China’s Saturday Night Live: victim of Communist Party censorship, or just not funny?

Local version of US comedy stalwart pulled after less than a month, and no one’s laughing, least of all the people who watched it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 10:57pm

The Chinese version of the long-running American television comedy show Saturday Night Live has been taken off the air less than a month after its launch, sparking debate over whether it was a victim of censorship or bad writing.

The news was announced on social media, with the show’s producers seeming to acknowledge its failure to amuse.

“We are trying to make the show better to meet your expectations,” read a statement posted on Sunday on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. “Next time we see you, don’t forget to have a big laugh!”

The show, which was broadcast on Youku.com, a video-sharing website similar to YouTube, did not say why it had been suspended or if it would return, but previously aired episodes are no longer available on the platform.

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While the original Saturday Night Live has been a favourite in the United States and around the world for more than 40 years, the Chinese version, which shares the name despite not actually going out live, was widely panned by audiences since its debut on June 23.

On Douban.com, which provides ratings and reviews for television programmes and films, the show scored just 4.9 out of 10. In comparison, the American version scored 9.2 for its debut run in 1975 and 8.2 for the current season.

“I don’t find this show funny at all,” news portal Inkstone quoted Douban user dada728 as saying. “I had high expectations but was hugely disappointed.”

Other users criticised the show for its self-censorship, by steering clear of political sarcasm in favour of lowbrow humour. The first episode featured a man in a restaurant being forced to eat crayfish while surrounded by dancers in crayfish costumes.

“I can’t stand it any more after watching the first two episodes,” another Douban user said.

“The Chinese version is an insult to the US one. The performance makes me awkward. I don’t expect any interesting, ironic dramas would be allowed in the current climate. Any sarcasm in the show would be [accused of being] a violation of socialist core values.”

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While there has been no official announcement of the show being ordered off the air, China’s ruling Communist Party is well known for its intolerance of criticism, comedic or otherwise.

Last week, media watchdog the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, issued a new directive to entertainment sector authorities.

It said that “provincial-level radio and television administrative departments should guide audio-visual websites to produce summer programmes illustrating socialist core values, promoting Chinese outstanding traditional culture, and encouraging young people to pursue truth, goodness and beauty”.

It went on to say that the relevant authorities should also “strictly control programmes, [and] monitor and clean up harmful and vulgar content that might infringe on the physical and mental health of young people”.

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Whatever the truth about Saturday Night Live’s demise, it is not the only show to have announced last minute programming changes since the directive was issued on July 10.

The producers of the variety show Chinese Restaurant 2 said they were forced to postpone the new season because of “adjustments to post production and arrangement”, while the team behind the talk show The Truth of Colourful Things responded to questions on social media about delays to its release with crying emojis and a message that read: “Don’t worry. We are working on it.”