Does humor translate?
That’s the number one question I get asked as a Chinese comedian. The answer? It depends. Physical comedy translates very well—just look at the success of Mr. Bean in China and around the world.
But what about more quirky styles? More cerebral jokes? Does wit die in translation?
I wanted to test this out, and so I hit upon the idea of translating and performing a style of comedy I have never seen done in China—the absurdist, irreverent observations of Mitch Hedberg.
If Mitch Hedberg’s jokes worked in Chinese, we would learn something important about comedy and translation. What that something might be, I had no idea, but it seemed worth a shot to translate a few of his jokes and see what the audience thought.
Hedberg’s jokes are short, concise, and mostly based off of (twisted) logic. His references were obscure, but I was sure some of them would work. The real question mark for me was how the audience would react to his slow, stoner-style delivery. Mitch is miles from Xiangsheng, and even “colder” than Joe Wong, the Chinese king of think-before-you-get-it humor.
Therefore, there was only one way to see if the comedy translated. I informed the comedy club that on Saturday, there would be a guest appearance from the late, great Mitch Hedberg.
Watch: Jesse Appell performing the jokes of Mitch Hedberg
Performing onstage in Hedberg’s style was nerve-wracking. Pauses seem extra long to the performers, so trusting in Hedberg’s style to ride me through the pauses between jokes took a toll on my nerves.
But the results were worth it. The evening fluctuated between bursts of intense laughter and massive, yawning silences.
The most successful jokes were about things Chinese people interact with in normal life—fights with girlfriends, bananas, probability. The bizarre style only added to the experience, and long pauses meant lots of room for laughter. When the jokes hit, there were big, sustained applauses of the type that are hard to get in Chinese comedy clubs, where there is no concept of the two-drink minimum to loosen people up.
While I wanted to keep as closely as possible to Hedberg’s original jokes, I did make some small changes for effectiveness. Hedberg’s joke about gambling with dice would probably have been performed with a throwing motion, as if he were throwing dice. But Chinese play dice by shaking dice in cups, and so I used that motion instead. Even though rolling a seven isn’t a relevant concept in the Chinese game of dice, the joke still worked.
But not all jokes worked as well. Hedberg’s observation that “A minibar is a machine that makes things expensive” fell completely flat on the audience. The audience, hearing a foreigner use a loan word such as “minibar”, probably thought that the setup “A minibar is…” would actually be followed by introducing a real concept. The joke hit too fast and dealt with a concept—the minibar—that too few of the audience members had any real-life experience with.
The good news? Through it all, whenever a joke bombed, Hedberg’s classic refrain of “All right!” kept the audience laughing every time.
At the end of the day, my (un)scientific comedic experiment ended in success, even if only because I had found an excuse to wear sunglasses indoors at night without facing intense social stigma. But there was also a lesson to be learned that even the strangest of styles can be adapted, localised, and accepted.
The classic comedy saying holds true: It’s not about what you say, but how you say 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.