CHINESE COMEDY: CROSSTALK, STAND-UP, GUO DEGANG, ZHOU LIBO AND JOE WONG

CROSSTALK: CHINESE STAND-UP COMEDY

Crosstalk is a kind of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy accented with with puns and poetry. The Chinese word for cross talk is “xiangsheng”, literally “face and voice.” Sometimes the performer gets up alone and talks directly to the crowd. Other times, he brings along another comedian and jousts. If they are any good the audience roars with laughter. The art form began during the Qing Dynasty in Beijing as street art. Jokes dealt with familiar themes: troublesome in-laws, regional stereotypes and impersonations. Creative puns were the norm. [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011; Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Benjamin Haas wrote in the New York Times, “Performed in teahouses throughout northern China, it usually consists of two performers dressed in traditional garb engaging in witty banter. Think Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” One example is a dialogue between a theater director working in Europe and an old friend. The director’s play is about “the three kingdoms,” or in his mind, France, Germany and Italy. But the friend understands it to mean the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Confusion ensues, and audiences laugh.”

“Throughout cross talk’s history, performers have come from humble backgrounds. Aspiring comedians from poor families studied under a master for three years and performed with the teacher for one season before striking out on their own. One man who had been doing it for 40 years told the New York Times, “Before, cross talk was a way to communicate with people, to educate people...It had to be as good as listening to the radio or reading a book.”

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, cross talk was exclusively used as a propaganda tool. “You can’t laugh at how wonderful Chairman Mao is,” said David Moser, academic director of the CET Beijing Chinese Studies program in Beijing told the New York Times. He wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Michigan on cross talk and has been performing on and off for 20 years. “But there was a technique throughout the whole Mao period called “putting on the hat and shoes,” where you start the piece with some revolutionary praising of the party, then you do business as usual, and then at the end you stick on something revolutionary, he said. When the Cultural Revolution ended, cross talk performers immediately criticized the Gang of Four, releasing years of pent-up political frustration. But a brief period of openness was quickly quashed.

“Errenzhuan” is a form of comic dialogue from northeastern China.

Crosstalk and Censorship

Benjamin Haas wrote in the New York Times, “But masters like Ding Guangquan, 76, who has appeared on China Central Television’s Lunar New Year gala---the most watched event of the Chinese television calendar---see cross talk increasingly marginalized by political controls and the Internet. Other cross talk elders say the money associated with the form’s popularity has commercialized the shows, watering down the traditional wit.” [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011] Today, cross talk topics as innocuous as Beijing traffic are forbidden on TV or radio. “There are a lot of jokes about fake products and tainted food, but none of it gets put on the Internet,” Chu Yang, 31, an avid cross talk fan who travels to Tianjin to see more provocative performances, told the New York Times. “If those were put up, everyone would watch them and the videos would get removed immediately.”

“In recent years, several prominent celebrities have bemoaned cross talk’s decline because of censorship, Haas wrote in the New York Times. “Mark “Dashan Rowswell, a Canadian television celebrity in China who gained fame through cross talk, rarely performs anymore. In a 2005 interview with the Chongqing Evening News, Mr. Rowswell said cross talk had become too scripted and had lost its way since going from street art to television spectacle. Last year, Han Han, China’s most popular blogger and an outspoken critic of the government, declared “cross talk has been utterly destroyed” in a since deleted blog post about the political correctness of the televised New Year’s show.

Then there’s the Internet. “Even traditionalists who has been performing for nearly 40 years acknowledged that cross talk faced fierce competition from online entertainment,” Haas wrote. “The anonymity of the Internet means political humor posted on a blog is far more candid than a cross talk routine. Just as the advent of movies greatly contributed to vaudeville’s decline in the 1930s, Chinese people’s access to more outspoken forms of entertainment may one day relegate cross talk to the status of obscure folk art. Ding complained that many of those who do it “are just doing it for the money.”

