Caixin
Apr 17, 2021 08:15 PM

In Depth: Stand-Up Comedians Cheer Up Chinese Audiences

“Treat your wealth like your lover,” said Li Xueqin, a popular Chinese stand-up comic. “You can neither leave it alone nor bother it all the time, or you’ll get dumped.” Audiences roar.

The 26-year-old comedian, who rose to fame last year after an impressive debut in one of the country’s most popular stand-up comedy shows, took the stage in a Caixin-organized show to share thoughts about wealth management and financial success in a witty way. Joining her was a group of well-known economists and entrepreneurs, including James Liang, founder of Ctrip.com and Mao Daqing, a former senior executive of China Vanke, who made their maiden appearances as stand-up comics at the event.

Many of the 200 people who packed a theater in northeast Beijing’s art district were attracted by Li and the increasingly popular art form. The event was surprisingly successful as the audience laughed and cheered enthusiastically.

“This is my first time watching live” stand-up comedy, one person in the audience said. “I bought the ticket immediately when I saw Li was a performer. I am so excited.”

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Li Xueqin performs at a Caixin-organized stand-up comedy show in Beijing.

With nearly 4.5 million Weibo followers and more than 9.7 million fans on the short-video app Douyin, Li is no doubt one of the most popular comedians in China. Her most recent post on Douyin, the Chinese twin of global short-video sensation TikTok, was liked by 62,000 viewers within 21 hours.

But only two years ago, she was one of many confused college graduates looking for direction. Li joined friends in a startup developing cultural programs, where she said she found little excitement. In her leisure time, she started creating short videos joking about her daily life and surprisingly gained some fame among internet users.

But her popularity exploded when she joined the 2020 season of “Rock & Roast (脱口秀大会),” a popular stand-up comedy show. With zero stand-up performance experience, Li won audiences with her unique style of humor and down-to-earth personality, making her the biggest dark horse in the show.

The skyrocketing popularity of Li, along with comedians like her, spotlights how stand-up, a Western import, is booming in China. Introduced in China more than a decade ago, the format became popular only in recent years thanks to several sensational internet television shows.

Stand-up hits

“Roast! (吐槽大会),” first aired by video-streaming site Tencent Video in January 2017, became an immediate hit and unleashed public interest in stand-up. The five-season show, often compared to the U.S. comedy series “Comedy Central Roasts,” invites a group of comedians to mock each other and roast a guest celebrity.

Apart from hilarious and satirical jokes made by comedians, the show won popularity also because it shares many things in common among young audiences, experts said.  

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James Liang Jianzhang, co-founder of Ctrip.com performs at the Caixin show

“People dare to share their conflicts, problems, pains and distress, and have the courage to face them head on in the show,” said Yu Xiujuan, director of the policy office and development research center of the National Radio and Television Administration. “It also gives the audience a special insight toward life.”

Stand-up comedy “uses some lighthearted and humorous ways, sometimes sarcastic, to spark people to think about some deep-rooted issues,” said Lang Yongchun, a news host of state broadcaster CCTV who was a guest performer in the Caixin show.

Shi Zhan, an associate professor in the Department of Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University who also appeared in the Caixin show, said stand-up can provide an important social outlet.

“People nowadays increasingly lose interest in being serious, but they also refuse to be mediocre,” Shi said. “Stand-up provides a way to express themselves in a neither serious nor mediocre way. It is also easy to attract attention quickly.”

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Shi Zhan, a history professor at China Foreign Affairs University, gives his maiden stand-up performance at the Caixin event.

In March 2017, when the first season of “Roast!” ended, the program was viewed 1.4 billion times. In January this year, the fourth season of the show got more than 8.5 billion views as it concluded.

Its sister show “Rock and Roast” debuted in August 2017, also on Tencent Video. The three-season show adopts a competition format in which seven contestants perform 10-minute stand-up sets and compete for audience votes. The show became one of the hottest reality television shows in China, with average views topping 110 million for each episode in the last season.

The two shows have put a group of aspiring stand-up comedians under the spotlight, including Li Xueqin. It also made its producer, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co. Ltd., a business success. The 7-year-old startup has secured eight rounds of funding and is reportedly valued at more than 3 billion yuan ($458 million).

The prevalence of the internet offers a good medium for stand-up to grow in China, and public thirst for humor allows it to thrive, said Miao Di, a professor at the Communication University of China.

Despite the recent boom, stand-up has yet to be fully fledged in China and faces challenges from the public opinion environment and policy uncertainties, Miao said.

The show goes on

The imported stand-up art form was not completely alien to Chinese audience when it appeared in the country more than a decade ago. A native comedy performance known as “Xiangsheng” (相声), or crosstalk, has thrived in North China since the late Qing Dynasty in the 1800s.

Originated with street performers, Xiangsheng is typically performed as a dialogue between two performers, or rarely as a monologue by a solo performer, featuring wordplay and references to Chinese literary classics, as well as imitations and songs. The closest American analogue would be the old Abbott and Costello comedy duo from the 1940s and 1950s.

Xiangsheng was booming in China before the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 crushed most traditional art forms. As society recovered from the decade of turmoil and television became normal in Chinese households, Xiangsheng regained its vitality.

