The booming stand-up comedy industry has become the new way to laugh your woes away

By Li Qing
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, May 24, 2021
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Song Qiyu (right), founder of Beijing Comedy Center, interacts with the audience on May 3. [Courtesy photo]

When A33, a theater in Beijing, hosted a stand-up comedy show on May 10, to the surprise of the organizers, nearly 250 people turned up to laugh at the punchlines. Six years ago, such attendance would have been unbelievable. Indeed, there were even instances of shows having more comedians than viewers.

At the show, Wan Da was one of the performers. The 58-year-old is a member of Beijing Comedy Center, a stand-up comedy club established in 2015.

Wan articulated the concern of the industry. "Many people are worried about the future of stand-up comedy, a genre that is very popular in the U.S., after its introduction in China. Can it adapt itself here?" he said.

Then he answered his own query. "As the results show, there is no need to worry. We have survived and carry on some of the best U.S. traditions, like poking fun at the U.S. president," he said, making the audience laugh.

According to a report by online ticketing platform Damai, the box office of stand-up comedy shows increased by over 300 percent during the May Day holiday, from May 1 to 5. The number of viewers went up seven-fold compared to the same period last year.

Thanks to programs such as Rock & Roast, a comedy talk show competition with amateurs now into Season 3, and short comic skits on streaming platforms, more people are becoming familiar with the genre, Song Qiyu, a comedian and founder of Beijing Comedy Center, told Beijing Review. Thanks to these shows, the popularity of the genre was not affected by COVID-19 but helped people relieve their pressure and fears during self-quarantine.

"Going to the theater to watch stand-up comedy in places such as Beijing and Shanghai with their strong stand-up comedy culture has even become a fashionable event for tourists from third- and fourth-tier cities," Song said. As the industry grows, these cities will also have more comedy clubs producing performances with local flavors, he added.

In the spotlight

Stand-up comedy captured the national imagination in 2010, when Jilin Province-born humorist Joe Wong's performance at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association's annual dinner in Washington, D.C. gained much attention across domestic social media platforms.

Wong was surprised by the flood of messages from Chinese netizens. They loved the performance, a comic joking with a mic in hand, tickling the audience's funny bone.

At that time, the genre was still novel in China, Wong told China News Weekly. But a couple of years later, the Tonight 80s Talk Show helped the Western import grow roots and become a young but popular member of the Chinese comedy world.

In the beginning, Chinese stand-up comedians participated in open-mic sessions, live shows where amateurs from the audience get a chance to perform in bars and small theaters to improve their scripts and performance, taking their cues from the audience's response. It gave new comedians a chance to perform in front of a small audience. The Tonight 80s Talk Show's success drove audiences to offline performances and they began to frequent the bars and theaters for a dose of belly laugh.

Song was one of the performers at those open-mic sessions in Beijing, and it became an important way for him to select his comedians after establishing his club. He found Wan, a reporter-writer focusing on judicial subjects, in 2017. Unlike the mainstream stand-up comedians, young people concentrating on trendy topics, Wan is older and highlights the responsibility of a media worker and public speaker in his comedy.

That same year, Roast, a chat show that invited celebrities to come on and be roasted, launched on a video-streaming platform. Roast and Rock & Roast quickly became the hottest TV shows of the year, triggering wider discussion on social topics. The first season of Roast, which lasted for two months, notched up over 1.45 billion views, marking stand-up comedy's conquest of the wider public view.

"Generally, our audiences are mostly in the 20-35 age group, but recently some older people are also going to the theaters," Song said. Many people today watch offline shows as part of their cultural life. Some famous actors are so popular that it is as difficult to get tickets to their performances as it is to get tickets to the concerts of top public idols.

Song's club hosts a show each week at big venues like A33 with over 330 seats instead of little bars. Every performance is popular on ticket-booking platforms.

The real thing

Su Mei, a 27-year-old bank officer in Beijing, is a stand-up comedy enthusiast. A regular watcher of both Chinese and U.S. performers' videos on the Internet, she experienced her first offline show last year. "Seeing the actors, who used to be two-dimensional on the Internet, up close made the performance livelier," she said.

Offline performances also include interactions with the audience and improvisations according to occasions, which lead to the audience having a better understanding of the genre.

Generally, stand-up comedy consists of two types of acts: a solo gig by a well-known comedian or a show with six or seven performers, including amateurs and newcomers. The latter prevails in the Chinese market, where each artist gets 10 to 15 minutes in a 90-minute show, which means they need to fire off four jokes a minute and put on a short skit for five to seven minutes.

For Wan, it's a piece of cake. An extrovert, he is willing to entertain people through social activities, another part of comedy. "I like to share my thoughts and make people happy. So all I need to do is to accumulate enough material for my performances," he told Beijing Review.

Compared to Chinese traditional comedy performances, such as cross talk, stand-up comedy has a lower bar as it doesn't need years of professional training or practice. The low threshold allows everyone to take part. Work experience and personal observations of life are the sources of their inspiration. Different lives and jobs make the performances diverse, giving them distinctive individual colors, he said.

"This is also the reason why many stand-up comedians have a separate day job, to relieve the economic pressure," he said.

The core of stand-up comedy is free expression, Shi Laoban, the founder of Danliren, another stand-up comedy club in Beijing, told China Daily. In the U.S., the artists highlight topics such as religion, race and women's rights, but Shi said the humor of Chinese stand-up comedy is different. "The personal style is still paramount." Also, the Chinese love playing with words.

Su thinks this is the secret of the genre's popularity in China. "We all have the desire to express ourselves. The comedians talk about their families, jobs and relationships, which are also part of our daily lives. The comedy gives a voice not only to those performers, but also to us."

An emerging industry

Su told Beijing Review the more performances she sees, the higher up her bar goes. For instance, she does not like repetitive memes and punchlines, as well as swear words.

Wong is happy to see the development and vitality of the industry in China. "China has the best environment in the world, which is unimaginable in the U.S. For instance, many comics can earn over 8,000 yuan ($1,243) a month, which is enough to support their day-to-day life. That is not the reality for many U.S. comedians and scriptwriters who have worked in the industry for four or five years," he said.

However, he has a warning, too: "There is a huge space for the genre in China, but we should be wary of growing too fast as the market still needs a stock of good work."

In China, the income boosts teams of full-time comedians with fresh college graduates joining them. Through their joint efforts, the emerging industry will improve its standards and its popularity as well as influence. "I hope we have more performers with passion and inspiration in the future," Song said.

After his performances, Song stands outside the theater, saying good night or thank you to each member of the audience, or asking how the show was. That is his way of showing his appreciation for their enthusiasm and the genre itself.

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