Guo Degang, Savior of Xiangsheng

Cross talk that has undergone a revival recently, largely thanks to Guo Degang, a stout, doughy, moon-faced performer and working class hero who voice for many years filled taxicabs and small shops all over China. Chinese media have dubbed him “the savior of cross talk” for attracting young and middle-aged audience members to the aging cross talk crowd.But while the rejuvenated art form has been promoted by the government on some heavily watched television programs, subversive comedians sometimes use it to throw barbs at Chinese politics and society. [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011; Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Guo (pronounced Gwo) is one of China’s most popular performers of xiangsheng. He was 37 in 2010 but looks older.. He has a closely shaved head, is seen as a people’s hero for his populist humor, which skewers the police, bureaucrats and celebrities. Megan Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He's foulmouthed. He's subversive. He has no respect for authority. In a country where an insurgent spirit can land you behind bars, it made Guo Degang rich instead. Sometimes he stands onstage and gripes like a curmudgeon who's plopped down next to you on a bus. In his own theaters and on the road, he talks about his life, his struggles, mundane things. But it comes with intricate wordplays, adroit use of slang, unexpected bursts of rhyme that resist translation into English. [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Guo started studying cross talk at age 7 and never finished junior high school. In 1995, he left his hometown of Tianjin to open his first club in Beijing. In recent years, Mr. Guo’s popularity has exploded, and he leads more of a movie-star life than most of his peers. He has opened two more restaurant clubs in Beijing and has appeared in several blockbuster Chinese movies. From his cross talk shows alone, his income last year was estimated to exceed 20 million renminbi, or about $3 million.[Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011]

Describing him as he entered a nightclub, Haas wrote in the New York Times, “Guo Degang, wearing sunglasses at night, strutted into the club followed by an entourage of sharply dressed men and was shown to an elegant private dining room in the back. He sat down and held court as friends from out of town presented him with gifts of liquor, rare mushrooms and artwork. It could have been a scene out of a Chinese version of “The Godfather,” but Mr. Guo is more Ricky Gervais than Don Corleone.”

Guo Degang Crosstalk Routine

“I’m excited to say some things that weren’t allowed on the radio, that television stations wouldn’t air,” was how Mr. Guo began one show in a teahouse, followed by a hearty round of applause. “Cops beat people just to beat them, yell at people just to yell at them, more viciously than any hoodlum,” he continued. “Meanwhile, gangsters are polite. They’ll help you when you need it. So, who’s the gangster and who’s the cop?” [Source: Benjamin Haas, New York Times, March 3, 2011]

A sampling of his routines lingers in cellphone videos posted online by his fans. In one clip, Guo grouses to the audience about a routine that was, in his estimation, underappreciated by a nervous public. "It was on the radio but it wasn't appreciated. It got bad comments," he told the crowd. "It reflected the evil side of ordinary Chinese people. It was not helping to build a harmonious society. It would ruin 50 years of achievements." Then he dropped the sarcasm. "We're hopeless," he told the crowd. "There are many things we can't talk about."[Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “That was the Guo whom working Chinese paid some of their hard-earned cash to see after long days at tedious jobs. He talked about sex and corruption and greed, and gave voice to the unharmonious malice that seeped quietly into their thoughts as they struggled to make ends meet. Guo skewered movie stars, politicians and professors, anybody who had prestige, really.”

“Guo's stories could be morbid and crude: The son at a hospital bedside accidentally kills his father by standing on the oxygen line. The singer at a funeral drones on so long that even the corpse gets bored and snatches away the microphone. Gas is passed. Prostitutes turn up their nose at shabby clients. Businessmen put on the airs of professors with eyeglasses and shelves of unread books. Only the poor man, the ordinary Chinese, escaped his monologues with dignity intact. And the crowd understood that he was one of them; he had come from the provinces without money or connections.”

For years, he got more and more popular, and with the fame came money, and even a certain measure of cachet among the country's powerful. He moved from teahouses to theaters. He opened a cavernous restaurant, Guo's Dishes, in the posh Sanlitun district of Beijing. At his wife's nearby boutique, designer frocks sell for well over $1,000. Yet his success didn't change his act. "We can't solve all your problems like cars, apartments, money," he told the crowd one night. "We just want you all to be happy. During the next three hours, we'll try our best to make you happy."

