Going Viral in Beijing and Other Adventures of an Aspiring American Comedian in China

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You’re about to graduate from college. You don’t know what you want to “do with your life,” but you know you want to “do” comedy. So what do you do? Most folks in their early 20’s would probably hop the nearest train to New York, Chicago, or LA, enroll in UCB or Second City, and hope for the best. Unless you’re Brandeis University senior Jesse Appell. Because if you’re Jesse Appell, you apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study the ancient art of xiangsheng in its birthplace of Beijing, China. Once there, you make a modestly viral parody of Gangnam Style in fluent Mandarin that garners you the kind of television gigs your American peers will likely wait years to even have the chance to achieve. And now, you’ve set your sites on creating a new genre of cross-cultural comedy for China. All before you turn 25. It’s enough to make this writer stop and say “My life…”

Dramatics and personal regrets of said writer aside, Appell has truly taken an unconventional – and, in our opinion, impressive - approach to pursuing a career in comedy. Looking to bridge his academic and professional interests in China with his personal passion for comedy, he applied for a Fulbright to study Chinese humor, specifically xiangsheng. Xiangsheng, roughly translates as “cross talk,” is a traditional form of stand-up comedy in China that most easily compares to “Who’s on First” routines of Abbott and Costello. Except it’s actually pretty different, but we’ll get to that in a minute. To learn this ancient art form, Jesse Appell apprenticed himself to master comedian, Ding Guangquan. Ding Laoshi (Teacher Ding) has made a career out of teaching foreigners xiangsheng, particularly of note Canadian Mark Henry Roswell who in the 1990s achieved superstar status in China as Da Shan. Having already made multiple television appearances less than a year into his project, Appell may be on track to his own form of stardom in the People’s Republic.

After finding some of my previous work on cross-cultural humor, Jesse actually reached out to me to swap stories. Here’s a little insight into his.

I’m curious how you came up with the idea for this project.

JA: It took place in little chunks. Originally, I studied abroad in China. I had always used humor to communicate, so initially it was very hard coming to China with very bad Chinese. If you say something wrong, people there assume you are just saying it wrong, not that you might be joking or trying to play with the language. So, that was frustrating. Over time, I found that even though the whole language humor was lost on me, being a humorous person was still being a humorous person. People started to tell me [in Chinese], “You’re very humorous.”

I studied in Beijing for six months, and in my last week there I discovered Improv Beijing. It started in 2006, but by the time I found it there was this whole community of improvisers. Finding it my last week there made me super sad. I had done improv all through high school and college. It was a part of my life that I thought I couldn’t do in China – then I found out I could have been doing it all along.

So what was your next step after that discovery?

JA: I came back the next summer for an internship, and one of my big plans was to do a lot of improv. The great thing about Improv Beijing is every Wednesday night they have open workshops. They’re not only open to interested foreigners, but they’re also bilingual. You have 40 to 50 people coming out to learn improv. So I started thinking, about the difference between the way Westerners and Chinese improvise. I thought I could distill some pretty interesting cultural information out of these differences.

Was this when the idea to apply for a Fulbright came into play? How did you end up studying xiangsheng?

JA: At that point I was thinking I wanted to apply to do a Fulbright on Chinese comedy– which was pretty vague. In my preparation to apply, I got in touch with David Moser, a professor in Beijing from the United States who has spent the last 25 years in China. Twenty years ago he had studied xiangsheng with a xiangsheng master. So I approached him and said, “You know I’m thinking about doing this Chinese comedy thing, maybe on the differences among improv troupes.” He advised me not to apply to study improv because it was still too new, and also a Western art form. Instead he said, “If you want to learn Chinese humor, you should really learn xiangsheng. And while you are here, you can do improv on the side.”

So what the heck is xiangsheng? We actually tried to answer that question for ourselves once before in the inaugural post of this Comedy Tourism series. Thanks to Jesse, we were able to connect with Professor David Moser. Professor Moser is a preeminent English-speaking scholar on xiangsheng, who wrote his master thesis on the storied art form and has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years. He was kind enough to chime in on the topics.

Professor Moser, at the risk of asking the broadest question of all time, can you give us the abridged history of xiangsheng?

DM: Though there are scattered examples of humorous dialogues of various types dating back as far as the Tang Dynasty, basically xiangsheng as an art form has a direct lineage back to the late Qing Dynasty. When the Xianfeng emperor died in 1861, there was a 100-day period of official mourning during which time actors, Peking Opera performers, and singers were unable to earn their livelihood. To survive, they basically took their art forms to the streets and back alleys, presenting improvised, ad hoc street theater performances, and passing the hat at the end.

