of that work right is based on trying to understand people, whether the silly things, the stupid things or whatever.
As you're progressing in your career, is that realization becoming more poignant in your life, that maybe this isn't the right fit for you? How did you come to that conclusion?
Yeah, I mean, I think aging and being less stupid, maybe. I mean, perhaps little bit of whatever little was crude in my twenties. if you can call it that. I think at the end of the day, it just really came down to just being honest with myself.
As I approached my thirties, I was really starting to question what it is that I wanted to do. And I think I could always do engineering. It was really intellectually fun and challenging, so nothing against that, but I think it was really just remembering, what brought out the inner child in me. I didn't know if engineering could scratch that.
The way I've always captured it is I think engineering allowed me to use a hundred percent of my brain, but writing and storytelling is hundred percent of my brain and my heart and I felt that was worth devoting my life to, while I still had some intelligence left in me before I hit the old age of 35.
At what point did you pick up writing and comedy as a hobby?
I think when I was 27, 28, so a few years ago. I was going through a rough patch, just personally at the time and I remember I was on the phone with a friend. She was working at the time to train as a life coach and she wanted to do a practice round with me. She asked me a question and she said, "Irving, what would you hope your friends and family would say about you at your funeral?" I was so caught off guard by that question, because it just felt so existential. She could tell I was thinking about it and was just like, "no, don't think about it, just say the first thing that comes to your heart."
And I said, to hopefully make people feel less alone, to make them laugh and smile. I think it was really after that moment when I realized, well, maybe I should start investing some energy into that, if that actually is important to me. So while I was working my day job, I would try to write, sometimes in the morning, I tried to write or perform in the evenings.
When you make up your mind that you're going to devote your life to this mission, what are the first exploratory steps take to start dabbling in comedy and writing?
Yeah, it was really just doing it. I didn't go to grad school or get an MFA. I didn't do my undergrad in creative writing. So in the beginning, I always felt really behind because I didn't have a formal education. And so I felt that the best way for me was just to do it. It was just to write, just to submit. To get out there and perform, whether it's standup or improv, or anything like that.
Where it helped coming from a tech background, was so much of it is this hacker mentality. You have a laptop, you have 48 hours, it's a hackathon. You have all the tools in the world, put something together and see what you can do within 48 hours. I wanted to take that hacker mentality from technology, into this world where you just crash and burn, but the more times I can crash and burn and repeat that throughput - I'll be failing a ton, but at least I'm going to get that feedback over and over, super fast.
Right now you are, staffed on a, NBC/Peacock show, Twisted Metal. Can You tell us a little bit about the show that you've been working on?
So, our writers' room wrapped about a month ago, so I've been out of it. It was five months, something like that. And, for those who don't know, Twisted Metal was originally a Sony PlayStation game that came out in the mid-90's. There were many sequels that came out of it but the game itself, I don't know how to put this. It's just absolutely crazy.
Literally, it's just these vehicles in this crazy world where it's like demolition Derby and vehicles like an ice cream truck or sweet. So there'd be like a motorcycle guy. They shoot weapons and you go into this arena combat, like Apex Legends, sort of a free for all melee, but with cars.
And so the show is not just a combat game. I don't think I'm spoiling anything. This is all public, but you know, it's set in the post apocalypse and the story is about one man who needs to journey across, a post-apocalyptic America to deliver a package. Obviously there's a lot of cars, there's a lot of combat, but there's a lot of heart in it, you know? Anthony Mackie's playing the lead character, the other lead is Stephanie Beatrice from Brooklyn Nine Nine. And how I'd probably describe it is like probably Mad max meets the Fast and the Furious. I'm super excited for people to check it out when it does come out, but it's really just truly a crazy show.
You know, there's tons of stunts and cars and explosions. All of that blockbuster stuff you get from cars, but grounded by these really human characters that are trying to make sense of this ravaged wasteland in America.
Did you play a Twisted Metal growing up?
I did, yeah. That was one of the things that I really connected with the show on. When my family moved to San Diego, I didn't really have any friends. One of my first friends that I met, it was a neighborhood kid named Kendall, and we played Twisted Metall all the time in his house.
I wasn't really much of a talker, it took me a while to open up, but the video games really were a portal for me to connect with other kids. We played Twisted Metal and Mario kart. It was really those two. So that game holds a special place in my heart because of what it meant to me emotionally at the time.
Getting this job, being able to craft a story set in this crazy universe is really - what I'll say is I think 11 year old Irving would be shitting his pants if he knew that later on, 31 year old Irving would be working on TV show based on the video game that helped him meet new friends as a kid. So that was really special to me to be on this show.
You wrapped up your first show. I know it's, you know, very early in this new industry, but do you have a dream project formulating in the back of your mind yet, or any inklings of ideas?
I feel like there's so many different ways to shade an answer to that. Similar to what we were talking about earlier, is remembering on a daily basis why I'm doing this. Like, why I'm telling you trying to tell stories. And I think whether that manifests as a TV show or a book or a graphic novel or anything that involves a medium in which I'm really passionate about, I think being able to do it, that I get to do it, really is the dream for me. And I don't ever want to lose sight of that. I know I sound like a broken record saying it to be honest but I think it's because I don't know really anything about this industry, but what I feel like I do know is that it is incredibly uncertain and that things come and go.
There's just a lot of things out of a person's control and trying to divorce my emotional health from the outcome of whatever happens, I realized that needed to be a priority in my life. And so how I guess I've shifted in terms of thinking about dream projects, which I think in terms of the ideas that I would have for some shows or some books, I would love to be able to do that.
Whether it's working on my own stuff or doing someone else's show, I feel like I'm living that dream right now. I think it's unpaid right now because it can be tough at times, but I think that's what I'm trying to remember. So, my book agent and I, we're hopefully about to go out in a little bit with a manuscript of short stories I finished. I really enjoyed writing and that was like, it really came from a deep place and I'm trying to learn how to write a graphic novel now. Just learning to grow and to keep challenging myself in terms of the mediums out there and to continue keeping the fire alive for storytelling is really where my heart and head are at right now.
Irving, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today this has personally been so motivating. You talk about creativity so eloquently. I wish you all the success in the world. Can you let our listeners know where we can find you online?
I'm not active much on social media these days, but I guess you can just find me @irvingruan on Twitter and Instagram, and then I have my website irvingruan.com. Always available if people wanna reach out through email, more than happy to chat. I'm an open book and I really appreciate you having me. This has been a real, real treat and I enjoyed our conversation.