Robin Williams and the Chinese comedic brotherhood
The world just got a lot less funny.
I say the world, because Robin William’s death has not just shocked and saddened his fellow American compatriots, nor merely the English-speaking world. When I woke up today, both my Facebook and WeChat feeds were full of condolences and reminiscent words.
He is a true comedian who makes people across different cultures laugh. That both Westerners and Chinese alike acknowledged his loss shows that his comedy accessed our common humanity. Beyond language, time, and culture, Robin Williams reached within people everywhere and touched whatever it is that makes us laugh.
To me, he will always be the Genie from Aladdin. My Chinese friends were more likely to bring up the Dead Poet’s Society or his new sitcom, Crazy Ones. My WeChat moments feed was full of William’s quote of “Carpe Diem.” Amongst all the great things Williams brought us, we can also thank him, profusely, for popularizing this saying in China before “YOLO” became popular.
Comedy is a brotherhood, and my Chinese comedian friends were the first to recall Williams’ impact on their own comedy. To the stand-up comedians, Robin Williams was an example of classic American standup. I asked them what Williams meant to them. One person remembered his first impression was Williams being “strong on stage, powerful.” Others said he was so dirty they learned new words they had never conceived of.
Sweating aside, comedians are a brotherhood, one that transcends culture. I spent the afternoon practicing Xiangsheng with Cui Zengguang, a 70-year old comedian who is my Xiangsheng master’s primary partner. Cui performed Xiangsheng all around the country for almost fifty years, through the Cultural Revolution and throughout China’s rise. Comedians of his era are consummate survivors; they quite literally survived the chaos of the times because of their ability to make people laugh.
I asked Cui about what he thought about Williams’ death. “It’s a big loss,” he told me. “Any time a comedian dies, something special about comedy that only he knew goes with him. You can’t write things like that down. You just have to know it. And when someone knows those things and you see them perform, you learn yourself.
Whether it’s Chaplin, (Xiangsheng master) Hou Baolin, or Williams, what we lose when a comedian dies doesn’t come back. You just have to hope someone else discovers it again.”
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.