One Peking Opera performer known by the nickname “Qiong Bupa” (“Not-afraid-of-poverty”) developed a way of attracting an audience that involved sprinkling white sand through his fingers to “paint” Chinese calligraphy on the ground made of the white sand. He would first draw a circle around himself to define a performance space and then begin writing characters and making jokes. When enough people had assembled he would begin a performance in earnest, usually involving wordplay and Chinese character jokes. Other performers began to copy this basic technique, attracting outside audiences in what they called “pingdi chayuan”, or, “bare ground tea gardens.”

After the 100-day mourning ceased, many performers had already discovered a lucrative way of making money like this on the street, gradually evolving into a two-person dialogue performance, featuring irreverent or even raunchy humor. It is said that when a woman approached the performance, the two actors would bow politely to her and say, “Please go out of this area outside of earshot; What we’re saying here is not fit for human consumption!”

In the early part of the 20th century, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, xiangsheng became a staple of the teahouses, as part of the range of oral performing arts that included storytelling, folk songs performed with drums, and “clapper tales,” which were tales told in rhyming couplets very much like rap music.  As teahouses became less popular and less the center of social life, xiangsheng became an official part of Communist Party singing and dancing troupes, and became a staple of radio.

So Jesse, how did you actually go about learning xiangsheng?

JA: I was familiar with xiangsheng, but I didn’t have that “in.” Professor Moser got me in touch with his old xiangsheng master, Ding Laoshi. So I went to one of the master’s classes. They hold this kind of open, but not open, rehearsal on Saturdays, where the master trains the students that he takes in. It’s open because they’re not going to turn anyone away, but it’s not open because they don’t really tell anyone about it. You need to know it is happening. They don’t advertise it.

So I went to this class and told the master I was applying for this scholarship. I asked if he would teach me should I get the scholarship. He agreed.

What do you think gave you the edge to get the Fulbright?

JA: All that was left was my application where I said I was planning to study this 200-year-old art form of traditional stand-up comedy, and I already had this master who would train me. Not only was I going to study it, but also I planned to actually perform it. It was kind of interesting because most academics probably wouldn’t want to get on stage and actually perform this art. For me, it was super natural; it was exactly what I would do anyway. They only way I could learn it was to perform it.

A couple of essays and letters of recommendations later, and nine months of waiting, I found out I would have the chance to do just that.

So how long will you be studying in Beijing total?

JA: I started in September [2012]. The Fulbright is run through the State Department, which gives out another scholarship for four months of language study. I received this, so I first studied at Tsinghua University from September through January. Since January, I’ve focused full time on xiangsheng. The Fulbright lasts 10 months, but I will be here 14 months total.

Mandarin is a tough language to master. How fluent were you prior to those four months?

JA: It’s hard to describe how fluent you are, I was fluent to the point where I didn’t stutter. Could I really get into the cool details of all the puns? Sometimes, but usually not. You could say I was linguistically fluent, but not culturally fluent.

I feel like I’ve improved since September because of doing xiangsheng. At the program I did, they let you have what they called “material classes,” where you bring in your own stuff and practice that. I brought in xiangsheng scripts. We would stand up and do these routines with each other. I would practice over and over whatever my master had assigned me to learn that week.

Honestly, I’m still trying to find a way to get as much pure practice with xiangsheng as when I was there.

Isn’t xiangsheng done traditionally as a duo? Do you have a partner?

JA: I don’t have a only one steady performance partner. Students come in waves. My master has taken in four or five students like me. So we come every Saturday to these rehearsals and then meet outside of rehearsal to practice for shows. When it comes to actual performances, our master will say we are going on “X” TV show and then assign two of us to practice together. For that performance, that’s my partner.

I wanted to ask you about performances. When you say you go on TV, is that because your teacher has lots of connections?

JA: My teacher is kind of a TV star. You know, Da Shan, the Canadian guy? He became famous because he studied xiangsheng and did it on the New Years program in 1990. That was before anyone knew foreigners could speak Chinese at all. It was crazy to see a white guy doing xiangsheng. Ding Laoshi was Da Shan’s master. So he’s “the guy” who brings foreigners on TV to do xiangsheng. It’s great for me because not only does he have twenty years of experience teaching foreigners xiangsheng, he also has all these connections specifically related to getting foreigners on TV and onstage in Beijing.

Is he pretty well known in China?

JA: A lot of times people have heard of him regardless of Da Shan because he’s a famous xiangsheng performer in his own right. It’s really cool because we get all these opportunities. He works hard at progressing his students and teaching us everything. When we perform somewhere, he introduces us to the head of TV stations. He will take us aside and say, “If you ever want to perform here again you should tell him because in [for example] Shandong they don’t have as many foreigners. So if you want to do stuff here, you have a better chance of getting on than in Beijing.”

