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.

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.”

As a result of their fame, Rowswell and Wong can persuade ordinary Chinese, who’d normally be more comfortable with crosstalk, to give stand-up a shot. As Rowswell took questions from the audience at the bookstore in Beijing, one middle-aged woman said she knew that “foreign comics” were prone to “yellow”—sexual—humor and swearing, but had incorrectly assumed that this would not be case with Dashan, who’d sprinkled cracks about former President Jiang Zemin’s mistress and Dongguan’s infamous sex trade into his routine, and even dropped a couple of F-bombs. (She still claimed to have enjoyed herself.)

The other key to their success has been reinvention, something they share with another well-known (Irish-born, Brooklyn-bred) local comic, Des Bishop, who’s spent the past year in Beijing mastering Mandarin for a documentary with Irish broadcaster RTE, Des Bishop Breaking China. The serendipity of three professionals plying Chinese comedy at the same time has proven something of an adrenaline shot to the local scene, which, until recently, has mostly consisted of weekly open-mics in sleepy hutong bars.

After months of receiving advice about what does and doesn’t ‘work’ in China, Bishop is phlegmatic about the matter. “In practice, the differences [between the U.S. and China] aren’t huge,” he reckons, pointing out that “most of the comedians haven’t learnt the craft well enough yet…. Subtlety doesn’t land as much here, but that’s more due to lack of exposure.” He compares Chinese stand-up to hip-hop: It’s “much more complex now that it was in 1978, [but] that’s just a natural evolution.”

On the question of ‘difference,’ though, there is some disagreement. “The difference is entirely a product of the state system, and not cultural at all,” claims Mia Li, a 29-year-old from Shandong province who performs a monthly stand-up routine at one of China’s sleepy bars. Sarcastic, Chinese, and female (a rare combination), it’s not surprising that Li takes comedy more seriously than most: “To tell a joke is to remind people of something true that they forgot to laugh about,” she says. “A joke is simply not funny if it’s not true. In China, the truth is just not talked about, because it conflicts with the Party-sanctioned version of ‘reality.’”

Wong thinks these distinctions may stretch as far back as Socrates and Confucius, who lived during similar periods while proselytizing vastly different philosophies to their Western and Eastern followers. “Socrates was more about using logic to find the truth while Confucius is about who’s obeying who—the social order,” says Wong. “That has a huge impact on society…. In China, there’s not much questioning. People just accept.” Or, at least, they used to: According to Li, for young people humor is now becoming “an act of rebellion first and a display of wit second.” Laughter involves the audience as a “partner in crime,” she thinks. “This intimacy is what makes Chinese humor special.”

Usually, though, Chinese performers avoid sensitive issues altogether. (One ‘edgy’ joke features an American asking a Chinese what he thinks of his government. His response: “I can’t complain.”) In fact, comedy shows in China are typically illegal without a performance license. The law is deliberately complicated, with all kinds of parameters (Is the show filmed? Is there a door charge?), but the general understanding is that gatherings exceeding 30 people require permission in advance from the police. Yet these rules are often ignored and, as far as Li is concerned, “you just put on shows until you get arrested.”

“When you apply for [a performance license], that’s when you discover how weird China is,” Bishop says. He gives an example of an unexpected ‘red line’—a joke he learned from his Mandarin teacher about the different ways the word ‘love’ is written in simplified Chinese, which is used on the mainland, and traditional Chinese. The simplified version ditches the ‘heart’ character, “but actually marriage in China isn’t about love at all, so where the heart used to be, I write a dollar sign.” When Bishop warmed up for Wong in Shanghai, officials vetted the entire performance in advance and immediately ruled out the joke. “They use traditional characters in Taiwan and you couldn’t say that [they] are better,” he explains. Political correctness isn’t confined to China, though. “Making jokes about women being bad drivers is a no-no,” Wong says of America. “In China,” he shrugs—“It’s fine!”

Meanwhile, Rowswell, still mindful of his former television base of adoring aunties and grandmothers, frets about frightening this crowd off. Balancing expectations for the original Dashan character (“a wide-eyed student … basically a bullshit artist”) with what he calls “Dashan 3.0,” who boasts a 5 o’clock shadow and an affinity for the word ‘fuck,’ can be tricky. “The older ones might laugh but afterwards … they’ll think, ‘Dashan’s gotten really low,’” he worries post-show, as we chew over noodles at a restaurant. With a younger crowd, it’s the opposite: “They’re delighted.”

Comedians like Bill Maher or Louis CK—who once performed a secret set that certainly didn’t cater to local sensitivities during the filming of Louie in Beijing—would be popular with Chinese, says Li, though less so with the government. “They would be silenced,” she reckons, “not because of what they said, but solely because of how many ears they have.”

Wong, who still has a career in America as well as a U.S. sitcom in the works, is more sanguine. Or perhaps he’s just a good businessman. Asked whether he’ll ever get to repeat his Biden jokes on a Chinese leader, he has a line ready. “It depends,” he quips, “on how long I want my career to be.” It seems an odd thing to laugh about, and yet we both do—perhaps because it’s the truth.