Photo by Fernanda Fraiz
By Alec Ash
Jesse Appell is a young American in Beijing who performs comedy in Chinese – both traditional Chinese forms and more Western fare such as stand-up. He studied Chinese comedy as a Fulbright fellow, and now promotes cross-cultural comedy through a project called Laugh Beijing. His parody music video Laowai (foreigner) Style proved a big hit, and his new video, an “economic rap”, is “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” (development). I talked to him about what sets Chinese comedy apart, and the phenomenon of foreigners performing traditional comedy on Chinese TV.
What first got you interested in Chinese comedy?
I came to Beijing in 2010, and did six months of an intensive study abroad program. I had done improvised comedy back in the US, throughout high school and college, and I found the bilingual improv group here. I thought that how Chinese did improv would reveal different things about Chinese culture, so that was the initial impetus. Then I had the chance to come back here last fall on a Fulbright fellowship, which was specifically for me to study comedy in China. That ended a couple of months ago, and now I’m trying to make it as an intercultural comedian and comedy entrepreneur.
So the idea is that comedy can be a form of intercultural exchange?
Yes, definitely. The Fulbright fellowship was a great way to start looking at ways in which comedy could be used as cultural exchange. And it really can. There are certain types of jokes that are really hard to translate – that rely on shared areas of cultural knowledge. Wherever the joke references knowledge specific to one culture – think American Idol winners, or Hot Pockets – those jokes can fall flat. But if the comedian drills a bit deeper, thinks of “reality TV” and “frozen foods” and plans accordingly, most of the things that make those jokes funny will still work in another culture.
Have you found that Chinese and Western audiences find different things funny?
There are differences in terms of the styles that people are used to. One of the reasons why xiangsheng [crosstalk, a traditional form of comic repartee with history going back to the Qing dynasty] is just funnier to Chinese people than it is to Westerners is because Chinese people know the xiangsheng style. In a similar way, Americans would probably find wacky Saturday Night Live sketches funnier than Chinese would. But that doesn’t means it’s a cultural difference, that you can’t “get” those sketches if you’re from a different cultural background – it’s just a matter of being in the culture enough to know what those things are, and to get used to them.
Tell us more about xiangsheng, and why you chose to learn how to do it.
I studied traditional xiangsheng, an art form which has come down over 150 years, master to student. As a result, it has managed to keep some things the way they were done in the Qing dynasty. However there are a lot of things that were funny in the Qing dynasty, but aren’t now – routines about matching new year’s scrolls, lantern riddles, guessing characters, a lot of stuff based off traditional culture. The main difference between xiangsheng and something like stand-up is that xiangsheng is an art form. There’s a very set idea about what counts as doing xiangsheng correctly. Performing the art form well is in some cases important enough that it’s OK if people don’t laugh at the jokes. They’re funny, but not as funny as modern jokes.
But people are pushing the boundaries in live xiangsheng shows, even if you don’t see it on TV. There are live xiangsheng shows that are straight-up for young people, and they don’t include any traditional routines. You hear people talk about tainted milk, about housing prices. All the hot button issues that show up in Chinese comedy shows show up in xiangsheng as well. You can see these pieces at clubs like the Xiha Baofu Pu [a collective of young xiangsheng performers] or De Yun She [established by the most famous Chinese xiangsheng performer, Guo Degang].
What’s your take on foreigners doing xiangsheng on Chinese TV?
A lot of foreigners have studied xiangsheng, and everyone has a different reason for it. Some people are really into the culture, others enjoy performing. Ding Guangquan, my xiangsheng master, is an amazing personality. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about comedy, and is one of those personalities where you meet him once and never forget him. He’s retired, after about 60 years of doing xiangsheng, and he wants to pass it on, to keep it going throughout the generations. He has discovered that there are foreigners who love xiangsheng, which is going to get the art form known in the rest of the world. The first foreigner to gain national prominence for performing xiangsheng was Mark Rowswell, who uses the stage name Dashan. He made his name at the New Year CCTV Gala in December 1988, after which he became a celebrity in China.
The phrase “performing monkey” is sometimes used in this context.
That comes up a lot. Foreigners do legitimate xiangsheng. But the Chinese media, when it comes to booking performances, already know what they’re looking for when they find a performer. So all of the TV shows that find us are already looking for foreigners doing xiangsheng, and we have to adjust to what they want. Plus if Chinese writers write for you, their sense of what a foreigner says and does is not even close. So it winds up looking like dancing monkeys, because it’s written by Chinese people for Chinese people, but the person saying it doesn’t look Chinese.
Chinese people find the phrase “dancing monkey” very funny when that concept is explained to them. Of course foreigners dance and sing on Chinese TV, they say – so do we! Chinese performers wind up doing stranger and more “embarrassing” things than foreigners, so it seems strange that foreigners would hate on each other for doing the same sorts of thing that are generally done on daytime entertainment television. As a foreigner who constantly needs to defend himself against the “performing monkey” stigma, I think it’s important to remember that just like any other form of cultural communication, wires get crossed in parsing the performances of foreigners on TV. Chinese people don’t see foreigners as “losing face” within Chinese culture for doing gimmicky daytime TV shows. That loss of face exists mostly in the mind of the other expats who are seeing the shows.
