The Great LOL of China

Can you say that? The intricacy of stand-up comedy in China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2014, 11:32am

I have developed a habit of using my dinner guests as guinea pigs for my comedy routines, slipping jokes into conversation and carefully measuring the response. Some might consider this rude; I opt to creatively interpret it as professional diligence.

Last Tuesday, my two live experiments dinner guests were a Chinese friend of mine and her American guest on a tour of China. Over the clamor of Uyghur pop music at the local Xinjiang restaurant, I tested out a joke about a Western misconception of China.

“Everyone hates on China for lacking freedoms, but in many ways it is so much freer than America. Nowadays in China, you can basically do anything you want. It’s not like that in America. In America, you can only do legal things.”

Both of them laughed, and then, at the same time, asked the number one question I hear as a comedian in China:

“Can you say that?”

The question is always accompanied with a furtive glance to the left and right, as if someone besides the NSA and the Relevant Authorities might be listening.

Sometimes I feel as though “Can you say that?” is the second cousin once removed of the famous schoolboy question, “Can I go to the bathroom?” It is a question that should not need to be asked, and yet, it is asked every day.

Most of the time this question is asked with heavy undertones about the mercurial beast that is censorship, but in my experience, it is a misleading question. Forget what comedians can say. It makes much more sense to ask what audiences can hear.

What is the audience comfortable hearing? Laughter is hard to come by when people are tense and worried; comfort around discomforting topics is essential for working a comedy show. Recognizing the strange moving target that is the sensibility of the audience is a sort of sixth sense for performers.

Most topics are neither inherently comfortable or uncomfortable, a la “What’s the deal with airline food?!” But "Can You Say That" topics represent exposed nerves in the culture—such as race in America or politics in China—where audiences are culturally conditioned to be wary and uncomfortable.

These topics are minefields, and the audience is acutely aware that the comedian might blow up at any time. A comedian’s skill lies in navigating the minefield and emerging on the other side with most of your limbs intact. There is a lot of good comedy to be found in these minefields if you know where to put your feet: It’s not what you say, but rather how you say it. If you step wrong, you lose the audience—and without the audience, there is no reason to fight for a joke if censorship comes into play.

Onstage, I sense that the Chinese topic minefield is not fundamentally different from the American audience’s minefield, but the danger is heightened and extended. Because so much Chinese communication is based off of subtext and implication, anything tangential to a sensitive topic is sensitive in itself. Discomfort in Chinese culture is like a wedding cake in a submarine: deep and multi-layered.

For example, if in America a white comic went onstage and started to talk about race, the audience’s innate social cues would put them a bit on edge. The piece could well go wrong, but Americans are also socially conditioned to know that the comedy stage is a place where these sorts of issues can be addressed—albeit carefully. Even though the topic is sensitive, it is not fundamentally groundbreaking for the comedian to address it.

China, however, is a society that has only recently been able to engage in public discussions on many issues. Bringing up a sensitive topic is a statement into and of itself, and the audience has a gut reaction before they get to observe the comedy on the merit of the content. If your setup is: “My next joke is a corrupt officials joke,” you alter the way audiences will receive the punch line merely by stating your topic matter clearly.

This confirms recent discoveries by physicists at Tsinghua University, who posited that edgy jokes in China are like the fundamental particles of the universe in that they conform to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. By observing the topic of a joke, you impact how the joke is measured.

The audience even makes themselves uncomfortable. Time and time again I have seen Chinese audience members who stifle a laugh that is too loud or glance sideways to see if other people are laughing, worried about what the others think of them. Embarrassment from sticking out in the crowd by laughing too loudly or at a joke others did not think is funny is concern for some people.

In American clubs, I often hear lone shouts of laughter from an isolated section of seats. But in China, I’ve seen this happen exactly three times out of hundreds of shows. All three times, necks swung around to see who laughed too loud or too long, and the distraction itself becomes a second joke.

So are Chinese audiences terrified of "Can You Say That" jokes? Exactly the opposite. The most interesting thing of all is that despite these supposed cultural constraints, audience members love to hear jokes on sensitive topics. Engaging in previously off-topic areas of discussion makes for fabulous entertainment, especially for younger audiences. Chinese clones of The Daily Show like Baozou Dashijian gather hundreds of millions of hits on the Internet, and while they stop short of naming names or addressing specific policies, they indisputably enter and dance through the minefield.

I think one of the keys to these shows’ success is an element of anonymity that allows viewers to sidestep many of the precursors to social discomfort. The host of Baozou Dashijan wears a mask; the viewer wears one as well due to the natural anonymity of the internet. At home, there are no other audience members to judge you for laughing. And yet, when people see shows in person, these nervous tendencies flare up again. Jokes that are appropriate for the internet are more difficult to address live onstage for reasons having nothing to do with government censorship.

A great way to discover why people do things is to ask them; after a stand-up show one night last month, I asked a fan why she had come. She revealed that she came because she heard that stand-up was edgy, and edgy was cool. She said even though the show was too “strong” for her, she told me she felt the best way to be become the person she wanted to be was to do things that stretched her, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable.

This conundrum lies at the heart of the issue. The audience is made up of human beings whose desires are complicated and self-contradictory. For that one fan, half of her wanted to be able to hear the stronger jokes, and the other half could not. As China undergoes an identity crisis as to what topics are open to public discourse, the individuals in the audience struggle to satisfy their curiosity and desire for personal growth while lacking the cultural upbringing, surrounding media environment, and general societal openness that trains people to suspend their gut reaction to become upset or uncomfortable.

Comedians, of course, play their part by leading and discovering how to address these topics without tripping social booby traps. But to look onstage and ignore the masses in the shadows is to miss the fact that comedy is fundamentally about the audience. In the end, the identity of the people who are laughing might be a better barometer for learning about society through comedy than what censors with rubber stamps deem to be appropriate.

The Great LOL of China is a blog that aims to share the topics and themes that make Chinese audiences laugh. Its creator is Jesse Appell, an intercultural comedian who performs Chinese-language comedy all around China.