Crackdown on Guo Degang

In summer of 2010, after poking snide fun at officialdom for much of his career, Guo has been abruptly silenced. The comedian has become the highest-profile casualty of a crackdown launched in recent weeks on what President Hu Jintao calls the "three vulgarities": sex-obsessed, mindless and tasteless culture. [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 09, 2010]

Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘stores purged their shelves of Guo's CDs and books. Hackers assaulted his website so mercilessly that it was temporarily shut down. Two of the most prominent comedians associated with his troupe abruptly quit. The news media tried to dredge up dirt on Guo, accusing him of cheating in business, underpaying his fellow comedians and seducing married women.

“Finely conditioned to detect whiffs of trouble, people are suddenly nervous to talk about him, let alone admit any fondness for his performances. A few outspoken people have stuck up for Guo via Twitter and blogs. The comedian had grown too popular for the government's taste, they contend. And unlike comedians who've twisted the once-subversive genre into a platform for exuberant praise of authority figures, he has been determined to continue the critical, sarcastic traditions of cross talk.”

"He says things nobody else would dare to say, especially in the entertainment industry," Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who has criticized Guo's treatment on Twitter. "The government was looking for an excuse to teach him a lesson, to say, 'You should be flattering the government instead of criticizing.'"

Guo Degang’s Run In with the Media

The trouble started in early August, when a crew from state-owned Beijing Television showed up at Guo's door to investigate claims that his garden had been illegally expanded into public land. A quarrel erupted. One of Guo’s students, Li Hebiao, physically attacked a Beijing TV (BTV) reporter, Zhou Wenfu, who had come to Guo’s house seeking an interview.

Guo, who was not home at the time, defended Li by pointing out that Zhou had entered without invitation, had repeatedly claimed not to be filming, and had selectively edited the video for broadcast."That's right. He beat up the reporter, so be it," a defiant Guo told a cheering theater crowd days later. But then he struck a mournful note. "I feel sad for my country," he said. "It's very difficult to talk to Chinese people. You try to reason with them and they don't get it. But if you slap them, they eventually get it." Zhou’s paparazzi-style interview tactics notwithstanding, Li eventually was compelled to apologize and spent a week in jail.

But what really got Guo into big trouble was s mocking attack on BTV in his blog. The attack was not welcomed by official media and was deemed vulgar by the Chinese government. CCTV’s Live News broadcast condemned Guo (without mentioning him by name) in a segment titled “Public Individuals Must Assume More Social Responsibility”: “Between the gold and the dross in this industry, he leaves behind only dross. Between the righteous and the outlaws, he has chosen the way of the outlaw. Given the choice between a personal grudge and the responsibility of a public individual, he has habitually fallen on the side of personal grudge---how ugly is the low, vulgar, and pandering behavior of this individual!”

Fall Out of Guo Degang’s Run In with the Media

Grainy video of the scuffle was repeatedly broadcast as China's state media clamored for Guo to be punished. The timing was bad for Guo: Just a week earlier, President Hu had said at a Politburo meeting that trashy popular culture was tarnishing society, and had to be wiped out. Guo's routines, with their earthy sexual humor and taunting tone toward authorities, were ripe for attack.

A national anti-vulgarity campaign was launched in late July to clean up aspects of the entertainment industry deemed “low, vulgar, and pandering” , so Guo’s work, which previously aired without incident on national TV stations and sold in bookstores across the country without controversy, now seems to be on the list of items targeted for clean-up. Beijing’s bookstores received a notice telling them to take Guo’s works off the shelves. Guo’s many small theaters and comedy clubs were closed for overhaul, and there’s even news that the Beijing Radio, Film, and TV Bureau had issued a “blackout” on Guo

As business dried up and colleagues drifted away, Guo's management team scrambled to improve the comedian's image. He donated all proceeds from his last two shows, nearly $30,000, to the victims of flooding in western China. Then he paid $15,000 to adopt a pair of endangered tigers, a popular cause in today's China. But the public relations gestures did little to help. There is still a palpable, if undeclared, boycott on all things Guo. And the comedian himself remains out of sight. His manager tells reporters that the atmosphere is too difficult for Guo or his employees to grant any interviews.

