The Great LOL of China

You people from X are all so Y: The challenge of localising Chinese comedy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 6:05pm

It’s the classic D-list travelling comedian shtick to mistakenly shout out “Thank you, Cleveland!” at the end of a show that takes place in Wichita.

Or, in my case, to shout out “Thank you, Changsha!” to a show that took place in Wuhan.

Travelling is part of a comedian’s life, and a good local joke can draw in the local crowd. Even in one’s home country, a comedian oftentimes performs for strangers in a town they have never visited, so localising jokes is a trick of the trade.

But coming up with more than a few local jokes between arriving at the airport and stepping onstage is hard. Most of the time, comedians rely on a set of tricks in order to make the audience feel that the show is local. Hidden beneath the surface of an ordinary local joke is really a series of Mad Libs.

Traditional Xiangsheng performers have been localizing their shows for decades. I once performed a Xiangsheng piece where I sung a short bit of 吕剧, or Shandong Opera. The original piece was part of an old opera, and went:

There once was an old scholar, with a book in both hands
Walking down the road, he shouted poetry to the air
He studied well and become a government official
And returned home to celebrate with his mother.

Please note that the “Ah-ah ahhh ah ahhhh!!!!” noises typical of Shandong Opera are not dictated above.

Signing is a great way to suck the audience in, and as these words mean nothing to anyone still alive on earth, my Xiangsheng master and I change the words as we travel to different venues. We research the local flavour of the town and change the words accordingly, incorporating the wishes of our sponsors, who are usually local TV stations or government offices.

In Kenli, a tiny agricultural town in Shandong, I sung the same tune for local television, but with these words:

I arrived at Wan’er village, and saw the harvest
The endless fields of white, snowy cotton
The fresh, unpolluted vegetables, you’ve got everything here
You can eat whatever you want to eat!

We were asked specifically to mention that the vegetables were not, in fact, polluted. I refrained from providing free marketing consultant services, but it seemed to me that advertising food as not polluted is like an airline advertising that their planes fly—more questions are raised than assuaged.

In tiny Shuangjiecun, or “Two Street Village,” we were asked to perform at a gala celebrating the completion of the tiny village’s bizarre and aberrant creative industrial park. I set these words to the same music:

I arrived at Shuangjie Village, and took a look around,
I saw industrial parks, one after the other
Tall buildings everywhere, I had to ask
Why do they call it a village if it has a creative industrial park?

As it turns out, rural Chinese governmental officials love being told by foreigners that they have fantastic infrastructure. This sounds like a bizarre fetish, but in truth the line, “Your home is even more X than mine!” goes over well anywhere when the X is something people are proud of.

These shows were for government media affairs, characterised by their extremely high “face to content” ratio. In private shows or small theatre shows, where people are coming to be entertained and not to give face to local officials, I have much more leeway with changing around bits.

Last week I did standup in Wuhan, and I opened by saying, “From looking at my face, and hearing my accent, I know you are all trying to guess where I’m from. You guessed right. I’m not from Wuhan.”

In Guangzhou, I say Guangzhou. In Beijing, Beijing. In Taiyuan… you get the picture. Works every time!

For the Wuhan show, I also changed a bit about the rising prices of the Beijing street food staple 羊肉串 (lamb kebabs) to the Wuhan breakfast staple 热干面, or hot dry noodles. People remarked at what a great read I had on the pulse of Wuhan, noticing something only the locals would know. Really, the joke at its essence about rising food prices—a countrywide phenomenon. Meat or noodles is Mad Libs to the travelling comedian.

These small changes can make a big difference, and this only scratches the surface of the localisation of comedic bits that takes place in China. But really, part of the fun of changing my bits while travelling is that it reminds me that doing comedy in China is fundamentally not all that different from doing it everywhere else—we all like to hear about where we’re from and know that outsiders know about us too.

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.