For the past five years, I’ve been living in China as a comedian, writing and performing original Chinese-language comedy — a job that means I get asked a lot of questions. How do you know what people will laugh at? Do you have to worry about censors? Do your parents know about this?
These are great questions, and of course the journey from funny thought to TV performance is a long one anywhere. This particular five-minute set on the popular Chinese stand-up program Post-80’s Talkshow actually took more than a year to put together, get through the Powers That Be, and get onto the airwaves. It’s all worth it to make people laugh, or at least chuckle to themselves as they wolf down delivery food in their pajamas.
I thought it might be fun to take everyone along for that ride — the Comic Process With Chinese Characteristics.
1. Write down everything funny
Everyone can make his or her friends laugh, but not everyone is a comedian. But the truth is that a lot of people, if they just wrote down their jokes, would have the core of some really good material.
I have an Evernote folder where I write down anything funny that comes to me — in whichever language it comes. When it comes time to do open mics, I look at this list and pick out the ones that are relevant to the lives of the Chinese audience, so that I can do step 2:
2. Do open mics
In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there is an increased interest in live Chinese stand-up. It’s a movement almost purely driven by local Chinese, who have seen the rise of “talk show” programs over the last five years. “Talk show” in China could mean anything from interview shows to stand-up to podcasting to video blogging. Anything where someone’s talking funny.
But those who are looking to see these type of shows in person gravitate to the many open mics that are held in major cities. This means that four to five nights a week, I get the chance to put my jokes in front of a Chinese audience. Then, when big opportunities come, I have fresh routines that are ready to go.
But how do I know what’s funny? It’s because I…
3. Read people’s minds
Nah, just kidding. But kind of not. Because the real answer is…
Trust the audience
Getting in front of the audience is so crucial that I started my own comedy club, US-China Comedy Center, in the hutongs of Beijing to have reliable and stable shows for myself and the Chinese improv and stand-up scenes.
Nothing quite tops the instant gratification of getting a laugh. If I get laughs, it’s funny — and I try to refine the joke further. If I don’t, it’s not, and I have to give it up or reconfigure the joke and try again.
You’d be surprised how many comedians bomb a joke and then backstage will blame the audience. I do it myself, too. I once bombed a joke about knockoff American jianbing stores for days in a row before my open mic compatriots helped me realize: It’s not the audience’s fault, it’s just not funny.
But just like any sort of feedback at work, you can’t ignore it merely because you’d rather it not be true, or because you’re embarrassed.
As an American doing Chinese comedy in China, my success onstage depends on putting myself in the shoes of audience members who believe themselves to be different from me. I need to know not only how they see the world — its topics and concepts — but also how they see me. Which topics make sense for foreigners to talk about? Which don’t?
For instance, I once did a routine making fun of the painfully direct native advertising in Chinese internet shows. I playacted a couple in an internet drama: “I can’t break up with you because I haven’t finished this delicious Kang Shifu Green Tea yet!”
This didn’t go over well because “foreigners don’t watch Chinese shows” as far as the audience was concerned. It’s not that they didn’t believe me — it just didn’t make sense.
I changed the routine to being about how — since I know Chinese people now watch American dramas — I looked forward to seeing painfully direct Chinese-style advertising seep into American dramas. I imitated Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory hocking San Guo Sha card games. “It’s called Three – Guo Sha!”
We had a hit! The content might be a bit better, but the success is mainly due to “of course Americans would watch American shows!” The idea of the joke was the same and the punch line was similar, but it just meshed easier with the audience’s preconceptions of what I “should” and “shouldn’t” know.
4. Be selective about your public appearances
Anyone who has lived in China knows that Chinese media seems to have a bizarre taste for foreigners performing, blogging, and doing accents. An agent once tried to sign me to a five-year contract (for no money) to live-stream for their platform; when I asked what content we would make together in the upcoming half decade, she shrugged. “People will like anything you do.”
As it turns out, this is not true. Interest in foreigners speaking Chinese as a novelty is almost completely dead outside of third- and fourth-tier cities, and without real content, it’s difficult for a foreign blogger or creator in China to get a following.
But, since many Chinese seem to not know this, on the surface there remains lots of opportunities for foreign performers. We need foreigners, doesn’t matter what for!
More gigs! More jobs! Isn’t this a good thing? Sometimes it is, but it also means that for every one show that understands I do stand-up, there are a hundred that want me to taste hairy crab, share what “foreigners” think about divorce, and jabber through Sichuanese tongue twisters.