His Beijing theater looks sunburned and deserted. The chestnut roasters, meat grillers and cigarette vendors who've eked out careers peddling cheap treats to the crowds grouse under their breath about the drop in business. But they are afraid to talk about Guo. "It was so popular before you couldn't even get a ticket," says a woman roasting chestnuts over coals. "Now everyone is nervous to talk about him. People know what's going on." Having said that much, she is afraid to give her name. "Everyone has gone on leave for now," snaps a theater employee who shoos visitors away from the theater door. "There's nobody inside. No shows anymore."

Zhou Libo, King of Edgy Shanghai Comedy

Zhou Libo is regarded as the king of edgy, Shanghai-style comedy and is popular throughout China. Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: Zhou got his start in the 1980s as the precocious youngest member of a Shanghai comedy troupe specializing in cross-talk and other traditional styles of performance. He disappeared from the stage for a decade after going to jail for attacking his girlfriend’s father (“He swung first, but I was too fast,” he told me), then returned in 2006 with a new personal brand, which he called haipai qingkou, or “Shanghai clean talk,” featuring extended comic monologues on topics in the news. He now stars in the “Mr. Zhou Live Show” and has hosted and judged a number of other programs, including “China’s Got Talent.” [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“China does not have stand-up comedy,” Zhou Libo told me, reclining on a couch in his wood-paneled trailer in the southern city of Hangzhou. A slender 48-year-old man with an expressive, almost cartoonlike face and slicked-over hair, Zhou was surrounded by remote-controlled helicopters — “my toys,” he called them. He had just finished filming an episode of his one-man TV show and had changed out of his bow-tie ensemble into a loose shirt, whose plunging neckline revealed a dangling sun pendant.

“Zhou rejects the term “stand-up comedy” to describe his act because he does more than just talk: He sings, he dances, he does impressions. (Each episode of Zhou’s show ends with him crooning an earnest ballad.) “They can’t do what I do,” he told me, referring to stand-up comedians. Zhou said he’s skeptical of Joe Wong’s prospects in China. “I don’t think the Chinese market necessarily suits him,” he said. “His style is very American. He can talk, but Chinese people want to see someone like me.” He added: “Zhou Libo can give them excitement and deadpan jokes and opinions. What’s not to like?”

“The subjects I talk about, Chinese politicians don’t talk about, and foreign journalists don’t dare ask — or if they did ask, they wouldn’t get an answer,” Zhou told me. One of his best-known routines deals with corrupt officials and the absurdity of calling them “the people’s servants”: “Where do you have servants riding in cars while the masters ride bicycles? Where do you have servants living in villas while the masters live in assigned housing? … Where do you have servants throwing around their masters’ money without even informing their masters?”

“While Zhou may venture into sensitive territory, he rarely says anything truly controversial. (Even his “people’s servants” routine goes after an easy, government-approved target.) The reason, he said, is simple: “I’m patriotic. Wherever I go, I say: ‘China is good.’?” He always gives his honest opinion, he said — but his honest opinion is unlikely to ruffle any official feathers. “I mock responsibly,” he said. “I’m not ridiculing.” Referring to comedians who take jabs at China or its leadership, he said: “They’re whiners, and they’re detrimental to the country. If I were a government bureau, I’d shut them down.” “Referring to comedians who take jabs at China or its leadership, Zhou said: ‘They’re whiners, and they're detrimental to the country.’

