Making history, one Chinese government official at a time
I do not want to brag, but I believe that I have made history.
On July 1st, at exactly 7:32 PM, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Wuhan, a Chinese government official laughed, and I caused it.
If I might, let us rewind and review the process that led to this remarkable occurrence and the environment in which it took place.
Towards the end of June, I received an invitation from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan to perform Chinese-language standup. The occasion was the Consulate’s July 4th party, mysteriously planned for July 1st. This raised existential questions about whether a July 4th party on the 1st was indeed a July 4th party. Further questions were raised when I discovered the theme was “The Best of America,” but they insisted on inviting me.
I was thrilled to get a chance to perform for my country. But there was a catch: the event was going to be a fancy affair in a ballroom, attended by various high-level officials from the Hubei government.
For non-performers, it should be said that on the scale of Tough Crowds, Chinese government officials are pretty far down to the extreme end of the scale, easier than doing jokes for Godzilla and a bit harder than performing for root vegetables.
The terror of performing for officials has to do with the schism between body and soul. Officials’ physical presence at these events is required, but their mental presence is not, meaning they generally sit stony-faced and dead-eyed in the front row. They absorb Two-Sentence Speech after Two-Sentence Speech with the sort of painless detachment of body from soul that makes one wonder if purgatory does indeed exist, and it is the world we live in now.
These are people whose careers have been built on not making noise, and I had to make them laugh.
I knew what I was up against. During my Fulbright fellowship researching Chinese comedy, I spent an afternoon searching Baidu for permutations of the phrase “Xi Jinping laughing.” I could not find a single video of the Chairman, or any high government official at all, laughing. The closest I found was an excerpt from a news article that read, “At one point, a joke was made, and Chairman Xi laughed, at which point everyone else laughed as well.”
Nevertheless I flew to Wuhan, where I went through the content-preparation gauntlet. The vestiges of the recent performance crackdown lingered on even here, and the Consulate was under great pressure to ensure the evening’s entertainment was wholesome. I performed my set for the Consul-General and his staff in a board room. It was an interesting experience to have my pieces dissected by my own government for a change.
All my pieces were approved, however, as going into the gig I had prepared only appropriate pieces. My set list had some puns, some jokes on how Chinese people have conversations that consist entirely of grunting noises; differences between ordering food in Chinese and American restaurants.
The night of the show arrived. Recalling my Fulbright research, I knew that if previously officials had laughed only after Chairman Xi had laughed, then the key to victory would be to find the highest-ranking official at the event and break him. The host welcomed me onstage, and I scanned the banquet table that ran parallel to the stage in the first row. Sure enough, right in the middle, sat my target: the Vice Governor of Hubei Province.
I locked my eyes on him, and we began a mental dance of swords. Eons passed between us as quick as the blink of an eye. Existence swooned. I started my jokes.
The opening puns received some polite applause, but not the belly laughs I wanted. I kept my eyes locked on the Vice Governor.
“When Chinese people talk, they do it in layers. There’s the meaning, then the meaning’s meaning, if you get my meaning.”
The Vice-Governor cracked a smile. Some people chuckled. I was coiled and ready to strike, like a snake that injects people with giggles instead of poison.
“For instance, if a waitress says your food is coming ‘right away,’ she means it is coming ‘immediately.’ But really, she means they haven’t started making it yet.”
The Vice-Governor laughed, and then everyone else laughed. Worlds turned inside their axes. The fabric of space-time shuddered.
I do not want to brag, but on July 1st, at exactly 7:32 PM, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Wuhan, a Chinese government official laughed, and I caused it.
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.