New Wave of Youth Backing the Rise of Stand-up Comedy in China
“Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” In China, the public is buying it.
From obscurity to taking China by storm, talks shows and stand-up comedy have enjoyed a meteoric rise. Due in large part to the popularity of online variety shows, the unprecedented popularity of stand-up comedy has catapulted a generation of stand-up comedians into the spotlight before they have had the time to hone their skills like their more experienced fellow performers overseas. The industry’s explosive growth means there is a big shortage of experienced stand-up performers. As a consequence, hordes of young people from all walks of life have been attracted to the profession. TMTPost has captured two of their stories as a window to peek at the state of the industry.
“I recall when I was little, dad always indulged in small talks and bantering after work, before heading home. The stand-up comedy shows that I’m doing every night are pretty much just that, small talks and bantering.” said Xiao Kuai to TMTPost Image. Doing stand-up comedy makes him happy and is a way of release for him. On a busy night, he needs to do five shows, which leaves him feeling “really fulfilled”.
“There are four or five stand-up comedy clubs in Beijing. If you are really good, some companies will be willing to sign you and book you for some commercial performances. On a stand-up comedian’s income, you will be able to make your living, but only barely. The industry is not well developed yet and most stand-up comedians work part time.” said Xiao Kuai.
Xiao Kuai is a Beijinger. After graduated from high school, he moved out of his parents’ home to stand on his own feet. He shared a room in a basement with some migrant workers in Beijing and worked as a shopping guide for two years. The money saved from his two-year stint helped him start his business selling T-shirts with original designs, a business that lasted for ten years, with profit exceeding 400,000 Yuan in the best year. Living on his saving from the T-shirt business and his rental income, Xiao Kuai is able to invest all his energy in doing stand-up comedy.
In December 2017 he saw a really bad open mic performance “in disdain”. Some performers couldn’t even remember their lines and went off stage halfway during their performances. “I remember thinking that was really awful. I can do better myself!” With this in mind, Xiao Kuai watched several other performances and the worst one had Xiao Kuai alone in the audience. Taking the stage, the performer quipped to Xiao Kuai in order to ease the embarrassment, “You have to stay since we have locked the door”. That episode convinced Xiao Kuai strongly that he should perform himself. On January 30, 2018, he went on stage for the first time at an open mic performance. Only then, realized Xiao Kuai that the role change from an audience member to a performer was not as easy as he had expected.
After one performance, an audience member requested to connect with Xiao Kuai on WeChat. At first, Xiao Kuai thought the audience member was going to laud him for his performance. To his surprise, the audience member asked him, “How do you guys overcome embarrassment on stage?” He further related to Xiao Kuai that whenever he experiences tough times, he goes to watch some open mic shows, not because they cheer him up, but because seeing “that the performers push on even though it can be really embarrassing sometimes” makes him reflect, “Why can’t I?”
Struggling with the daily embarrassment and getting through that tough period helped Xiao Kuai find his confidence, and sharpened his skills. Invited by Puche Stand-up Comedy Show, Xiao Kuai started his commercial stand-up comedian’s journey.
“Many stand-up comedians join the industry because they have seen some performances which are a bit disappointing to them. They want to join the industry to rescue it.” Xiao Kuai has talked about it with many of his peers and realized that most of them joined the industry with the same state of mind. “Stand-up comedy is a profession with a seemingly low threshold but it is really difficult for the performers to stick to it. It’s an industry that’s easy to enter but at the same time, very few who enter this industry ever achieve prominence.”
According to some stand-up comedians, by the end of 2017, there were less than 100 professional stand-up comedians. The criteria for judging whether one is professional are whether one has been signed and whether one is booked for commercial shows. Signing a performer is a sign of recognition by professional companies of the performer’s strength while attending commercial shows demonstrates acceptance of the performer by the audience. Xiao Kuai hopes the industry will thrive to sustain those with dreams of success, because “for most performers, passion alone is not enough to get them going. They need to make a living.”
Compared with Xiao Kuai, Hu Lan is much more relaxed. He is a 29-year-old part-time stand-up comedian. Graduated from Columbia University, he is currently an IT director in a large online education company in Shanghai. In November, he appeared on the third and fourth seasons of the popular Chinese comedy show “Roast” as a guest and was crowned the Talk King.
In the circle of stand-up comedians, performers don’t quantify their material with “how many jokes”, but with “how long it takes to tell these jokes”. Hu Lan has accumulated jokes that last approximately 45 minutes in a bit over one year, most of which have been written by him on his commute to and from work in the subway, polished by long and repeated performances. In this industry, this is quite prolific.
Most of Hu Lan’s jokes are related to his own life and originate from his relationship with others, travel and reading, “I normally write about people and things that I know about. For example, I’m a techie so I write jokes about programmers. I will not be rash and write jokes about doctors or police since I don’t know enough about them.”
It is a common but also wonderful and indescribable experience for Hu Lan to work overtime until 9 pm and then ride his bicycle to perform at a stand-up comedy show, only to return to his office to work more overtime. Hu Lan manages a tech team so overtime is the norm. He loves his challenging job and enjoys the stage of stand-up comedy at the same time. For more than a year, he has been switching between two roles and relishing both, though in different ways.
“Performing stand-up comedy gives me instant satisfaction and happiness while my day job gives me a long-term satisfaction and a sense of achievement.” Often times, the satisfaction derived from his day job comes with more patience, more difficulties to overcome, and also teamwork, after a comparatively longer period of time. He has never talked to his colleagues about stand-up comedy or his other identity. “I’m quite stern at work and there hasn’t been an opportunity for me to bring it up.”
Even though he has won recognition by the industry and audience, and now has his own half-session special show, Hu Lan is not thinking about becoming a full-time stand-up comedian. “For the time being, I really don’t see more talent in me”, said Hu Lan to TMTPost Image. If he becomes a full-time stand-up comedian, he most likely will still be producing material each week that runs only for several minutes since he believes a performer’s talent and aptitude have nothing to do with spare time. “If I were more prolific, given more spare time, I would consider whether I should become a full-time performer.”
Stand-up comedy is still a new art form in China. To Hu Lan, stand-up comedy attracts him because it satisfies his “desire to express himself”, Different to “creating characters” in drama performances, in stand-up comedy, performers are showing themselves but not creating characters. “Your opinions on stage are yours and audience see you as a person, but not a character that is created during a drama performance. You are who you are, both on stage and off stage. If you want to hide your true self, then no one will like you.” “Performers stay the same both on and off stage, expressing their true opinions and speaking their minds, which is the biggest difference between stand-up comedy and other forms of art.”
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