Zhou Libo’s Comedy Show

Describing a Zhou Libo show, Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Amid throbbing music and wild applause, Zhou Libo waddled onto the stage mimicking the gait and gestures of Mao Zedong, Communist China's founding father. Spotlights played across big, gold Chinese characters trumpeting the theme of the night's performance: "I'm Crazy for Money." In a country where leaders don't take kindly to mockery, proclaim socialism as their guiding creed and demand obedience to Beijing, Zhou is an unusual phenomenon: a stand-up comic who ribs officials, celebrates wealth and extols what he and many others in this most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities view as the superiority of their metropolis.[Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, July 6, 2010]

Beneath the gags, delivered in a mix of Mandarin and Shanghai dialect, lurk some of China's most sensitive issues. "I want to make my audience think," Zhou said in a backstage interview shortly before showtime at the Shanghai International Gymnastic Center. "China's political environment is a lot more relaxed than people outside think." While Beijing authorities crack down hard on any stirring of disrespect in Tibet and other areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, they've let Zhou vent---albeit often in a dialect most Chinese don't understand.

He makes cracks about "garlic munchers" in the capital and outsiders who don't share Shanghai's sophisticated ways. Other favorite topics include sky-high real estate prices and the gyrations of the city's stock exchange---also touchy subjects with China's dour leaders.The comedian's Shanghai shtick has won him a huge following among the city's prosperous bourgeoisie, a class that Mao and a handful of fellow revolutionaries vowed to eliminate when they gathered here in June 1921 to establish the Chinese Communist Party.

After starting out in a 700-seat Shanghai theater, Zhou moved his show this year to the Gymnastic Center, which has 3,700 seats. His performances all sold out despite an average ticket price of more than $50, roughly two weeks' wages for the average Chinese. He has also produced a series of best-selling DVDs and a "dictionary of humor" to help decipher his Shanghainese punch lines, nearly all of which get lost in translation.

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “ Every episode of Zhou’s show concludes with an audience Q. and A., during which the microphone is passed around, hot-potato style: Whoever is holding it when the music stops has to ask a question. During one taping, whether by chance or design, I found myself holding the mike. I stood up and asked Zhou what he would do if he were president of China for a day, then braced myself for an incisive critique of the country’s power structure. ““I’d give everyone the day off,” Zhou said. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

Snobbish Appeal of Zhou Libo’s Shanghai Comedy

"My audience is mostly white collar. I talk about fairly complicated things for fairly complicated people," Zhou told the Washington Post. "I let simple people talk for the simple people." This year, he caused a stir by declining an invitation to go to Beijing and take part in a lowbrow TV variety show over Chinese New Year. The show, an annual event on China's main state-run television channel, is pitched mainly at peasants and migrant workers who return to their villages for the holiday. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, July 6, 2010]

Zhou said he turned down the offer because he knows "nothing about peasants. My culture is urban culture." Shanghai, though itself primarily a city of immigrants, has a long history of looking down its nose at outsiders. But, as in other big cities, the tension has increased sharply in recent years as migrant workers from the countryside have flooded in looking for work.

In Shanghai, the animosity bubbled to the surface in December after an incident on a breakfast radio show. Xiao Jun, the show's host, read out on air a text message he'd received from an angry listener: "I beg you not to speak Shanghai dialect anymore. I hate you Shanghainese." Xiao, in rude terms, told the unidentified author of the message---apparently a newcomer to the city---to get lost and go home.

The exchange prompted a heated discussion, particularly on Web forums. Outsiders blasted Shanghai, with one Web post ridiculing its "aboriginal" dialect. Natives, meanwhile, said there is no place for newcomers who don't show respect. Zhou, the comedian, has sided firmly with the love-it-or-leave-it camp. Shanghai, he said, "is a melting pot like America" but has no place for those who reject its ways. "If you can't fit in, why come?" he said during his show.

The audience loved it. Among those applauding was Huang Jianqiu, 47, a designer who took his wife, an office worker, to the performance. Their tickets cost a total of $110. Zhou "speaks about our lives and our problems," said Huang, who explained that he wouldn't mind his daughter marrying a foreigner but would have "serious objections" if she fell in love with a peasant from Anhui, one of China's poorest regions. "It's a question of culture," he said.

For all his irreverence, Zhou takes care not to go too far. He never challenges one-party rule and, while mimicking Mao and several leaders who are still alive, he's avoided trying to imitate Hu Jintao, China's very buttoned-down party chief and president. Zhou insists this isn't because he might get in trouble but because Hu is just too bland: "Not every leader can be impersonated. Some leaders don't have any clear special characteristic."

