On the set in Beijing.

Free Fall

Serving as a judge on a Chinese reality show watched by more people than the Super Bowl was very funny. Until it wasn’t

I am hilarious. Stand-up funny. Everyone says. Like at the very first reading for my very first novel, which is super serious, set in wartime, characters die, the narrator is possibly eaten, it’s ambiguous, and though I don’t mean to, I still get everyone laughing, really rolling during the Q&A, until we’re way off topic, until a friend raises his hand and asks his question, which isn’t one, but “you should be on TV, do stand-up.”

And all I have is something like, I am standing, and he presses the point: no, forget this novel thing, you should be a comedian.

I mean, it was funny then.

What I’m trying to say is, I’m good with a mic, with a crowd, with this glorious language of English, and knowing where to find the funny. And I also know that, once you’ve found it, it’s usually already on its way out, that when it leaves, you often find that it was propping you up, but too late, you’re falling. I suppose, then, that’s funny. To someone else.

This summer I was a guest judge on a reality competition show in China. More Chinese watch this show than Americans watch the Super Bowl. Don’t google it; trust me. And trust that it was funny and so was I.


It was like winning a Nigerian lottery, getting that email: any interest in going to China next Saturday to spend two weeks judging a English language contest on Chinese national TV?

I live in Wisconsin. Right there, I’ve got some of you. America’s Dairyland. Cheeseheads. And: yes. We have a milkman on our porch every Tuesday. We talk about milk all the time. The babysitter comes over, she drinks milk. We take our infant to the pediatrician, say we think she’s lactose intolerant, the pediatrician answers before examining her: I’m sure she’s not. When I tell that infant—now six, loves milk—that I’m going to China, and, fun fact, Asia is not so into milk, she tells me, face wild with concern: but Daddy, how do they build strong bones and healthy bodies?

Still no idea, but they grow extraordinary minds, and that’s why the university where I work wants some. Problem is, Chinese students don’t know a lot about Wisconsin, and what they do know has to do not with milk but bad weather.

So when a call goes out for schools to help staff a Chinese television show devoted to finding the best English-speaking child in China, my school raises its hand, and then raises mine (I’m a writer, right? Totally fluent).

It was like winning a Nigerian lottery, getting that email: any interest in going to China next Saturday to spend two weeks judging a English language contest on Chinese national TV?

English majors, show this to your parents when they ask what the heck you’re going to do with that degree.
(Credits: Tie by Lee Allison. Suit by Banana Republic. Make-up by Chinese cosmetology student. Lighting by Chinese state television. (Superfluous) filter (Hefe) by Instagram. I’ve always wanted to write a caption like this. My translator handled the picture, and later, my tween the hashtag: “#LASERS!”.)

Even better: do you want to go to the giant underpants tomorrow? Best text I got in China. Best text I will ever get. It came from my translator, who was also possibly my minder, whose every wish of mine, it was made clear, was my command, and so when I told her that, in addition to being funny, I had a thing for modern architecture and wanted to see Rem Koolhas’s iconic China Central Television (CCTV) Tower, a cantilevered loop that Reuters delicately quotes Beijingers as calling “the big long johns” but which my translator assures me is really some big underpants, I say yes, and then we are there.

Can we go inside? No. I try asking another way. No. I point out that this is the CCTV Tower, and I am appearing on a CCTV show, albeit one being taped at a much shorter, oranger building across town, in studios on loan from the 24/7 “Agriculture and Military Channel.”

Sometimes my translator is not sure whether to laugh. Sometimes — and it takes awhile for this to dawn on me (see: jet-lag, dystopian-level pollution, 105 degree heat, self-involvement of comedians, especially amateurs) — I’m not sure whether it’s funny.

Take death. The word for death in Chinese sounds a lot like the word for four. So four is bad. If you want a cell phone in China for cheap, you buy one with a lot of fours in the number. “Like Americans and thirteen,” I’m told, but it’s not like that. It’s like every time you say the word four you are one tonal misstep away from saying death. So when I get off the hotel elevator one night and realize, hunh, I’m on the fourth floor, I think that’s kinda funny, and then when I realize that most everyone else who got off on this floor is white, I think that’s really funny, that four is where they stuff all the foreigners, except that — it’s not that funny. I mean, the night I take a cab to a restaurant whose address involves many sixes—sixty-six something or other at the corner of sixth and sixteenth—and I somehow confuse six’s for four’s, thus telling the driver, take me to my death (four), death (four), my certain death (fourteen): that’s funny, right? We actually drive directly by the restaurant, but I am unable to exit the cab until we reach a red light a mile later; I do not know the word for stop.

And they don’t. Stop. Speaking English. Everywhere. One morning I go for a run through a nearby college campus. Along one promenade, students shout English at me as I pass—I stop to answer, and then start running again when I realize they’re not speaking to me, they’re practicing monologues for oral exams.

