No laughing matter as Chinese stand-up comedians take North America by storm
Just as it's very unlikely for Western people to enjoy live shows of Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel in China, Li Sinan hadn't expected to see her favorite Chinese talk shows in the United States.
"It was so amazing to watch a live show of my favorite comedians such as Li Dan at a theater in the US," the young overseas Chinese woman proclaimed.
On January 27, Li and her friend drove a long way from Portland, Oregon, to attend a Chinese stand-up comedy show along with 2,000 spectators at the McCaw Hall in downtown Seattle, Washington. But they thought it was quite worthwhile as they were shedding a tear from laughing so hard throughout the performance.
The hugely successful show presented by the Shanghai-based Xiaoguo Comedy was also the launch of a stand-up comedy tour in North America. It was the first time that a Chinese stand-up comedy was staged in North America.
The three-hour show brought together 10 top stand-up comedians of the country, including Li Dan, Cheng Lu and Yang Meng'en, to present their original and brand-new materials especially created for North American audiences on the occasion of the Lunar New Year.
After sending Chinese New Year blessings, they discussed topics covering work, culture and family relationships that related to the overseas audiences, managing to tickle their funny bones and making them burst into fits of laughter.
Despite its origin in Europe and the US, stand-up comedy is growing rapidly in China with increasing popularity among the young generation. Hilarious jokes and jibes inspired by real-life topics and stories resonate well with urbanites who seek quick laughs and relaxation from the stresses of a fast-paced modern society.
However, the promising entertainment genre in China's culture industry is not simply satisfied with catering to domestic audiences nowadays. It is greeting the world with Chinese humor and perspectives on issues of worldwide concern.
Following the first stop in Seattle, comics of Xiaoguo Comedy will also travel to other big cities in the US and Canada, including San Jose, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver. At landmark and large professional theaters, all these live performances will attract more than 10,000 spectators. The comedy lineup will also participate in the National Basketball Association's Lunar New Year celebration activities.
According to He Xiaoxi, co-founder and CEO of Xiaoguo Comedy, it is not the first time they have brought Chinese stand-up comedy to foreign audiences.
Three years ago, they were invited to participate in the Mandarin Comedy Week during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, and tickets sold very well for the 1,000-seat theater.
"After that, we immediately started planning overseas tours in North America, Australia, and New Zealand," He said. "With the gradually optimized pandemic restrictions this year, we put the first North American tour for Chinese stand-up comedy high up on our agenda as a means of letting the world know more about Chinese young people and comedy."
All tickets for the North American tour were snapped up quickly by overseas Chinese as well as foreigners keen on Chinese culture.
"Many enthusiasts arrived at theaters a couple of hours before the show," said Liang Jiangang, an official from Xiaoguo Comedy. "Some people thought it was a perfect and joyous way to celebrate the Lunar New Year with family and friends."
In 2022, Xiaoguo Comedy set up its YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts to communicate with global stand-up show fans, attracting more than 120,000 followers in just over half a year and feeling the love and passion of overseas fans. In the future, the troupe hopes to tour Europe and other parts of the world to share the humor, joy and cultural charm of China.
In the past few years, stand-up comedy has gradually become one of the most popular forms of comedy among China's youngsters, mainly those under 35 years of age. The new form is now a thriving alternative to the country's traditional comedic art forms of crosstalk and skits and has boosted the comedy culture with diversity and creativity.
Different from the puns and poetry which are widely incorporated into a traditional crosstalk show, stand-up comedy is focused on reality and issues closely related to audiences' lives.
A few high-quality Chinese variety shows of the genre such as "Stand-up Comedy" and "Rock & Roast" have emerged on streaming websites and helped nurture a massive fan base. The flourishing of comedy clubs in big cities and producers' innovative experiments with different formats and performing styles have also propelled the development of the entertainment genre in China.
In an act of about five to 10 minutes, Chinese comedians share their opinions and insights into topics like marriage, workplace and varied relationships in a satirical or straightforward way.
To shorten the psychological distance with the audience, they usually seem to tell stories of their own. They always have a good handle of rhythm, timing and multiple manners on stage to make people laugh.
Their performances help to ease the pressure and anxiety of people struggling to settle down in big cities or facing work dilemmas. Approaches for some typical life problems are also offered.
Meanwhile, Chinese stand-up comedy never stops its exploration of untapped potential at the grassroots level. Many female comedians are also shining on the stage with their distinctive charm.
Producers of the hit variety show "Stand-up Comedy," a joint effort of Xiaoguo and Tencent, believe that everyone has the ability to be a stand-up comedian for at least five minutes. The amazing performances of people from all walks of life, such as special police and firefighters, in the show have changed people's stereotypes about comedy.
Jane Sun, a local primary school teacher, said that she is a big fan of stand-up comedy thanks to the influence of variety shows. Some jokes, in her opinion, are superb with rich cultural metaphors and heritage.
"Many stand-up comedians are amiable ordinary people who are not far from our lives," Sun added. "Their charm on stage has also encouraged me to present my own stand-up comedy act about my students' school performances at the parents' meeting. It was well-received. I think everyone can have a try at stand-up comedy. That's the appeal of the art form."
Theater expert Chen Daming from the Shanghai Dramatists Association noted that the art form has a low threshold as it almost has no requirement for performer's appearance, stature and singing skills except for eloquence and a sense of humor. Stage settings for such shows are also simple and casual.
"It is so good to see more and more intellectuals in China, including college students and white-collar workers, standing on stage with confidence and desire to express their views and thoughts in vivid and creative ways," Chen said.