I’ll Be Brief: The Chinese Two Sentence Speech


My newest blog post on SCMP! If you’ve ever had to sit through a boring Chinese speech, this one’s for you!

Chinese stand-up: Who said the Chinese ain’t funny?-Sino-US


I’ve been featured in this article on standup in China!

脱口秀:一样的stand-up,不一样的幽默


Can you say that? The intricacy of stand-up comedy in China


During the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, what's a Beijing comedian to do?


THE GREAT LOL OF CHINA


I am super excited to start sharing blogs that I am writing for the South China Morning Post! I will update the LaughBeijing Tumblr with new posts as they come out. Please share with friends and anyone interested in intercultural comedy!!

Thunderous Silence


This last week I’ve been experimenting with silence onstage.

“When I first got here, I had two Chinese roommates,” I said in Mandarin to a crowd of a few dozen Chinese twenty-somethings. The distracted pack of people had been sucked into the stand-up open mic at a snazzy bar in the Sanlitun nightclub district; at least a third of the crowd was fellow comedians. “One’s from Xi’an (西安, literally, “Western Capitol”) and the other is from Jiangxi Province “(江西, literally, “West-of-the-River”). Of course, I felt really comfortable rooming with them.”

Then, the pause.

Silence.

As anyone who’s performed onstage knows, a half second beat onstage feels like an eternity, and a full second pause makes you feel completely naked. Somehow, pauses in my second language seem even longer—maybe because no matter how confident I am in my Chinese, there is always the tiny chance I will flub a word—and flubbing the first word out of the pause is the worst.

The words hang in the air. Of course, I felt really comfortable rooming with them…

“Because all three of us are Westerners.”

A quick laugh from the audience, and a few claps. It’s a silly pun in Chinese, not meant to be a show stopper, but nonetheless I am ecstatic. The pause worked. I’ve done this joke twenty times onstage, and the last two nights I’ve slowed the whole thing down. Those two nights have given me better laughs than any show in the last two months.

Recently, I’ve been grappling with silence onstage. I love it, because even in the last week I’ve seen that it simply makes the jokes work better. Everyone is more comfortable—that is, everyone but me, who has to stand onstage blinded by spotlights, having bared myself through the setup and with nothing between me and a possible second, deafening silence of non-laughter following the punch line.

Getting onstage and speaking comes naturally to me. Waiting onstage does not.

I’ve always known since I was a kid that my mind moves fast. I speak fast; anyone who’s ever had an extended hot pot dinner with me knows that if left unattended I can talk on end without pause for hours. My mental dialogue slips from one subject to the next so quickly I oftentimes find myself confused about what I am thinking about. In hindsight, it seems that I would naturally fall into performing comedy onstage—it is, perhaps, the purest art form for someone who suffers from a nearly debilitating case of verbal diarrhea.

Then, to use a hackneyed, obviously segue, China changed everything. The summer of 2010 was a massive shock to my system. I had just arrived in China for the first time and I found myself bound by a language pledge in a country where I did not speak the language. My early Chinese was so terrible that even after extended circumlocution it was all I could do to make my meaning understood. The pyrotechnics storm in my head kept exploding and resounding, but my mouth could not speak the words. For the first time since I had learned to speak as a child, I was forced to be silent.

This, as one might expect, turned out to be a good lesson for me. I learned to listen better; to read body language and facial expression with the same intensity I dissected words and phrases. I learned to feel out the spaces between words, to hear the sentences not spoken. I learned that I had been unintentionally terrifying the daylights out of many of the introverts of the world, wonderful people who in China were tremendous friends and supporters now that we were brought together by the similar manner of engaging the world.

I learned to feel the spaces between people. As an actor, I recognized that mysterious gap. It was the same space as occupies the area between the end of the stage and the front row of the audience. When my words were taken from me, I became comfortable with that space: I had lived there before, in improv scenes and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

And then I learned to speak again, and I BLAH BLAH BLAH’d most of those life lessons into a noisy oblivion.

Yes, my blabbermouth nature won out. Before long, I was spitting out Chinese sentences (mostly long strings of rambling incomprehensible mush) as quickly as I spoke in English. Chinese people ooh’d and aaah’d at the speed of my speech, and it took me a long time to realize that speaking fast and speaking well were different things.

Performing in a country where people are amazed you can even speak the language has the insidious side effect of addicting you even further to speech. A joke with a pause might not get a laugh. But a display of linguistic prowess—even reciting empty lists—gets hoots and hollers, and thunderous applause. The foreigner looking to perform comedy is faced with a dilemma: why journey into that uncomfortable space of silence ever again?

