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Why What’s Funny in China Might Surprise You

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki

Jesse Appell will do anything for a laugh.

“Food poisoning is funny. I got dysentery once. That was funny.”

Well, not quite that funny the moment we sat down to talk over dumplings in Beijing. Appell has lived in Beijing on and off for several years.

Recently Appell has been studying what’s funny in China, which he admits has not been easy.

“When I came to China I initially didn’t have the language ability to make a joke. I would try to make a joke but I didn’t know the cues that you would use to make jokes so when I said stuff wrong people just assumed that i was speaking wrong,” said Appell.

But as Appell’s Chinese language skills have developed — he’s now nearly fluent in Mandarin — so has his understanding of what’s funny in Chinese. He remembers the first day he made a successful joke in China.

“I got a nose bleed in class. The word liuxue means to flow blood but it’s a perfect pun for the word exchange student,” explained

So when Jesse left class to take care of his nose bleed, he called out to the class in Chinese, ‘Don’t worry about me I’m just an exchange student.’ His classmates erupted in laughter he says.

Word play is an essential element in the ancient Chinese art of comedy. There is a centuries old tradition of Chinese stand-up called xiangsheng or crosstalk according to linguist David Moser who has has studied crosstalk in China.

“Crosstalk is a folk verbal art form that similar to beloved classic skits that we know of like the who’s on first routine,” said Moser.

Much like Abbott & Costello in traditional crosstalk there’s the funny man and the straight guy. Crosstalk began in Beijing where some comedic skits go back to the Ming Dynasty. Modern times and modern politics have altered what can be funny in China and crosstalk has adapted. The humor is rather vanilla; this is the opposite of political satire.

“After 1949 they had to clean it all up. They had to get rid of country bumpkin jokes because the peasants were the heroes of the revolution. Of course, all the sex and bawdiness was gone. The one thing you can’t do is do political humor at all,” said Moser.

But according to Moser that doesn’t mean that Chinese people aren’t dishing out the political jokes.

“I almost feel that there’s two layers of humor. One is the public media labor. It’s very prudish, polite; it’s not rambunctious or impolite. Then there’s this other layer which is the average person on the street which is just how it is in any country. It can be really outlandishly anti-authoritarian or smutty or absolutely outrageous,” said Moser.

This other layer of humor takes stage on the internet sometimes inspired by humor from unexpected places like the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Chinese netizens have taken to translating Stewart’s show. He’s actually Jiong Situ in Chinese.

“Very often the subtitles show they didn’t understand the joke, but some of the jokes do translate and that’s good enough,” said Moser.

Good enough that in April of this past year a clip of a joke about North Korea went viral in China. Turns out jokes about North Korea are funny to both Chinese and American audiences. Jiong Situ is still a long way off from gracing Chinese prime time. His jokes are far too politically sensitive.

There are other forms of comedy bubbling up in the bars and clubs of Beijing: improv for one. Fulbrighter Jesse Appell is part of a bilingual improv comedy troupe called BIG.

The troop rehearses in a makeshift theater with tiny stage. If you’ve ever been to an improv show, it’s a pretty familiar scene. The audience shouts out suggestions, the players improvise a scene. Except that here players mix English and Chinese.

The topics were rather tame, nothing bawdy or political. I kept waiting for something controversial to come up. But this is China after all. As I was reminded when a sudden discussion ensued just as I pressed record. Jesse approached me:

“You can record whatever but if we say anything about the government we need you not to use that,” said Appell.

It was a surprising request and as it turned out unnecessary. No one said anything about the government. However, it seems Jesse has learned much more about China then just comedy.

Jon Stewart taking in his Chinese celebrity:

Comedians Guo Degang and Yu Qian:

Jesse Appell performs stand-up comedy in Chinese:

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