Part of the challenges of being a comedian who lives in China is wading through the bevy of (mostly unpaid, although they don’t tell you that up front) “opportunities” to do comedy that actually have nothing to do with comedy.
I was once invited to do a 15-minute stand-up set in what I was told was a 300-person theater. A real set in a real theater was something I’d do at a discount, so I took the gig for next to nothing.
When I arrived, I discovered the gig was entertaining attendees of the Sino-Taiwanese OBGYN Society during their coffee break. The 300 people were gynecologists drinking coffee between meetings, and the theater was a university lecture hall. “Make some gynecology jokes,” the booker told me an hour before I was to go on, “but keep it clean.”
I picked Post-80’s Talkshow as a platform for this set because it is China’s oldest Western-style stand-up show and only invites performers that have gone through the underground live scene. It’s the closest I’m going to get in this country to knowing I am being invited on the show as a comedian and not a foreigner.
In the end, the host still introduced me as a foreigner — but I am one, so that’s not inaccurate, even if I’d rather be wanted for my brains than for my body.
5. Bring more jokes than needed
As you might know, not every joke can be aired on TV in China.
While the process of what can and can’t be aired is probably worth a whole book, I can say that as a performer, the only thing I can do is prepare far more “maybe-I-can-get-this-on” content than needed. After all, at the end of the day, the show can still edit out anything it “approved” before — including, sometimes, the entire performance.
For live shows, I have a 50-minute set of jokes that make people laugh. I cover topics from learning Chinese to mocking the directness of Chinese native advertising to being Jewish in China. It’s clean, with no swearing and almost nothing overtly political.
Of that 50 minutes, probably about 10 could be performed on TV. Some of this is for content reasons — not all topics are appropriate for both children and the elderly. Some are turned down simply because TV prefers setup punch-line jokes to longer story pieces, since they are easier to edit if a part of the whole isn’t up to par.
In recent years, foreigners performing on TV has become political in and of itself. Shows need to get permission from several government bodies to have foreigners appear on them, and go through a second prolonged process if the foreigner wrote the content himself.
Shows that are specifically meant to be cross-cultural, like foreigner opinion panels, get dispensations to have foreigners on. Shows like Post-80’s Talkshow, which is not supposed to have foreigners, need to rely on their good relationship with higher-ups and need to be willing to expend guanxi points to get it done. Their team knew inviting me would mean fighting for me, and I am very thankful to all of them.
After all this, most shows then have a topic for the episode. Instead of writing special jokes for this topic — which would also be largely unairable — I chose to wrap my old jokes in some light setups and get them through that way.
For this show, I picked my jokes largely on the topic of “Wow, Your Chinese Is So Good!” and Chinese interactions with foreigners. It was a safe topic that let me get seven of my ten airable minutes into the program. After editing, it was five minutes. Not bad.
It may seem like a small thing, but my joke about children and old ladies watching my stand-up on a cruise ship — and their reactions — is one I am particularly proud of. It’s not the greatest joke I’ve made, but it’s basically the only one that got through the process that is not directly related to me being a foreigner; it’s just a funny observation.
6. Don’t fear The Edit
The bane of comedians around the world!
All comedians think their shows wind up being butchered in the edit. Even when you do well, some jokes get cut. If you do poorly, sometimes your set is reduced by half — or completely removed, oftentimes without even an apology from the producers.
If you’ve ever watched a Chinese comedy show and thought it felt different but wasn’t sure why, it’s probably because the editing is different. American comedy shows tend to include both the live laugh and the subsequent cooldown to silence before the next joke. This creates more of a live-show feel because it is closer to the way comedy works in a club.
In Chinese shows, they sometimes record no live sound at all and simply use a laugh track. When live sound is used, the cooldown-to-silence time is usually cut. This makes the show feel more like a variety show, similar to Japanese and Taiwanese variety shows.
This is done because editors are worried about losing an audience by allowing “dead time” on screen between jokes, and so they edit that time out. My fellow Chinese comedians universally hate this, and the TV people seem to not think about it at all.
There’s nothing better than making people laugh, and doing so for people from another country in another language is incredibly rewarding. At the end of the day, we share way more in common with people from other cultures than we think. If we didn’t, we could laugh at each other, but not with each other. Hopefully, this set shows that the latter is not only possible, but super lolzy funny.