The truth is that I have realized that I need to go there to get better. Real comedy is about timing, about pauses, about playful, genuine two-way interaction with the audience. I can call myself a comedian and spout funny lists, but real comedy needs silence.

I can only hope that one day I can find the cultural space in silence that Tig Notaro so bravely entered when she pushed a stool around the stage for three minutes on late-night television. Like it or hate it, it took balls of steel, and a faith in that space of silence between the performer and the audience I hope one day to revel in myself.

2 27 14

My Mahjong Nemesis


Over Chinese New Year, I took a trip to the countryside of Shanxi province to stay with my friend Tiejun and his family for Chinese Lunar New Years. In the eight days between my arrival (being stranded on the side of the highway after a ten-hour bus ride) and my departure (4 A.M. sleeper train back to Beijing) I met many amazing people, drank lots of jasmine tea, consumed an unhealthy amount of dumplings, and encountered, confronted, and overcame my mahjong nemesis with (an almost insignificant amount of) money on the line. This last experience will be the subject of our story today.

It was clear when I arrived at “Trench-bottom Village”—the actual name of my friend’s tiny village of 800 people—that Mahjong was going to be the nightly entertainment out in the countryside. Trench-Bottom had for hundreds and maybe thousands of years taken its name from the gorge in which it abided, located between two of the endless furrowed hills that make up the jagged topography of Shanxi. The people used to live in arched cave-homes dug out of the stiff loess soil, but two years ago my friend and everyone else in the village was moved to a new high-rise complex in Zhanglan, a far-flung suburb of Jiexiu, a town two hours by train from anywhere anyone might have heard of. Though the buildings are six stories tall, the tallest in Zhanglan, the village still calls itself Trench-bottom.

By subsuming Trench-bottom, Zhanglan’s population rose overnight from 4,200 to 5000, but as there was still no movie theatres, jazz bars, or employment in Zhanglan, the villagers’ time-old way of making the hours fly by remained the same before and after the move: Mahjong. It was clear that I would have to learn how to play if I was going to be able to relate to my friend’s relatives: a succession of middle-school buddies who mined coal for a living and aunties that laughed as they threw money on top of the mahjong tiles.

While these women may not have terrified most people, the speed and vigor of their Mahjong play was quite intimidating. Tiejun enlisted a friend of his, Xiao Song, to teach me how to play. Xiao Song had a mop haircut and a lazy eye; I felt that his advice to “keep an eye on the players and the tiles at the same time” was intended metaphorically in my case.

Xiao Song taught me Mahjong 101. The game is played at a square table with four players and uses thick porcelain tiles instead of cards. At the beginning of the game, you draw thirteen tiles. There are different types of tiles including dots, bamboos, “ten-thousands”, and winds, and most are assigned a number value as well: seven dots, five bamboos, three ten-thousands. Every turn, you draw another one of the face-down tiles and throw one of your own into a discard pile. Through drawing and stealing other people’s discards, you create combos of tiles; three copies of the same tile or three successive tiles (one dot, two dot, three dots) counts as a combo. The game ends when one player accumulates four combos and one pair of tiles, at which point everyone around the table groans and squawks about the one tile they were waiting for that they couldn’t draw and throws crumpled paper money on top of the tiles as they are mixed. 

After one night of training, I got the itch to see some real action. I wanted there to be (not that much) money on the line, to feel (not much of) the pressure. So the next night, I rolled out of the village with my crew—Tiejun and his aunt—and hit up a local Mahjong parlor.

I opened the door and my eyes stung; the room was inundated with cigarette smoke, as about twenty chain-smoking men and women clinked tiles together and yelled out their winning hands.

Then, through the haze, I saw him. My nemesis. My rival. A fifty-year old bespectacled chain-smoking coal-miner wearing a blue Mao cap and a leather jacket inexplicably accessorized with woolen sleeves. His face darkened from years of sun and coal soot. He laughed as we entered, and I saw a glimmer in his mouth from a gold tooth.

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I sat down at his table with my crew and he gave me a stare. While to everyone else, he was merely expressing curiosity, we locked eye contact, and in that moment we both knew: he wanted my (almost negligible amount of) money.

“Where you from?” he asked nicely as he lit up another cigarette and blew the smoke in my face.

“America,” I choked. I leaned backwards but jumped back upright immediately; the center of the room was taken up by a massive coal-burning furnace that kept the room slightly above freezing, and I had burned my hand on the stovepipe.

