Can Stand-Up Comedy Succeed in China?

Some of the country's top comics are experimenting with a new brand of edgy, boundary-testing humor.
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Comedian Mark Rowswell, a.k.a. Dashan, performs at a Chinese university. (Mark Rowswell)

BEIJING—He’s grinned through countless national TV shows and public appearances, but backstage at a Beijing bookstore, China’s ‘most famous foreigner’ is feeling a little nervous. A minute or so into his Dashan & Friends comic ensemble, the Mandarin-fluent Canadian comic Mark Rowswell comes perilously close to choking.

“My mind went blank,” he recalled afterward. He improvises, then tries again: “Still a complete nothing.” Fortunately, no one notices. Finally, with a lengthy riff about being misunderstood by a Shanghainese woman (the city is fiercely proud of its own dialect), he flexes the language chops that made him famous. He’s on a mission to introduce Western stand-up to China. The peculiar challenge is that most of his audience is reared on highly conservative state media—of which Rowswell was once a staple.

“It’s a little bit of an uphill battle … people are not used to it,” admits Huang Xi, who’s better known as the Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong. Wong is currently building a profile back in his native country with a weekly show on state television—a light-hearted version of Mythbusters, called Is It True?—along with live stand-up in big-city venues.

It wasn’t always like this.

A few years ago, Wong visited relatives in China and performed at a small venue, “maybe 40 people, a low-energy place,” which somehow led to a Wall Street Journal article suggesting that Chinese people “struggled” with humor and that Wong’s “jokes are impossible for ordinary Chinese to get.” The myth that Chinese are immune to humor is just that, Wong says. The catch, though, is that his audience usually needs to be young.

“People my age”—Wong is 44—“have no personalities,” he says. Wong himself has a likeable, slightly nervous demeanor, as if his personality has become his act, or maybe vice versa. Before comedy claimed him full-time, he was a chemistry student in Texas during the Clinton years (“great material”), projecting his outwardly geeky style onto Letterman and Ellen, and later, in 2010, the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where he ribbed Joe Biden and explained: “In China, I can’t do the thing I do best here—‘being ethnic.’” (The address became a viral hit in China, where viewers were quick to turn it on themselves, lamenting the impossibility of such a performance in their homeland.)

Joe Wong in his weekly CCTV comedy show, Is It True? (Joe Wong)

Rowswell has a similar problem with his old TV persona: “As the outsider, I’ll always be learning,” he admits. “It’s like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. I can be Chuck but Bruce is Chinese.” For Wong, though, returning to China has simply been a matter of reversing the ‘ethnic’ shtick: He plays the archetypal haigui, or ‘sea turtle,’ a Chinese who has been educated (perhaps elevated) overseas, but returns slightly adrift. To perfect the transition, he honed his Mandarin-language act on college students: “Kids born after the 90s [jiulinghou] tend to have color,” Wong says. “There’s more individualism.” Rowswell is doing the same, working the university circuit on his own dime (“the money will come later”). In China, testing one’s material on the proverbial small, smoky bar seems to take the form of giving an informal lecture to 1,000 studiously sober students. Still, it’s less straightforward for Rowswell, who’s trying to switch his brand to modern stand-up even as his roots remain in the most hackneyed form of Chinese humor: crosstalk.

It’s a form that most live comedy in China still takes. A translation of xiangsheng, literally ‘face and voice,’ crosstalk is a teahouse tradition, similar to vaudeville, that typically involves a pair of men swapping shaggy-dog stories and wordplay. Once edgy, even subversive, the medium was thoroughly stifled after 1949 under the Communist Party’s Committee for Crosstalk Reform. Though some vulgarity eventually returned, crosstalk hasn’t absorbed much in the way of modernity over the years. Yet it persists—mostly because there’s little else.

“Crosstalk is very direct, very in-your-face humor,” Wong explains. “The audience wants you to say something that makes them shed their anger, catharsis, that kind of thing. It’s not my type of humor.”

Stand-up, by contrast, requires no rules, no script, no partner—instead, it rewards individualism. “You can talk about your real feelings and have people be OK with it,” Wong says. “In America, there’s a lot of deadpan humor, but in China there’s less because people are more reserved in their regular life.” Even he can’t work out the differences between the two countries sometimes: a bit where Wong recalls spinning his poor exam results to a disbelieving father seemed perfect fodder for his act in China (the pressures of the country’s education system, a filial son, a punchline involving math), but “for some reason, I've never been able to make it work in Chinese.”

If Wong and Rowswell have one thing in common, it’s experience, which translates easily to recognition. This year, Wong’s stand-up show sold out a large Shanghai theater, even when seats cost as much as 800 RMB ($120). Meanwhile, Dashan—Rowswell’s stage name—is probably as familiar in China as Master Kong instant noodles or the CCTV nightly news.

Not many performers can claim to be an overnight sensation; Rowswell literally was. After appearing on a televised crosstalk skit in 1988, playing the character Dashan, or ‘Big Mountain,’ he awoke to learn his audience numbered more than half a billion, most of whom had never seen a foreigner speaking Chinese. Within years, Rowswell and his character had become one.

But appearing on television while China was still in its post-1989 pariah period cost him dearly in the eyes of some foreigners, notably writer Peter Hessler, who criticized Rowswell as a “trained monkey” in his book River Town: “[M]ost waiguoren [foreigners] in China hated Da Shan,” Hessler wrote. “The more your Chinese improved … the more you heard about Da Shan and how much better than you he was.”

“That criticism is entirely rooted in a Western media narrative that is simply not shared or even understood by Chinese audiences,” Rowswell says. “If it was immoral to come to China in 1990, why was it suddenly moral in 1995 or even 2014? What changed, other than the passage of time dulling memories? It’s an entirely false sense of morality.”

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Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com.

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