Standing ovation or lost in translation? The 'accidental' popularity of American comedy shows in China
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have both won over Chinese fans with their satire - can other US shows follow suit?
In mid 2013, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show announced that he needed to re-locate to China.
“I’ve been doing this show in the wrong country!” Stewart exclaimed.
In January, Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report followed suit, declaring that he was “prepared to do anything to appeal to the largest market on Earth”.
Both Stewart and Colbert are “fake newsmen”, and their respective shows are two of America’s most popular late-night satirical comedy programmes. Featuring parody broadcasts that mock everything from international politics to popular culture, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are products of American satire, and Stewart and Colbert were joking when they said that they wanted to move their shows to China.
Or were they?
In the case of The Daily Show, a clip from one of Stewart’s earlier skits on North Korea had gone viral on the Chinese internet, racking up an impressive three million hits in a short period of time. This viral attention impressed Stewart enough to devote a lengthy segment to the phenomenon, where the comedian speculated on the possibilities of creating a Chinese version of his programme named “The Daily Show with Imperialist Puppet”.
Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, was responding to the news that a Chinese production named The Banquet had illegally copied the graphics, music and art style of his show’s opening title scene.
“Only the biggest hits get Chinese bootlegs,” Colbert said before demanding that The Banquet fly him over to China to appear on-air. “I’ve been ripped off by the Chinese and I absolutely love it.”
Stewart and Colbert’s remarks are only a sampling of jokes that US comedy shows have increasingly made about China. The jokes usually range from wry jabs at Chinese pollution to full-blown lampoonery, such as another skit from The Daily Show that had British actor Patrick Stewart playing the part of the Jade Rabbit, China’s malfunctioning lunar rover.
Humour is a difficult business, and some failed American attempts at comedy have led to a Chinese backlash – most notably in the case of late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel, who ran a skit on his show which jokingly suggested that the US "kill all the Chinese" in order to resolve debt problems.
But while Jimmy Kimmel’s remarks may have ruined his chances at a Chinese fanbase, Stewart and Colbert have managed to avoid this fate so far. While neither The Daily Show nor The Colbert Report are available on mainstream Chinese television, netizens have taken distribution matters into their own hands. One particular site, thedailyshowcn.com, features nearly 500 video clips from Stewart’s show that have been translated and uploaded by fans. The website has had close to 1.6 million visits and has a Sina Weibo account with over 40,000 fans.
Regular visitors to the site are largely internationally-minded and well traveled Chinese nationals like Sophie Lu, a former resident of Beijing who now lives in Hong Kong. According to Lu, programmes like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are helpful tools in understanding the intricacies of the United States' political environment.
"The hosts make US politics and world affairs easy to understand through jokes," Lu said. "For example, during the 2012 US election, Colbert helped to explain how Super Pacs (American political action committees) work by setting up his own Super Pac. Through the process, he exposed corruption and injustice... If you are interested in US politics and major world affairs but don't have much time to browse through news every day, the show can keep you informed in a very entertaining way."
According to Jesse Appell, an American comedian who performs standup routines for television programmes in Beijing, foreign exoticism is another large factor that generates interests for US comedy shows in China.
“American media is a funny thing for Chinese people…[because it] is not government controlled, not censored, and not subject to the same ‘face’ that Chinese state media is,” Appell said. “The Daily Show is about as clear an example of this as possible, coupled with another key fact: it is a fake news programme, and news has always been the biggest example of state control on all sorts of media. Seeing a major production where the core of state media is being subverted [entertains] a subset of the Chinese audience that is rubbed the wrong way by flat and boring news.”
Appell also noted, however, that American satire shows have an “underground, non-mainstream” appeal in the mainland and tend to be followed by very specific audiences.
"There are a few groups of mainland followers of US comedy shows," agreed Lauren Li, a 24-year-old who grew up in Shenzhen but now lives in Canada. "There are those] who studied or worked abroad and have been exposed to these shows before, [as well as] a younger generation which somewhat worships western culture... And there are also people who are a bit more progressive and appreciate [humourous discussion] on topics such as gay rights, democracy and politics."
A focus on progressive topics, combined with numerous cultural references, make the shows unlikely to ever be aired - or mimicked - on mainstream Chinese television.
"These programmes are US-centred and there are too many cultural references in the jokes for a [general] Chinese audience to appreciate," Lu said. "Nor do I think that copycat shows will be successful in China. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report make a lot of fun of politicians...[and] both hosts have their own political agendas. This is impossible to imitate given China’s political environment."
While satirical news shows might be off limits, certain Chinese companies have begun importing more conservative variations of US comedy into China. On December 23, 2013, video streaming website Sohu.com started broadcasting a subtitled version of America’s original sketch comedy programme, Saturday Night Live.
"[China’s] younger generation is growing up in a connected world with greater English proficiency, and culturally they are fans of celebrities overseas,” Sohu CEO Charles Zhang said at a Beijing press event at the time of Saturday Night Live’s China debut. “Generally, the quality [of American TV] is so much higher, so much better, it's eye-opening for Chinese people to watch these creations.”
Zhang added that Saturday Night Live was a relatively safe bet for Sohu, thanks to the programme’s focus on celebrity guest appearances and skits that primarily mock politics and society in America, rather than China.
"Things that are controversial in America are probably not controversial in China," Zhang said. "And [Saturday Night Live] is in the spirit of fun and humour. I don't think there will be any problem.”
Saturday Night Live's star-studded appeal has spurred Sohu to pursue the rights of other non-controversial shows. In late January, Warner Bros. announced that it had struck a deal with Sohu to stream episodes of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to Chinese viewers.
“Ni hao, y’all,” DeGeneres quipped when she broke news of the deal in a recent on-air segment.
Watch: US talk show host Ellen DeGeneres says "Ni hao, y’all" to a Chinese audience
Sohu spokespersons said that aside from subtitles, The Ellen DeGeneres Show would not be edited in China. According to press release statements from Warner Bros. International Television Distribution president Jeffrey Schlesinger, Sohu bought the show's rights because of its “family-friendly” nature.
“Ellen has clearly differentiated herself and her talk show from so many [other] controversial conflict-oriented talk shows,” Schlesinger said. “[Ellen] has become an increasingly positive alternative…featuring the biggest stars from worlds of film, television and music.”
Family-friendly fun, celebrity appeal and a general tendency to avoid overtly insulting China - these three factors seem to be the formula that US comedy shows must follow to achieve mainstream Chinese attention. More aggressive programmes that toe the line, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, are relegated to underground fame, at least for now.
Spokespersons from Comedy Central and Viacom, the parent companies that produce The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, did not respond to South China Morning Post requests for comment. A media industry insider who preferred not to be named told the Post that there was little evidence to suggest that Colbert's joke to "appeal to the largest market on Earth" would ever become a reality - particularly as television networks "have a more immediate concern of targeting their domestic audience" and rarely alter programme content for non-target viewers overseas.
“There is no real paying market [for television in China] outside of internet streaming rights to online companies,” Appell agreed. “And frankly, I don’t think [American television companies] care what Chinese audiences think. If the Jimmy Kimmel [incident] showed us anything, it wasn't dislike for China, it was a complete lack of forethought for China. I doubt that the people writing jokes in the future can or will do the complicated considerations…to make [their] jokes appeal to [two] cultures. Rather, they will simply make an effort to not be offensive."
Despite this reality, American comedy programmes do not need to directly court China to win fans, Appell said.
“There is always the allure of ‘the West’ and engaging in a globalised culture. For hundreds of millions of Chinese, Jon Stewart is as close to America as they will likely ever get.”