So do you write any of your own xiangsheng material, or is everything given to you?

JA: Writing xiangsheng is really hard – like really, really hard. During the Cultural Revolution, a lot of stuff from the old society was destroyed, but xiangsheng was easily adaptable. There was this famous author, Lao She, who was very well known. He wrote a series of articles about how xiangsheng was very difficult to write and why he thought it was the hardest thing to write in the Chinese language. People thought “Oh this is difficult, but a very worthwhile thing because through the struggle it will help people learn about the revolution, etc.”

Professor Moser, have you noticed any American/Western influences on crosstalk in the recent years?

DM: Not much. Performers occasionally steal western jokes from the Internet now. Western themes, memes, and songs creep into xiangsheng performances. But essentially the format and style have not changed too much. A few performers have emerged who seem to emulate a more western standup style, but the resemblance is superficial. The performer-audience dynamic remains very Chinese, actually.

Jesse, if you were going to break off on your own, would you still then use prewritten scripts?

JA: One of the things I’m looking at possibly doing is exploring Chinese and foreigners creating content together. It’s not impossible for me to write. If I were to write a piece on my own, though, there are probably some parts I could get better than others. But then there are parts where you break into these monologues or make references to ancient history. I haven’t spent enough time here to write those, my background isn’t rich enough. There are some people in my troupe that have been studying for five or six years. Some of them will write their own xiangsheng pieces and also kuaibanr [pronounced kwai-bar].

What’s kuaibanr?

JA: It’s this thing where you have these two pieces of bamboo and you kind of make a beat with it. Then you basically do a rap over that. Ding Laoshi knows kuaibanr. How you speak and the storytelling technique is similar, but not the same as xiangsheng, you just add these “clappers.”

A lot of the students, who have studied for five years by now, are doing kuaibanr as well. It’s so ridiculously difficult. There’s some styles where you need to match or invert tones, or certain styles of kuaibanr where you need to have seven words in a sentence the whole time.

What would you say is your endgame for your time in Beijing?

JA: Right now I’ve been doing xiangsheng, but also doing bilingual improv, and Chinese-language, American-style standup comedy.

How does the standup go over?

JA: It goes over well. Standup comedy is starting to get here. They have this thing called “Talk Show,” which is kind of like standup. Imagine the opening sequence of The Tonight Show. In Talk Show, it’s like you have a guy who’s a TV host, he has a host-like demeanor, and you’re watching a host do an intro. Except that’s the whole thing.

Generally American-style standup goes over well. If you have a joke that’s funny to Chinese people they’ll laugh at it regardless of the overarching style it’s delivered in.

Where do you perform? Are there Open Mic nights?

JA: There are. They also have a small series of TV shows that do Talk Show. I’ve been thinking about honing down a five-minute piece in Chinese. It sounds silly, but China is so starved for foreigners on TV that they’re happy to have foreigners that don’t even speak Chinese.

Why do you think that is?

JA: There are a lot of reasons; I could go on forever. When I made that Laowai Style video, it went huge in China. It has a million and a half views on Youku. That gave me the chance to perform live on all these TV shows. I saw the other types of performances that go on there, and met the people who choose what goes on the shows.

What’s it like for a foreigner on Chinese television?

JA: Television producers here are very copy-catty. They all copy each other. One person will come up with a dating show and then every other channel has a dating show. One show has a foreigner contestant and so every other TV show has a foreigner contestant. You wind up having the cycle of Chinese producers asking how foreigners can be used on Chinese TV, and then thinking “Oh, exactly how all the other shows are using them.” No one ever does anything new.

The people with the best Chinese, who have lived here for a long time, don’t want to go on TV because it’s going to take up a day of their time and it’s going to be silly. The TV producers are left going to schools like Tsinghua, Beida, and Beijing Language and Culture University. They’ll literally pull foreign-looking people off the street, saying, “How would you like to be on TV?” These foreigners do one show, and then don’t come back.

In this scenario no producer is ever going to invest the energy into making an interesting thing for a foreigner to do.

How do you see yourself fitting into this current system?

JA: Working into your question about what I want to do after the Fulbright, one thing I’ve been considering is getting foreigners who have really good Chinese together with Chinese people to make bilingual content. We could have a sketch troupe or a TV show — whatever it winds up being. This troupe of foreigners speaking really good Chinese, talking about topics interesting or important to Chinese people. It could look completely different and very fresh compared to what’s out there right now.

And then that will get on TV and everyone will copy that.

JA: The thing is it would be really hard to copy. You can’t just drag foreigners, like the ones who do xiangsheng, out of nowhere. That said, even if it does get copied, that would be an awesome way to spend my time. Suddenly, this copycat system is showing foreigners in a better light on TV, showing that there are foreigners working hard to figure this thing out and work with China. As far as being copied, that would be excellent.