Stand-Up Comedy in China

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Like many imports, stand-up comedy first made its way into China through Hong Kong. In the 1990s, the comedian Dayo Wong pioneered a form of stand-up that brimmed with political and cultural criticism. But stand-up didn’t truly arrive until 2012, when a program called “Post-’80s Talk Show,” starring the young slacker comedian Wang Zijian, debuted on the Dragon TV network. (The Mandarin word for “talk show” — tuokouxiu — is also used to mean “stand-up comedy,” causing considerable confusion.) Wang, who cut his teeth as a cross-talk performer, initially resisted the idea of a stand-up show. “I didn’t think it would work,” he told me. But the show turned Wang into a household name, at least in the households of young urban sophisticates.” [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

By the early 2010s, “the country was in the midst of a comedy boomlet. In addition to the rise of the Internet and the success of Wang’s show, the government played a role. After the bureau that oversees TV and radio restricted the number of “American Idol”-style music competitions and other foreign-influenced reality programming in a push to “build morality,” networks turned to comedy, declaring 2014 the “year of comedy” and rolling out shows with names like “Kings of Comedy” and “Who Can Make the Comedians Laugh?” Suddenly stand-up comedy was everywhere, even if people still didn’t quite know what it was.

“Navigating show business in China” is tricky. “Big theaters required performers to submit their scripts in advance — sometimes months ahead of a show. If the theater owner didn’t like certain jokes, the management cut them. The restrictions on TV were even tighter. “Is It True?” had given Wong a colossal audience and a steady paycheck. But the show was an awkward hybrid that combined stand-up with science experiments, and Wong found that he and the producers had competing visions. To appeal to a broad audience, they simplified complex jokes, or got rid of them altogether. Politics and religion were off limits, as usual, but even a harmless joke about infidelity was axed.

Joe Wong, an American-Style Stand-Up Comic in China

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “Most Chinese TV hosts are all ingratiating smiles and talky energy; Wong has the nervous manner of a teaching assistant running his first seminar. Watching his delivery and the audience’s frequently awkward response, you wouldn’t guess that he’s one of the most successful stand-up comedians in China. This says as much about stand-up comedy in China, where the form is still in its infancy, as it does about Wong. When most audience members watch Wong perform, on the set of “Is It True?” or at one of his theater shows, they’re not just seeing him for the first time: It’s their first exposure to live stand-up, period. They’re not always sure how to react. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“Wong first encountered stand-up in 2001 in Houston, where he had moved from Beijing to get his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Rice University. One day, a friend took him to see the comedian Emo Philips. Wong didn’t get a lot of the jokes, but he relished the atmosphere; he loved the fact that no one knew what Philips might say next.

“He also thought he might have a knack for it himself. In China, he’d been popular, and known for his offbeat humor. “I was never the funniest, but maybe the second or third funniest,” he told me. In Texas, to practice his English, he took a course with Toastmasters International, where he got some laughs. “I had a near-death experience once,” he said in one speech. “I walked past a graveyard.” After moving to Boston to work at a pharmaceutical company, he signed up for an evening comedy class at a local high school and started attending open-mike nights around the city.

Joe Wong on a Chinese Comedy Show

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: ‘Three, two, one, applause!” The audience in the Beijing studio cheered as excitedly as anyone could be expected to cheer for an empty stage. They had gathered on a January evening last year for a taping of “Is It True?” — a show broadcast on the Chinese state-run network CCTV2 and hosted by the comedian Joe Wong. Before Wong came out to tell jokes, the director, an energetic young man in white-framed glasses and a puffy vest, wanted to record the audience members’ reaction. “Don’t be too quiet,” he advised them. “This is a lively program.” [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“A few minutes later, the lights flashed. “Everyone please give a warm welcome to Joe Wong!” the announcer shouted. The opening bars of Van Halen’s “Jump” played. Wong came running in through a door behind the audience, gave the camera “rock on” fingers and a Gene Simmons tongue wag and bounded onstage. His aggressively unfashionable haircut and glasses, combined with his red dress shirt and gold bow tie, made him look like a very old child. (He is 45.) “Hello, everybody, I’m Huang Xi,” he said, using his Chinese name, then added a pun: “Huang like a cucumber, Xi like a watermelon.” Mild chuckles. Glissando sound effect. “That wasn’t a joke,” he said.