I doubt those exams are more exacting than the ones the show’s contestants undergo, or have undergone —

I know, I’ve taken a long time getting to the studio, the show, the kids. Because that’s how comedy works, okay? You stall you stall you stall, and then, you zing!

Or because in hindsight you feel badly and you want to protect them. And some part of yourself.

I press it. It works. My thighs are set aglow. I press it again. It works again. I am asked, via my translator,
to stop pressing the button.

The studio is tucked behind some buildings off a main road. It’s small but mighty, even stylish, curvy, not quite something Frank Gehry would claim — especially because half the lobby is full of construction debris and the men’s room is full in other, truly astonishing, ways — but close.

Kids and parents flutter about. There are roughly forty competitors, winnowed down through regional competitions from, oh, four million entrants. (Which is a success rate of 0.001%. In the first season of American Idol, 30 semifinalists were selected from 10,000 strivers, a success rate of 0.3%. And last spring, Harvard—remember this part—admitted 2,029 out of 35,023, or 5.79%.)

As we parade in, eyes go wide, and formal, perfectly-enunciated hellos and how are you todays rain down on us.

Did I say us? Well, it was a surprise to me, too. Call it a translation error, or an error in expectations, but when I arrive at the studio, there is not just one foreign judge—me—but close to a dozen, all from various English-speaking countries and institutions: Australia, the UK. And: Wisconsin. We are to sit in banked rows, a bit like a telethon, except instead of phones we have miniature desk lamps in silver and a button in yellow. Just the one button, but it’s large—about the size and substantiveness of an upturned plastic colander. When pressed, it simultaneously extinguishes itself and illuminates below a large, plexiglas, fluorescent-lit column that we have to pin between our knees to sit comfortably.

I press it. It works. My thighs are set aglow. I press it again. It works again. I am asked, via my translator, to stop pressing the button.

The set is incredible: a black and shiny thrust stage backed by multiple Jumbotron screens, whose vast surfaces seem frighteningly molten. Banks of candy-colored spotlights rake back and forth across the stage in robotic unison. (Disorienting? Hell, yes: someone plunges into an unseen pit and is taken to the hospital.) A faint artificial fog—or actual humidity, given that all this firepower has drawn quite a bit of power away from the air conditioning—seems to possess its own illumination.

It’s all enough to distract me, briefly, from the discovery that the foreign judge bullpen is well off to the side; pride of place instead has been given to three large swivel chairs, each equipped with two buttons, red and blue, situated directly before stage center. Who will sit there? I’m an obvious choice given my charm, wit, Warby Parker glasses, and the fact, which I slowly but relentlessly ascertain, that I am the only one of the foreign judges who hails from a university department of, well, English.

Three people take the three chairs. I am not one. None of the foreign judges are. Because none of the foreign judges, it turns out, will “judge” anyone. That job will be largely left to three people now in the chairs, all Chinese celebrities. What kind of celebrities? That is an excellent question, but not one we can ask. Celebrity, it turns out, is an intrinsic value, not at all dependent on the beholder. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know who they are. Or that they don’t know who I am. A force field envelops them, and so I have to learn what I can from the whispers of my translator and her friends, all of whom wear matching shirts: the big guy? He’s a comedian (hey!). Or a talk show host. Anyway, in charge of moving things along. The Chinese woman? She’s a news anchor on the science or education channel. More important: she’s the Simon Cowell of the group. We watch her tape a promo: “Remember me? I’m the picky one!”

And then, the twentysomething blonde. Not Chinese. From America. She’s a diver, I’m told. Like Jacques Cousteau, I ask the translation staff? There is a pause, then a cautious nod. Only later do I discover that the diver has, in fact, won another reality program, China’s version of Celebrity Splash, which involves people who can’t platform dive attempting to. On our show, she wears very bright colors and shows an awful lot of leg. I am envious, as the temperature is steadily climbing and I am wearing a suit. I am asked to stop talking. And to lay off the button. We’re about to start taping.

Makeup did not solve everything.

A judge from the UK loudly declares at one point “you was robbed!” (whereupon everyone laughs, nervously, and not because the contest is supposedly about speaking the
King’s English and correctly)

Although it occasionally detours into some bizarre, ill-advised improv games — at one point, a contestant who is blind is put behind the steering wheel of a fake car — the show’s format is simple: contestants come on stage, perform a “talent”, deliver a one-minute speech in English, and then endure a bilingual Q&A with the celebrity judges.

Each judge has a large screen behind them. Depending on which button they push, the screen displays a green check mark, or an X — which the picky judge determinedly calls a cross. If a contestant gets three checks, they go on to the next round, competing until they win the ultimate prize.

And that prize is everyone’s ultimate prize worldwide — although UN Ambassador Samantha Power and I may beg to differ. Power and I did our undergrad at Yale. These children are competing to go to Harvard.

They shout it, the screens shout it, it’s built into the show’s logo. I’m going to Harvard! Whenever a child advances, Carly Rae Jepsen teams up with Owl City to sing “(It’s Always a) Good Time,” and I tell you what, on that set, it is: as soon as the third check dings, Carly Rae comes shouting up from the digital depths, the lightset switches to orange, the Jumbotron backdrops spew fire.

Now. Does it matter that the prize turns out to be a trip to visit Harvard? It does not. Not if you’re the winner. Not if you’re Harvard.

If you represent another school, however, well — it’s a bit awkward. We are the consolation prize. Once a child loses — once even one judge throws one cross — the contestants are asked to trundle downstage right, where a strange exchange immediately commences. We are asked if we like the child.

And then the child is asked if they like us.

This is not always a good time.

It works like this. The child gets the bad news. The Jumbotrons flip to an acid rain animation. Skylar Grey announces to Diddy-Dirty Money that she’s coming home, tell the world I’m coming home. The show’s host—willowy, male, always great shoes, sometimes skips socks—arrives onstage and escorts the crestfallen child over to our dark precinct.

It’s not that dark, of course. If we foreign judges think the child did a good job—if, moreover, as a judge from the UK loudly declares at one point, we think “you was robbed!” (whereupon everyone laughs, nervously, and not because the contest is supposedly about speaking the King’s English and correctly)—we light up.

Then the loser squints along the rows of judges and, with the help of the host, picks an illuminated one of us to speak—to say something nice about the performance, to say something nice about our own institution, in the hopes that the child, and the 300-odd million children watching, might one day come to, say, America’s Dairyland.

If it sounds good to the kid, we deliver a prop letter onstage. Actually, it’s a real letter, just not as real, in most cases, as the show’s producers originally wanted: before we got rolling, it was suggested that we could provide “admission on the spot” to kids we like. And some schools do.

I can’t. I can say nice things and do—about them, about how great the weather is in Wisconsin, about how we have a team from the NBA (the three most important English letters in China), about how we’d love if they’d come see us sometime, drink some milk. Your bones, for chrissakes: my daughter is worried.

I don’t get picked much.

So kids start losing.

The kid who fought to save his hometown’s historic riverfront, even got a letter back from the mayor—FYI, not a nice thing, a scary thing—he loses. And so does the boy with numchuks and the girl with the guitar.

The Indian-Chinese ladies’ man who likes Bollywood but not Indian girls (only Chinese for him), he loses. And so does the boy named Sherlock who does karate. And the singer. And the boy in the wheelchair whom crew haul onstage separately from his wheelchair, feet scraping along, because there is no ramp. And the little boy who loves dinosaurs so much that he not only stays in costume but in character when he loses, meaning he wipes away tears with two hands resolutely kept clawlike.

It is hard to blot tears with artificially palsied hands. It is also very funny to watch. It is also very easy to feel very ill.

I am a parent. I am a teacher. I understand, as only a true comic expert can, that the keenest laughter comes only from the darkest sorrow. And I have watched a reality show or two and so know that, win or lose, four million bested or four, these contestants, win or lose, will be just fine. Most of them.

I vote for every damn child.

I vote for the shambling boy who said he was a comedian and made not a soul laugh. I smacked my button, was chosen to speak, and told him Wisconsin had great weather and that he reminded me of Samuel Beckett.

I vote for the kid in the penguin costume who said Happy Feet 2 had inspired him to work against global warming. And the 7-year-old in angel wings who had written a 1,000 page novel, and the girl in flowing Tibetan dress who sang a song from Disney’s Mulan.

I even vote for the rapper in the Paul Frank shirt. Because she somehow managed to bring her whole rhyme to bear on the word balcony; because she said rap not only would, but had helped “black men culture” defeat racism; because her favorite English teacher, a young American, had once given the class an assignment—write a story—and when that stumped them, he said write about me, and so they all wrote stories where a bright young teacher returns from China to the States and is killed, and of course that’s what they’d written, the girl said, they’d all seen American movies, and Chinese news, so they knew what became of young American men who, like her beloved teacher, were black.

I suffer a small, silent stroke: after a dozen-odd days in China, forty-plus years on the planet, I have finally, finally seen everything.

And here is what becomes of me. The stranger the show gets, the more my foreign colleagues get to know me, the more I am prodded—for you, a writer, a funny guy, this has got to be comic gold, you must be in heaven—the worse I feel.

And then bounds onstage a 9-year-old wearing a tuxedo with cerulean accents, exuberantly hipgrinding to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. I assume this is his “talent,” but no: the music stops, he reaches into a top hat, removes a live pigeon (a dove? the translators debate: it’s snowy white) and tosses it into the air.

It is glorious, and all the more so because it brings with it such relief: I have seen this movie, I know a winner when I see one. No more tears.

And indeed, on cue, the opening strains of not “Good Time” but “Flashdance” swell: First, when there’s nothing….

Incandescent, the bird careens about the studio; people cheer and shout. I suffer a small, silent stroke: after a dozen-odd days in China, forty-plus years on the planet, I have finally, finally seen everything.

And then there is nothing. The bird has disappeared. And the boy faces the judges, who say, “you are excellent, but you cannot be so…free.”

The bird magically returns from the rafters to alight on the boy’s hand, which means he is now even worse off than the dinosaur, as he has but one hand free to wipe his eyes. The host, smiling, arrives at his side, and speaks in Chinese.

The translator in my earpiece is blunt: “Don’t cry. Act like a boy.”

The bird shivers. One of the celebrity judges jokes: “oh, no, the bird is crying!”

To hide my own face, I look down at my notes, where for days I’ve scrawled every interesting scrap of English I hear. Moments earlier, for example, the boy blurted prisoner when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. A beat followed, and then he found the right pr- word: “president!”

And the dove. He’d chosen an English name for it, too, and I wrote that down. Scott.

Gatsby’s author could have scarce imagined the honor, no more than I the name the boy had chosen for himself: “Free.”

I wallop my bright yellow button.

Free chooses a school in Queens.

When I am interviewed after the show—with the help of a translator named Phoenix—I am asked why, alone of all the judges, foreign or Chinese, I voted for all the children. Every single one.

And I did. I pressed my button so frequently it unseated itself. Which may, in turn, have unseated me: at the taping of the grand finale, I’m told there’s not enough room on the judges’ dais; someone else is in my chair; I must take a seat on a carpet-covered box in the audience. (I do, but then looks are exchanged, and I go back onto the dais. I am not always charming.)

A camera is rolling as the question is asked. The lights are very bright, my make-up itchy.

I do not say that I wanted to get as much airtime as possible for my university’s admissions pitch, though I did. I do not say that I am punchy after two weeks in China, though I am. I do not say that I’ve come to feel a bit encircled, surrounded, surveilled—Facebook doesn’t work at all, Google works erratically, and when I ask Bing about Catholic mass times, it returns a list abbreviated with the explanation that “Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed specific results for these search terms.”

I do not say that I voted for every child out of awe or empathy, although I know I will never speak another language as well as they all speak English, nor be as bright, or as clever, or as brave. I do not say that, when reviewing my notes, beside one contestant’s name, I found just three words—better than myself. I do not say because I do not recall if it is something she said or I thought.

I say to the camera, I thought they were all amazing. I say, I thought they did China great honor. I do not say I feel very sad.

The 7-year-old novelist wins.

After Free lost and left, some offstage discussion and then shouting ensued. Eventually, Free was brought back. He did his entire act again: he smiled and waved and danced and Scott the pigeon darted from his pocket into the air. Free smiled bravely. The judges smiled bravely. Free lost again. But only I was surprised.

If I spoke Chinese, I would have understood immediately what my translator only later explained to me: this was nothing more than a retake; the cameras had previously missed the bird in flight.

Something else I didn’t understand: at the customs and immigration podiums at Beijing Airport, way back when I was first arriving, I’d handed over my passport, anxious—I’d heard horror stories, and indeed, saw some Italians led away—and looked down to see a row of buttons, pictograms, a spectrum of faces from happy to sad. Above, a label in perfect English: you’re welcome to comment on my work, it said, improbably. Hilariously.

When people comment on my work, my written work, it’s often to say that it’s darker, sadder than they thought it would be: but you’re so funny.

We all have our defenses. And sometimes they fail.

Here’s a #fail: when I first saw the keypad, I thought it was asking how I felt—after all, we’d already been through infrared thermometer chute, where a sort of ray gun scanned us for fever. Or, I don’t know, read our thoughts. Mine now were that the keypad’s row of faces looked exactly like the Wong-Baker pictorial pain chart any parent recognizes; it’s the one pediatricians use when they urgently want to know how do you feel and the child in pain is too young, speaks too little English, to know how to say what needs to be said.

My hand hovered over the button for quite some time. When I tell the story now, I find it’s funnier to say I pressed the laughing face right away.

Yes, there’s (even) more to the story. Stand by. (Or read other funny-sad adventures, such as titling novels, while waiting.)

If all this talk of buttons has you wanting to press one, try the Recommend button below.

As for me, I recommend milk from Wisconsin, especially in the form of ice cream (when made by students), and frozen custard (when made by pros).

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