“Well, then, American friend,” he laughed, “Let’s hit it.”

The next three hours were a secondhand smoke-fueled gambling binge that began on an inauspicious note. In the first game, I had maneuvered myself into a position where I was one tile away from winning when my nemesis grabbed a tile I discarded, and revealed his hand. He had won, and not only had I lost, I had to pay him double because he used my tile to complete his hand. I forked over two dirty one-kuai notes as crumpled as my broken ambitions. More than the money—it was only about thirty cents in American money—my pride was at stake. I wanted to show I could throw down tiles with the best of ‘em, or at least with this random man I met at this tiny mahjong parlor. I took a sip of the weak flower tea the lady who ran the parlor had poured for me and vowed to renew my focus.

The second game moved quickly. I had been dealt a bad hand but had some lucky draws early. By this time, a posse of squat women with an average age of seventy had coalesced behind me, squinting at my hand through the smoke and muttering after every tile I played. After picking up a tile and throwing one of my own back in, there was much hubbub behind me. “That was a good move,” they agreed, bobbing their heads up and down. “The kid can play.” Super-cool as always, I made no response, but I saw a glint in my rival’s eye that was either chilling fear or complete amused indifference. I chose to believe the former.

Then, at last! Someone threw down a five-dot tile, and I slid it in between my four- and six-dot tiles. “Mahjong!” I declared, and my squat lady cheer squad erupted. The other players laughed as they fished out change and threw it haphazardly across the table. “Yes, yes!” I cried, grabbing the bills and taking in the dirty crumpled visage of Mao Zedong on the front. “Chairman Mao likes it over here!”

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At the end of the night, I stepped out of the thick haze of the mahjong parlor and into the thick haze of the Shanxi night air. My haul? Four kuai, almost seventy-five cents, enough to buy a bowl of noodles from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that uses gutter oil to cook their food.

Before I left, I shook hands with my nemesis, who had since become my friend. His hands were rough like leather and his fingernails were yellow, thick, and probably sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments in a pinch. I knew that if I had accomplished great things tonight, it was only because he had pushed me to become greater than I ever could have imagined.

2 14 14

Comedy, Face, and Money


Comedy, human relationships, and money are all tied together in one confusing knot when it comes to being a performer in a traditional Chinese art form. Besides the obvious things that influence a performer’s career—their skills, the scripts they know and can perform—there are valuable human connections and a certain type of business wiles that separate those who can perform well from those who make a living by performing well.

Tonight I hit a tangle and sorted through it as best I can. I think it would be fun to write a bit of a “choose your own adventure” about this tangle involving money, comedy shows, and the traditional Chinese Master-Student cultural system. Read the scenario, and think of what you would do!

You receive a call from a comedy show director in Tianjin inviting you to do a Xiangsheng show on the 15th. In actuality, you have already been asked by your Xiangsheng master to perform at this same show, and so you ask to clarify if this is truly the same show or not. When the director hears this, they backpedal, saying they had assumed you were not related to that master, and say that they don’t think your master will be coming, and that they would like to book you separately, and pushes you to provide your rates. They ask you not to speak to your master about the show.

To do a Xiangsheng, show, you need a partner. You know that your Master is the best choice for a partner. There are others that could do the job as well, all students of your master.

Your goal is to get stage time, regardless of who gets paid or how much, without damaging your relationship with your master. What is the way to best deal with this situation?

Do you:

A)            Provide a rate, knowing if your master isn’t doing the show one of his students can accompany you, and you will find your way onstage.

B)            Insist on speaking first with your Master, knowing he might get angry that they have skipped him to get to you after finding out that you are his disciple.

C)            Tell the director that you will only perform with your Master, risking that they have already told you he is not coming and can no longer confirm what was likely a tentative booking now due to the risk of losing face.

D)            Offer an alternative quote for a Chinese-language stand-up show, where you have no Master and can rightfully act as your own agent.

There may be no clear answer, but the answer I chose is: C.

Master-student relationships are at the heart of traditional Xiangsheng, and collisions with the free-market economy of acting are common. Navigating these collisions is a delicate cultural dance, one often executed with money, stage time, and prestige on the line—and with the immediate pressure of a telephone call in your second language from someone who has lots to gain from your lack of understanding.

Let’s look through the cultural reasoning behind each of the responses:

A)  Provide a rate, knowing if your master isn’t doing the show one of his students can accompany you, and you will find your way onstage.