Tell us about tuokouxiu or “talkshow”, China’s version of stand-up.
Tuokouxiu is starting to get really big. The question is whether it’s ever going to be any good. Right now, there are a lot of people doing it, and there’s a lot of bad tuokouxiu. Most of that is on the internet, and there’s some on television too. There are several cities that have stand-up clubs – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Hong Kong has been doing it for years and is completely different. But it’s starting to get bigger in the mainland. Joe Wong just sold out 800 seats five days in a row in Shanghai.
Whatever the hot button issue is might not make its way on TV, but it will make its way on stage in small clubs and bars. The issue is the platform. In America, the market rules the platform, so if people laugh at it, it will find it’s way onto mainstream media. But what’s on the Chinese mainstream media is never going to look as intense. Then again, subtext and context always informs comedy, and in China half of what makes a joke funny is knowing what you can and can’t get away with on that platform.
Are there some jokes you just can’t get away with making in China?
My big takeaway as a comedian who creates content and performs is that, while there is government censorship and you need to realize what medium you’re going to be performing in, the biggest decision is still: what do Chinese people find funny? Just saying all the words you’re not supposed to say isn’t funny. It’s not that people don’t want to hear jokes about these things, but to call them out directly just isn’t funny to a Chinese audience. People will feel embarrassed and worried. If the jokes on stage get too insensitive, or too dirty, you will see audience members who get nervous and upset. In a small venue, the only censorship comedians face is self-imposed, either by the audience or culturally. But part of what I’ve seen in the Chinese stand-up scene is that they are finding ways to get at the sensitive topics more subtly.
But the material still steps on toes, right?
It definitely does. I think there’s a misconception that China doesn’t have The Daily Show, because the government won’t let it happen. There are already fake news programs on the internet that rib the news. There’s a hugely popular show called Baozou Dashijian [Thug News], where they make jokes about news stories. The hosts wear giant comedy masks – half of that is to be funny, and half of it is probably because they don’t want people to know who they are. They have a huge audience, but it’s cutesy-funny rather than angry-funny, and a lot of the social dialogue is implied and not explicitly stated.
The Chinese approach to sensitive stuff in general is to imply it. You don’t just yell the truth out really loud. Chinese artists who like doing that find more success in the West, because it’s a communication style that we’re used to. We very easily understand the message of Ai Weiwei, but Chinese comedians reach more people in China because they have found a way to do it that is sensitive to the average person on the street, who doesn’t even want to be next to the person who is yelling something uncomfortable. For example, would rib the results of a policy rather than the policy itself. It’s too direct at this point to say that the government has a bad policy and that created pollution. Instead, people make jokes about the pollution, and everyone knows why it’s there.
Is the improvised comedy scene here purely Western, or homegrown too?
There are Chinese scenes, but obviously improvised comedy as an art form comes from the West. It was originally brought here by expats, and then spread to Chinese people. There are bilingual improv groups and several Chinese language only improv troupes in Beijing. So it follows the people who do it. There was a foreigner who did improvised comedy in English in Beijing. Then he moved to Xiamen, and there were no foreigners who wanted to do improv there, but lots of Chinese. So now Xiamen has a Chinese improv troupe.
Of course, part of the interest is that it’s a Western art form. People are eager to Westernize, so to speak – to experience new types of comedy, while doing it in a Chinese way. That’s exactly what’s happening with tuokouxiu. Because xiangsheng has so much history associated with it, that context plays into it when you see a show. But there are people who want to do comedy outside of that context.
Tell us about your new video, “Mo Money Mo Fazhan.”
I came up with the phrase “intercultural comedy” before I even really knew what it meant, so half of my journey has been figuring out what comedy means between the two cultures of China and the West. “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” is an example of that, because it’s meant to be entertaining and funny for foreigners and Chinese alike, but to each in different ways, perhaps. Westerners might get a laugh out of the rap aesthetic – it’s a white guy doing rap in Chinese with a giant 福 (fu – wealth) character over his neck as a Flava Flav reference. That will go over the heads of most Chinese people, but calling Deng Xiaoping my 哥们 (gemen – brother) might get a bigger laugh with them.
Also, Chinese identity is closely tied up with their economic progress – it’s the thing that everyone’s talking about. So the idea of having an economic rap song made way more sense than it should. It’s a totally natural Chinese rap song, when you think about it. My rapper name is Bling Dynasty.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to keep making comedy, and I’m hopeful about getting an online platform for an internet comedy show. I’m trying to make better comedy than what exists now, especially where foreigners are concerned, and to really use the comedy to draw out the common humanity that reveals that we all laugh at the same things. I was talking to a Chinese friend the other night, and he said “We’re all human, we’re all idiots.” We all have the same foibles and difficulties – we can talk about them and laugh about them, and not be so solemn all the time.
Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing.