Last month, for inexplicable reasons surely having to do with the cosmic vagaries of fate, I watched a four-hour documentary on the voyage of Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark literally headed into the blank spaces on the map. Behind each turn of the Missouri river laid something that may be exciting, devastating, or, at the very least, bewildering. One bend might reveal a fabulous new mountain vista—the next, knowledge the vista surveyed an impassable summit. The difference between elation and despair were separated by twenty-four hours of forward progress.
I am no great explorer like Lewis and Clark, but I am plodding through some unmapped parts of my own field, intercultural comedy. Day by day, I too go through the highs and lows of trying to map new territory in this foreign land.
Consider, the past 24 hours: the time between 6pm on Wednesday, December 18, 2013, and 6pm on Thursday, December 19.
At 6:00pm on Wednesday, I shuffled through the cold air and onto the subway, heading to a gig at Beijing Information and Sciences University. Along with select members of the Beijing Talkshow (Stand-up Comedy) Club, I was going to be performing Chinese-language standup comedy for two hundred students. For ten minutes, my jokes would be the only thing standing between me some pretty awkward silences.
I was up third, and gained some confidence right away by having a joke I wrote on the subway on the way over get some laughs. “My name is Ai Jie Xi,” I said. “Girls hear my name, and they say, ‘Oh, his last name is Ai爱, like “Love.” How romantic!’ But then I have to tell them that no, actually my name is ai艾，the ai from “AIDS” aizibing艾滋病. Not so romantic anymore.”
Even some of my slicker jokes went over well. I did one on current events: the hot father-son Amazing Race-clone show “Where did Dad Go?”
“I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately. I especially love that new entertainment show about orphans! You know… ‘Where did Dad Go?’” There was a pause before a nearly audible clunk and laughter. It’s not that he doesn’t know what the show is actually about because he is a foreigner… it was a joke!
After the show, nine of us went out to a Xinjiang restaurant and had amazing food, roast lamb skewers and fried nang bread, a Xinjiang specialty. I chatted, joked, and discussed comedy with my friends. Looking around the circle, I realized that I was a real part of a comedy community in a way that no other foreigners were—a new turn around the bend, a new challenge bested, another step forward.
Another, more established comedian, who goes by the stage name Ye So, approached me after dinner. “I’m working for a TV station on a ‘Kings of Comedy’ show. Why don’t you come by the studios tomorrow and talk to our directors?”
Oh yes! Comedy stardom here I come!
Of course, this was just a turn in the bend, another twist in the river. In hindsight, though, it was a twist backwards.
Things got off to a great start the next day when I couldn’t find the studio. Most TV studios require space, and cheap space at that. Therefore, they shoot big shows with big stars in their fancy city studios but push most of their smaller productions out to other centers in the countryside. After taking the subway as far as I could out to the east of the city, I wandered down countryside lanes looking for the building for forty-five minutes.
I called Ye So and asked for directions. “Head north from the subway… eventually there will be a wall.” Apparently, points of interest are lacking in the countryside, which mostly features empty fields lined by ditches filled with trash where they meet the road and isolated apartment complexes that tower twenty-five stories above the adjacent undeveloped areas.
I eventually located the ambiguously titled “National Music and Entertainment Property Base.” It was 3pm but all the lights were off inside—no show, no spectacle, no reason to waste electricity on employees. Ye So greeted me and ushered me into a small, claustrophobic room with plain white walls. Inside were seven or eight people sitting around playing on their phones or tablets. A man in the corner with five-o’clock shadow and a plump face jerked his head up, looked me over, and continued playing Angry Birds.
If heat is defined as the average kinetic energy of all sample points in a given space, this mean that the room was close to absolute zero—not good for comedy at all. After a bare minimum of pleasantries, I was introduced to one of the directors of the program. I showed them some of my videos, which they loved, but there was a bit of a chill in the air as well. We all knew that some of the material on the videos was inappropriate for television. They knew they hadn’t wasted their time in inviting me, but it meant nothing for my chances to be on the show.
It did, however, get them interested in hearing some of my other jokes. I started telling some jokes, and before I knew it, I realized that even though I had never applied formally to the show, I was at my audition already. But by the time I realized that the performance was more than just a formality to check content appropriateness, it was too late. Really what was needed was the type of performance to change the energy of the room, but I had started trying to show that I had pieces that were appropriate to broadcast. I spoke through my jokes rather than acting them out, and while some got laughs, there was still mostly silence in the room.
When I was done, there was a bit of an uncomfortable vibe. “As a Chinese person,” one of the directors told me, “I didn’t think it was that funny.”
Of course, as someone who has only been doing stand-up for eight months, I could list a whole host of possible reasons for the jokes not working. I was performing in Chinese, the jokes were my own original ones, some of them were newer and I had only performed once or twice, and could still be developed further… and, of course, the terrible room and the not-funny nature being told “Tell me a joke!” in front of eight other people, half of whom were on iPads.
All of those reasons would have been legitimate, but I really upset at the “As a Chinese person,” line. It was the one point that I can never, ever directly address. If someone says a joke isn’t their personal style, that’s one thing. But this reaction, which I run across a lot, takes that personal sentiment and broadly applies it across 1.3 billion people. Culture and national identity takes “I didn’t think that was funny” and applies it as “We—loosely defined by someone not like you—don’t think that’s funny.” Such a broad statement as comedy critique seems like a cop-out. There’s a lot of truth behind it, but the value lies in specificity—and when people can’t express that, it means that more than likely performance preference or content issues are at work rather than cultural ones.
I am discovering that with intercultural comedy, failures of jokes, which result from any one of a thousand reasons, tend to be thrown into the incredibly vague (and, through insidious insinuation, unsolvable) category of cultural misunderstanding. When jokes work across cultures, there is amazing power in them, and it reveals the common humanity of everyone in the audience. But when they fail, I oftentimes sense a sort of catharsis from the audience—at some level, people seem to want to believe that we are different, laugh at different things, and justify holding a wall up between “us” and “them.”
After the jokes, I had to smile result in me smile and nod through a host of vague topics such as, “Chinese people know different things about the West than foreigners,” and “Certain topics Chinese people don’t think foreigners should joke about,” as if each of these issues were not the sort of things that have been in my head almost every waking moment of the last fifteen months.
There were other issues too. Some of my jokes were not specifically about China, which was apparently a problem: “The audience will wonder why you are not talking about being a foreigner in China, if any Chinese comedian could have said the joke you don’t get extra points.”
Also, my use of silence and implication—very effective tactics in my previous shows—was on the firing range as well. Take my “Where’s Dad Now” as an example:
“I liked that joke,” the director said, “but I had to think about it a little bit before it was funny. The audiences you have been performing for, at colleges and bars, these are very intelligent and cultured. The TV audience will not be as smart as them. You should perhaps try making some more direct jokes, where there is no chance of people thinking they are not funny.”
“Cultured” may not be associated with bars very often, but as she implied it, it meant simply that they had experienced western culture—bars are, after all, a Western cultural locale. In America, bars are for drinking beer, but in China, they represent experiencing an international sort of lifestyle. The equivalent might be that Westerners who go to a Chinese teahouse might feel cultured—but Chinese people who go there to drink tea might find it strange to base cultural understanding off of simply being in an everyday locale.
As an example of a more direct joke, she mentioned a foreigner who they had flown in from Shanghai to speak with them. He had made a pun which they all admitted was not very funny but there was zero chance of mis-firing the joke—there was nothing implied by the pun, and the joke would work well with no setup. My joke had made them laugh—but they didn’t trust at the end of the day it would make their viewers laugh. “And in TV, we are in the business of viewership ratings,” she said.
At the end of our conversation, she summarized by saying, “You definitely have a skill at this, and I see from your jokes that you understand how Chinese people think and what they feel. But out show films in two days… what do you think?” she suddenly asked over her shoulder.
The man in the corner with 5 o’clock shadow, who had not said a word the whole time, growled, “Content.” All along, this had been the man in charge, and the verdict was that the content I had shown them didn’t fit the show.
I was thanked for making the trip out and assured the show has very high standards and if I ever have pieces I think match those standards to be in touch and send links to shows. Ye So, ever the gentleman, led me outside and gave some pointers—very valuable coming from one of the few people with years of experience doing Chinese standup. I got on the subway back home. When I arrived back, it was 6:00pm. 24 hours—big ups, big downs.
The devil is in the details. Some television shows have no standards for foreign performers—a friend of mine who accompanied me to a shoot said offhandedly he did “traditional American dancing” and was on TV the next day doing the robot. Going on TV, in the wacko-land of China, is not hard for Chinese-speaking white people. Sometimes I worry that I am wasting my time on such activities, when what seems like success is so easily obtained, and there is so much trash media that good work is drowned in an avalanche of mediocrity. Is it worth spending so much energy on these shows when I go on before my friend doing the robot?
But creating one’s own comedy is hard, and performing on a dedicated comedy show like “Kings of Comedy” should be hard. The long-term positive I took out of my rejection is that today I found a show that has standards enough to not to cave and let me get the result I wanted. If I get better than the competition, there will be a place to show that I am better than the competition.
I think that in front of an audience I would have done well. But next time, thanks to the guidance of my friends and the directors, I will come back with a new confidence. I won’t do well—I will do great. And when I do, it will mean something more than if the doors had swung open before me, because I know it will represent a true step into the great unmapped beyond, and I will have drawn the landscape of that map myself.
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