“Wong then launched into 10 minutes of American-style stand-up comedy with distinctly Chinese punch lines. A man was arrested for robbing a bank using pepper spray, he said. “It worked twice. The third time, they caught him because the police were from Hunan.” (Hunanese food is spicy.) “They say that to get married these days, you need a house and a car. But when my wife and I got married, we didn’t have a house or a car — and I still didn’t dump her.” (In China, men are expected to provide.) The jokes were punctuated with sound effects: the boyoyoing of a spring, the tinkle of a piano.

“The show segued into the main act, in which Wong and his co-host, Jessica Chen, a tall woman with even taller hair, investigate online rumors, “MythBusters”-style. They examined whether you should pat someone on the back while the person is choking (no), whether you can report your location to the police using the numbers on telephone poles (yes) and whether it’s possible to defrost meat in one minute using room-temperature water (yes, depending on the shape of the meat). Wong concluded with one more minute of jokes.

Joe Wong, American Comedy Career

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “His first show bombed. On a winter evening in 2002, he stood in a corner at Hannah’s, a sports bar in Somerville, Mass., and told a joke about the New England foliage and another about how he didn’t want to go back to China because there, he couldn’t do what he did best: “be ethnic.” A few friends in the audience smiled politely. After the show, a man came over to shake his hand. “I think you might be funny,” he said. “But I couldn’t understand a thing you said.” [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“By that point, Wong, then in his 30s, was going through an identity crisis. He’d been in the United States for eight years, but he still felt like a ghost. His English was improving — he had read the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover eight times — but to the ears of some Americans, he still spoke gibberish. He enjoyed chemical research, but he felt interchangeable with the next scientist. “I wanted to point to something and say, ‘That’s me,’?” he said.

“As Wong decided to keep telling jokes, the more he told, the better he got. Lizard Lounge, a tiny music club near Harvard Square, had a weekly stand-up contest — comedy at its most brutally meritocratic. Wong became a regular, testing out jokes at open mikes and culling the best ones for the competition. Finally, one week, he won. As he drove home through the snow that night, he was in shock. “I felt invincible,” he said. He went on to win five more times. In 2003, Wong was one of 96 comics picked to participate in the Boston Comedy Festival, where he was spotted by Eddie Brill, the booker for “Late Show With David Letterman.” After several years of sending DVDs of his gradually improving act to Brill, he finally got the call to come to New York.

“There was tension in the room when Wong first came onstage in April 2009. He didn’t look like a late-night comedian so much as a confused tourist who had accidentally wandered into the CBS studio. His khaki pants were pulled high, and his face read panic. “Hi, everybody,” he said, his voice straining. Letterman’s audience chuckled nervously. Wong let the silence hang. Then he said, “So, uh, I’m Irish.”

“There was a wave of laughter, and then another wave as the absurdity of the statement sank in — an aftershock pattern that would become a Wong trademark. After that, he was flying. Every joke hit. The audience seemed to be laughing partly at the jokes themselves and partly at the unlikeliness of their vehicle. After seeing the routine, Louis C.K. praised Wong on his website: “Is this guy the best comedian in the country? No. But this set is very special.”

“Wong soon had a manager, an agent and a lawyer. He started working with Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, to develop a sitcom. He went on “Letterman” three more times and became a favorite on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” In 2010, he was invited to perform at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington. There, he addressed Vice President Joe Biden. “I actually read your autobiography, and today I see you,” he said. “I think the book is much better.”