Do you see yourself staying in Beijing to pursue this new form of comedy?

JA: I think I will go home for at least a month because Fulbright gives me a plane ticket back. A really important part of what I’m doing is getting this information back to the West, back to America. It’s not so much about telling the Chinese people about their own comedy. The important thing is you can teach other people about China through comedy.

Yeah. I’ve definitely found you can learn so much about a culture through humor. Finding out what other countries find funny can tell you so much about what goes on there.

JA: Exactly. I feel like in the long term, I would love to be in a position where I’m living between China and America. For now, after a month or so in America, I will probably come back to China. Right now I’ve been volunteering at a high school here teaching improv.

Are Chinese parents receptive to their kids learning theater?

JA: Yeah, that’s true. The way you get around this is in China people say, “Of course arts are important, but our kids shouldn’t spend time studying it in school when they could be studying math and science.” I realized I’m learning Chinese through theater—– so maybe they can learn English through theater. Doing English-language improv as a non-speaker is pretty much the greatest thing that could happen to your English.

So you’re teaching improv at a Chinese high school to teach them English?

JA: Yeah, isn’t that weird? It’s great because these students love it. It’s still new, so it’s tough to say how much their English has improved. But I think it has to be better than just writing it on the blackboard. I’m telling them to get up and do a scene. I give them a location, I give them an inspiration, instruction to just go up and talk.

Imagine if you designed an English curriculum around improv where you spent one hour in the classroom teaching vocabulary and concepts, and then you say “Alright everybody get up, we’re going to use these words now, let’s do a scene.” The students have to use these words; they have to find a way to come into them.

Do you teach short form improv or long form?

JA: For now, I’m just trying to get them to do warm-ups. Starting with some very short short-form stuff.

What about at Beijing Improv? What do you guys primarily perform?

JA: Beijing Improv has kind of exploded in the past two years. It used to be there were only two troupes: one bilingual, one English. Now there’s one English, two bilingual, two full Chinese, and an all-women’s workshop called All Nü [Sounds like “new,” and is also the word for female]. That’s the punniest name. I’m in one of the bilingual troupes and we do short form, but we also have been starting to do a bit of long form musical. Main stage players generally do short form. But people will occasionally collaborate on long form shows.

Where do these improv shows happen?

JA: It happens at a variety of places. There’s a theater called the Penghao Theater that hosts a lot of Beijing Improv shows. Also there are little performance areas and clubs in the Hutongs. Most venues are centered around the north second-ring road. We have a cafe kind of bar/cafe. The owner is friends with an improv team so there’s usually an improv troupe in his back room rehearsing every night of the week. It’s happening all over town, in different bars, and different nightclubs. The improv scene is big enough to be available, but it’s not so huge that there’s a troupe you don’t know about.

Professor Moser, what do you think surprises Americans the most about Chinese humor? What surprised you the most?

DM: I think what I was originally struck by was the corny, stagey style, as perceived by western standards. The relationship between performers and audience is so polite, civil, and even gentle. There’s no cursing, no vicious parody, and always a very formulaic, staid delivery. Our xiangsheng teacher tells us that Chinese humor can’t include hei (black humor), fen (pink humor, meaning a bit sexual), huang (yellow humor, meaning pornographic), or political humor. This has not even changed much through the 2000s till now. There’s hardly any such thing as “edginess” in xiangsheng humor.

I was also struck by how much the art form is considered as a craft, rather than a creative art. Having developed in a Chinese environment, there is an obsession, almost a fetish, with linguistic humor and wordplay involving dialects, puns, homonym characters, etc. There are all kinds of skills such as guankou (“talk strings”, enormous lists of items recited a break-tongue speed) and virtuoso verbal pyrotechnical displays, and the performers really work on these.

The art form is still basically passed on in disciple-student lineage, and students and teachers take the basic skills very seriously. Some of the humor techniques often strike us as obvious or overplayed, but there is great skill in what these people do. There are different cultural expectations from the audience. Many of the pieces really are absolutely hilarious, by any culture’s standards.

Jesse, if an American/English-speaker wanted to learn more about Chinese comedy in general, how do you recommend they do that or see xiangsheng?

JA: They should stop by my site www.laughbeijing.com. It’s been a goal of mine to put together a list of links online to places to learn about xiangsheng. As for watching Xiangsheng in the US, most colleges have Chinese student associations that will occasionally have Xiangsheng shows.

Since speaking with Splitsider, Jesse recently appeared with Professor Moser on the sinica podcast talking about Chinese comedy. He also went to Wuhan to talk at a TEDx conference there. You can follow Jesse’s Chinese comedy adventures on his website laughBeijing.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.