Providing a rate of my own guarantees that if I do the show, I will make money. If my master deals with the event booker, then he makes money, and, as my master, is under no obligation to give any of this money to me. I recall his words after one show earlier this year when he handed out a few hundred kuai to some other students of his and I after a show. Chinese culture dictates that we make a show of refusing the money, but he was firm and strangely serious in informing us, “When I give you money, take it. When I don’t, don’t ask for it.”

            The event planner probably thought that asking me for a quote would lead to a cheaper show than asking my master, an established actor who knows the price of his services from decades of shows. If for some reason I gave a price higher than my master’s, they would simply go to him instead. Also, they know that my master might take the money from the show and so if only market forces are involved, they are giving me an “out” to make my own money and have plausible deniability when speaking with my master: “Oh, they asked me for a price, so I gave them one! Sorry!”

            The problem with A) is that plausible deniability is the sort of lousy weasling that the whole master-disciple system is supposed to prevent. The bond is one of trust, of real trust—trust that places the strength of the relationship over a few thousand kuai from a show. I couldn’t choose A, because it would risk damaging my relationship with my Master to undercut him on the job, whether I could claim it to be beyond my understanding of the situation or not. And if I undercut my master on price, I couldn’t then turn to one of his students for a new partner—after all, those students should be working through him to book gigs anyways.

            B) Insist on speaking first with your Master, knowing he might get angry that they have skipped him to get to you after finding out that you are his disciple.

            This option doesn’t seem bad, though it does require the firmness of will to refuse the director’s direct requests to 1) Give a quote right now and 2) not talk to your master about the show. It is a pretty safe option—after all, I can hardly be blamed that someone heard of me and contacted me to do the show outside of his suggestion—but it also has some prickly issues involved.

Consider that the caller told me they said that Master Ding wouldn’t be invited, and that they would rather deal with me personally and book me alone. To invite someone to a show, allow negotiations on specifics to “falter” and then to go behind their back to hire their disciple would be very low tactics indeed. It might be so low that my master would simply refuse to do the show one way or another (costing me the chance to perform) or to give me his strong professional advice to ignore such directors. That’s the sort of “strong professional advice” that could lead to fallings-out if ignored. It’s probably the best-case scenario for him to not realize the underhanded means that the directors tried to use, in hopes of not upsetting future negotiations for either side.

            C) Tell the director that you will only perform with your Master, risking that they have already told you he is not coming and can no longer confirm what was likely a tentative booking now due to the risk of losing face.

            This choice holds the maximum chance for maintaining good relationships with the master, though it also puts the director in a very uncomfortable spot. By refusing the “make your own money” option and siding strongly with the master, my allegiance is clear. The director will be in permanent doubt as to how much, if anything at all, about our conversation I have shared with Master Ding. What if I told Master Ding about how the director said he was not invited, and the temporary ruse designed to save a few bucks creates a massive loss of face for the director and event planner? After this, they might now need to un-invite Master Ding regardless of whether they were planning to before, or else risk that at any time I could reveal that he was disrespected in the process.

            The other issue with this choice is money. As our negotiations wore on and my cultural shielding of myself from this situation was battered by repeated requests for prices and names of my other performance partners, the director eventually expressed clearly that they had a tight budget for the show and might not be able to afford Master Ding’s price (whatever it is—I have no idea, actually). They wanted me to give them a discount, knowing that I would make the money, and we both win at the expense of Master Ding. Having rejected this offer, I would then put them in a situation where if the price really was too much, then I lose out on the valuable stage time and the money I would have made from being my own agent.

            D)  Offer an alternative quote for a Chinese-language stand-up show, where you have no Master and can rightfully act as your own agent.

            I had been recommended to this show originally by someone in the Beijing Standup Club, a Chinese-language group I have been doing western-style Chinese-language standup with for the past six months. Because of the nature of standup as a one-man show, there was no way I could refer them to my Xiangsheng master for booking information and pass the responsibility off. Therefore, I was asked repeatedly whether I would instead of Xiangsheng perform stand-up, and set my price.

The issues here are several. First, in this situation Master Ding would fully recognize I should serve as my own agent, and if he hadn’t been invited to the show first, then he would likely support my doing so. But as he had been invited at some point and asked me to go along with him, my commitment to the show was now tied with his name as well. If I did the show, it had to be with him, or else he loses face from being cut out of the loop.