Xiangsheng entered a period of decline in the 1990s, mainly due to tightening control over the cultural industry. A new generation of Xiangsheng performers emerged in recent years to revive the traditional art form, led by Deyunshe founded by famous comedian Guo Degang. However, the influence of Xiangsheng in the country’s cultural arena has weakened as new art forms like stand-up comedy grow.

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Da Shan (right), a Canadian who became a Xiangsheng sensation in China

There are similarities between traditional Xiangsheng and Western-style stand-up, but there are also major differences, according to Miao. Whereas Xiangsheng actors mostly use scripts written by masters, stand-up comedians usually express their own opinions on current social issues.

“Chinese people have a sense of humor, but sometimes it is different from that of people in the West,” Miao said.

Miao said Shanghai native comedian Zhou Libo was one of the earliest to bring stand-up comedy onto the spotlight in China. Zhou gained popularity in 2006 with a unique comedic style, which he called “haipai qingkou,” or “Shanghai clean talk,” featuring extended comic monologues on topics in the news.

Delivered in a linguistic mixture of Mandarin and Shanghai dialect, Zhou’s performance attracted many fans, especially in southern Chinese regions surrounding Shanghai.

In 2009, the first stand-up comedy club, TakeOut Comedy, opened in the southern business hub Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong. The next year, stand-up comedy became known by more ordinary Chinese when Joe Wong, a China-born American biochemist, was invited to perform at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington. The video of Wong’s performance, during which he mocked then Vice President Joe Biden, went viral in China.

“I actually read your autobiography, and today I see you,” he said. “I think the book is much better.”

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Joe Wong, a China-born American biochemist, performs stand-up at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington in 2010.

Some said the true arrival of stand-up comedy in China was marked by the launch of the program “Post-’80s Talk Show” on the Dragon TV network in 2012. The Chinese word for “talk show” — “tuokouxiu” — is also used to mean “stand-up comedy,” causing considerable confusion. Wang Zijian, the host of the show who was previously a Xiangsheng performer, became a household name thanks to the show.

Stand-up and other comedy performances enjoyed a boom in the following years with the proliferation of internet TV programs, until the debut of “Roast!” and “Rock & Roast” pushed it to new heights.

Sense of humor

Mocking and roasting could attract trouble, even for stand-up comics.

Yang Li, a famous comedian who shared the stage with Li Xueqin on “Rock and Roast,” was hit with a boycott by internet users, mostly men, who accused her of “sexism.”

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Yang Li, a famous stand-up comic.

The 29-year-old amateur comic attracted a huge following with her sharp barbs on gender issues that won her fame as the “Punchline Queen.” But her punchlines didn’t land well with everyone, sparking an online backlash that led U.S. computer giant Intel to pull down a laptop advertisement featuring Yang last month.

“Men are adorable,” said Yang in one of her jokes at the latest season of “Rock and Roast.” “But mysterious. ... After all, they can look so average and yet be so full of confidence.”

Critics said Yang’s jokes are insulting and provoke gender confrontation. But supporters said the backlash against Yang only reflects the plight facing female comedians in China and the misogyny held by many people who believe in male superiority.

Female performers like Yang and Li were the stars of last year’s stand-up shows with their exceptional performances. But women still play a marginal role on the country’s comedy stages.

But women stand-up comedians are not the only ones who face invisible lines that may hurt their careers. The development of stand-up comedy in China is heavily dependent on external factors, such as public opinion and regulatory supervision, said Miao, who predicted the industry will cool a little this year after last year’s boom.

“Comedians would have to be aware of the (regulatory) red lines,” Miao said. However, the stand-up comedy industry has “grown its roots,” he said, as the profession is now widely known and an established pool of talent will push it to grow.

In late March, “Roast!,” which released one episode per week online starting Jan. 31. for its fifth season, halted the release of the eighth episode, citing a “lack of editing time.”

Some speculated that the abrupt halt could be due to a controversy sparked by the seventh episode in which Fan Zhiyi, a professional Chinese soccer player, roasted two professional basketball players, stirring up an online debate between fans of the athletes.

The eighth episode, which was supposed to be a pre-recorded follow-up to the sports debate, was never released. Instead, the video-streaming site just went on with what was supposed to be the ninth episode.

“People need something to laugh about and a variety of (art) forms,” Miao said. “No matter if it is Xiangsheng, stand-up comedy or others, they will strive to survive by their own means.”

Li was the most relaxed of the comics at Caixin’s show. While Ctrip’s Liang was busy memorizing lines and preparing props, Li sat on the side, watching the billionaire preparing for his maiden performance. “My duty today is (to perform) the stand-up, while they (other guests) have a say in financial freedom,” Li joked about the theme of the show.

Contact reporter Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com) and editor Bob Simison (bobsimison@caixin.com)

Click here to watch the whole Caixin Talk Show in Chinese. 

Performance clips for Li Xueqin; Shi Zhan, associate professor in the Department of Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University; James Liang Jianzhang, former CEO and co-founder of Ctrip; He Fan, deputy director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Mao Daqing, founder and CEO of Ucommune and a former China Vanke Executive; Lang Yongchun, a news host of state broadcaster CCTV; Zhang Hong, chief editor of Caixin Video

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