Joe Wong’s Comedy Career in China

Christopher Beam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “After the correspondents’ dinner, Wong noticed he was getting more fan mail from China. The video of his performance had gone viral on the other side of the world, where viewers were marveling that a Chinese comedian had mocked the vice president of the United States to his face. Chinese journalists began contacting him for interviews. Those requests soon gave way to serious offers, including an invitation from CCTV to host a new weekly show in Beijing. [Source: Christopher Beam, New York Times, May 21, 2015]

“Wong hadn’t expected to move back to China. Stand-up barely existed there. Building it up would mean taking on decades of comedic tradition reinforced by a homogeneous, largely state-run media. There was also the potential risk of pursuing a form of entertainment that was synony―mous with irreverence and tweaking authority under a government not known for its sense of humor. The country has a long history of subversive jokes, and people delight in poking fun at Communist Party leaders, but these jabs are usually made in private or anonymously online. For comedians, anonymity is not an option. They face a starker choice: to mock or not mock power?

“But Wong, like many expatriates, felt the pull of his homeland and excitement at how rapidly it was changing. He also knew that an audience of 1.4 billion people, many of whom were just starting to take an interest in stand-up, was a major opportunity. “It’s challenging,” Wong told me. “But the potential market is huge.”

“In April, Joe Wong took the stage at a triple-decker riverfront theater in Tianjin. Since returning to China, Wong had discovered that the comic pose he honed in the United States — the guy who’s just trying to make sense of a crazy new world — translated surprisingly well to China, because the China he returned to bore little resemblance to the one he left two decades earlier.

“Since then, Beijing’s official population had nearly doubled to 20 million, the city had added 10 subway lines and roads were clogged with cars. Neighborhoods had been razed, with luxury stores replacing older Beijing shops. People even looked different. “Some of the girls here are whiter than white Americans,” Wong said. They’d become funnier too. “People born after 1990, they have a lot of personality,” he said. “That was something I never experienced when I was in China. Everyone was pretty much the same.”

“On the other hand, Wong found himself telling jokes that would never fly in America. “Here you can joke about fat people,” he told me. “One of my writers is overweight, so we just wrote jokes making fun of him.” It was also acceptable to joke about beating children, Wong said, and to compare people to animals.

“Wong’s act had evolved considerably over the past year. He still talked about his life in the United States, and the strangeness of being back in China. But onstage in Tianjin, he was more animated, more vaudevillian. Telling a story about skiing, he pantomimed climbing up the mountain and taking the chair lift down. He bugged out his eyes during punch lines and mugged for the audience. He sang a song, a version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with the lyrics changed to reflect the daily irritations of life in China. The crowd loved it. “I would not sing a song in America,” he told me later. “It’s so uncool.” Just as Wong had to learn what American audiences wanted — brevity, clarity, unexpected truths about American pieties — he was now learning how to perform for the Chinese.

“Outside the theater hung a poster for the show featuring a smiling Wong surrounded by word bubbles, like the world’s biggest business card: “Wise Comedian Specially Invited by the American President,” “Top Performer on the Letterman Show,” “Host of CCTV’s ‘Is It True?’?” “Ph.D. in Biochemistry.” It was a reminder that Wong’s appeal lay not just in his jokes but also in his remarkable decision to tell jokes for a living in the first place. He had achieved the Chinese dream — grow up in a tiny village, study hard, go abroad, get a high-earning job — and discarded it for something even more rarely achieved: his own dream.

“After returning to China, Wong gave a televised speech titled, “So What if It’s Not Perfect?” In it, he urged young people to do what they love, without fear of failure. It’s a cliché in the United States, but it strongly contradicts the conventional wisdom in China, where most authority figures emphasize stability and striving to be No. 1. “I now realize the meaning of life is to work hard to find your own inspiration, and letting that inspiration drive you,” he told the audience, as they nodded along. Cheesy music played in the background.

“Watching the video, I thought: A comedian would never do this in the United States. On the American stand-up circuit, ironic nihilism reigns. It’s also taken for granted here that people can, if they want, spend their lives telling jokes to drunks in dark rooms. But in China, that idea is still novel — and, actually, kind of beautiful. Wong’s career has been a radical experiment, and the results are still unclear. But what would comedy be without the potential for massive, humiliating defeat? “I am not thinking about going back,” Wong said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021


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