There is a second issue here as well. The directors were clearly eager to save a buck, perhaps to the point of hiring me to do standup at a show that was specifically for Xiangsheng. The mixing of the art forms of Xiangsheng and standup is an extremely touchy point for my Master, as he is passing down the art form that he learned from his master and that has been his whole life for the last fifty-plus years. He supports my standup and the process behind it, but anytime in rehearsals I do something too “standuppy”—pacing onstage, mumbling for comic effect, failing to connect with the other performer onstage—he reminds me that Xiangsheng is a special art unto itself, and IS. NOT. STANDUP.

While getting a solid standup gig for an audience of 1000 people at a legit theatre for good money would be a significant boost to my budding Chinese-language stand-up career, in these circumstances it would almost certainly cause a rift with my Xiangsheng master. That connection is worth more to me than the money or the stage-time from this show.

Comedy is innately human onstage, and it is composed and organized by human beings offstage. Being funny and hated means unemployment as a comic here; being connected and supported through the master-student relationship means having the chance to grow slowly but steadily, even though bigger prizes might go by the wayside.

Tomorrow I am going to get a chance to discuss this with Master Ding at a big dinner party we are having for my Master and all of his disciples. I will update the blog on how this show goes; hopefully, my master and I will be onstage in Tianjin in one week! 

A Joke (Not Really) About Ambassador Locke


Wang Zijian is a popular comedian whose “Post-80’s Generation Talk Show” program is one of the closest things that there is to a stand-up comedy show on Chinese television. Many Chinese will bring up Wang Zijian and his show when I mention I do Chinese-language western-style stand-up, and I oftentimes watch this show to see what stand-up might look like in Chinese.

My feelings for the show are mixed. On one hand, I think it’s great that something like stand-up is growing and getting a major TV spot on a network like Dongfang Weishi—Shanghai’s main TV station. On the other hand, the routines—especially the setups—sometimes strike me as overlong, a result of a beleaguered writing crew tasked with producing 45 minutes of stand-up a week. The routines manage to go farther into interesting topics than I expect, though they also clearly stop short of anything that would count as daring by Western standards, but by Chinese standards, it represents a push against what traditionally is seen on TV.

I also pay close attention to any jokes on the show that have to do with Americans or foreigners in general. We’ll skip Mr. Wang’s nickname for his show’s black DJ (Xiao Hei 小黑 or “Blackie”) as an example of one of those “considered-fine-here-but-wouldn’t-go-over-well-in-the-US” things, and instead go right onto the first joke of the night, found at 1:10.

The first thing I want to share with everyone today is about the former US Ambassador to China, Luo Jiahui (Gary Locke). He’s resigned, headed back to America. A lot of people have interviewed him, asking why he quit, and he responded, “Well, I (coughing) was going to back to tutor (coughing fit) my son to get him into Coh-College.”

A lot of people in the media said he wasn’t sincere. If it’s your son going back to college, why do you need to go back with him and help him pick schools? Is that worth giving up such an important job as being the Ambassador to China? Isn’t that a bit insincere? Well, what do you want people to say? He said (coughing)… it’s clear, isn’t it? Can he really say it’s because of the smog?

The smog in Beijing has been a frequent target of jokes here—it’s a bit hack. At this point, actually, to simply make a pollution joke without bringing something new to the mix is a formula for a tired joke.

Wang Zijian goes on to joke about an expert who attributed Beijing’s pollution to too many people cooking at once. He muses on how to fix this problem—perhaps people should only be allowed to cook every other day, referencing Beijing’s automobile restrictions that allow people to drive their car only every other day.

Wang Zijian won’t be making tirades against specific officials, policies, or pollutant spills—that wouldn’t make it on television—but he doesn’t have to. By making fun of the lone “expert” who blames the pollution on cooking, he satirizes someone whose analysis is so far away from the sensitive areas of the issues that it implies clearly, “don’t let people pull the wool over your eyes.”

In doing so, he relies on the audience to realize what’s going on. He lets the audience see themselves as smart, as those un-fooled by those who would blame pollution on cooking. When it comes to sensitive issues, right now the comedian pokes one area to imply a second area he is not poking—look at Guo Degang’s omelet joke—which means that in the end, the audience didn’t hear anything sensitive because the comedian didn’t say anything sensitive, and nobody says anything about these subtextual exclusions. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

I often find that in Chinese culture, the truer something is, the less you can talk openly about it. People waiting for a Chinese comedian who looks like George Carlin might be waiting a while. But a Chinese comedian who addresses similarly complicated issues utilizing subtext might not be as far away as people may think.