Identity and Censorship: A Life of Doing Standup in China

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A lot of us talk about giving up our day jobs and pursuing that dream of ours full time. Most of the time it never progresses beyond the “talk” phase. As hard as it might be for an American to take that leap, our country has a history of people who have done just that for the sake of comedy. China is different. Jeff Shi (aka Shilaoban) is one of mainstays in the growing Beijing standup scene. The 27-year-old Chinese comedian surprised everyone when he actually quit his job in finance and began to pursue comedy full time. He took some time out of his schedule to talk about the growing standup scene in China and his place in it.

When did you start doing comedy?

I did a little comedy in high school. I knew of Joe Wong because he is viral in China. And while there was comedy in England, I didn’t get into it. After I returned to China I realized there were English open mics every Thursday and I went and told some jokes. That was three years ago.

So are you more into the English or Chinese standup scene? Or do you do both equally?

I mainly do Chinese.

Did that start up the same time as your English standup?

It started one year after I started doing it in English. They had Chinese standup in Shanghai and Shenzhen already. And I thought this was something I could really dig into. In English the language barrier is there – it’s a big limitation for my jokes. So I put most of my efforts towards Chinese standup.

What kind of people does standup attract there?

It attracts all sorts of people. There are some who understand what standup is. Russell Peters and Louis C.K. are quite famous in China. Joe Wong is also very popular here. Also people with American backgrounds who have seen sitcoms. English teachers are good at doing it because they stand in front of students and make jokes.

What would you say your style is like?

In English or Chinese? Because they are very different.

Both.

For English I want to play with words. I like logic and structure. I work very carefully on working out what goes first. I make a lot of references as a Chinese person. My thing is that I am a Chinese person and I perform to foreigners who live in China. So I have a very clear identity. Like, there are some jokes I tell that only work for the people who live in Beijing. I use a lot of stereotypes. But only the English speakers who also speak Chinese can understand those jokes. So when I go on stage I have the whole package ready. I don’t need to build my identity.

For the Chinese audience I don’t have an accent or different face in their eyes. So even though I have more material I still can’t find a very direct way to deliver it.

So you are still trying to find your voice in Chinese standup?

Exactly. For example I have a white face with a little bit of red, that’s my thing. Or, “I’m a little fat but not super fat,” so that’s kind of my thing. “I’m single for a long time.” So I’m still finding out which point they will understand.

Speaking of which, we are living in one of the most censored countries. Have you personally, or the club you are part of, ever run into any censorship issues?

Oh yes, of course. There was a whole series of shows that was banned because one joke was heard by, I don’t know, some censor from the government. But the joke was totally harmless. The thing is they never have a standard, like which line you can not cross. If they think you are not right, and then they can just ban you. Another time we were supposed to have an open mic and a couple of officials from the Cultural Bureau [Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture] said “OK you can have shows here, but we are going to censor you for the whole thing. If you guys are OK, then that will be OK. But if something happens we have to report it.” So we decided not to do the show.

But I actually think there will be no problems if we have shows in bars and small clubs.

So they care about the big venues.

Yes. In China if you have big shows you have to get them registered and you have to get your scripts reported to the government. I also think that sometimes you have to record every joke on camera, and send that in as well if you go to Gongti or something. So I think if we went bigger, 80 percent of our material could not be used.

What kind of audience do you have for Chinese standup? It’s very new here.

So I think most of the audience is judgmental.

What do you mean by that?

I think they come to check it out. Like “OK, what are you guys doing onstage? You’re telling jokes? OK, entertain me.” Something like that. You don’t have a bond with audience, you don’t have a relationship. So they are quite judgmental. They are judging if your whole form and you are funny or not. That is the hardest part. So there are some Chinese people who go to Peking opera they are allowed to say what they think because they know the rules of Peking Opera. They know the rules to enjoy a play. But they don’t know how to enjoy standup because it never existed here.

What are they judging? What do you think they are looking for?

I don’t know. They are looking for something funny, but they aren’t ready for that. Do you know what I mean?

You mean to accept that there are more points of view that are funny and no one specific “right” kind of joke?

Exactly. I think they reject first. They might think it’s funny but they won’t laugh, they’ll just think it’s good. They don’t laugh, they applaud when they think it is a good comedian. They are not ready to laugh.

Do you think the popular Chinese crosstalk influence, where student basically follows master, interferes with standup? Especially for the Chinese comedian just starting out? Particularly when it comes to joke borrowing.

Yes, the Chinese comics don’t take it for granted. I find that when comedians are doing jokes from the internet or another comic’s jokes they say they are acting. So they are not themselves. In their mind they are “telling a joke” they are “joke-tellers” so it is OK. They are passing on the jokes.

In crosstalk there is a fourth wall, you can’t interact with the audience and they can’t influence the comedian. But I think half of your leg has to cross over. You have to have some relationship with the audience. You have to make eye contact. You have to get bonded to see how ready they are for your jokes. And that can only be done as a comedian, not a joke-teller. You have to make friends with your audience.

So you quit your job in the financial district in order to pursue comedy full-time. How did your family react to that?

My family doesn’t know that. Even if you put that in this interview they won’t know.

So I can still put it in?

Yes! My mom’s friend did an interview of me for a Chinese magazine and then my mom took a picture of the article and sent it to me. And she still didn’t realize that I quit my job.

They still think you’re working at your finance job?

Yes. This month I think they might know, because their tone changed. In the past they used to say, ‘Oh you can’t do that.” But when I performed in Shanghai they were very supportive. Even if they don’t understand, I feel that their attitudes are changing, even my dad. My father’s younger brother recently died of cancer. He was a businessman, and very successful. But he ended up dying before 50. And I think this changed something in my father’s mind, made him question what was valuable in life. My father told me two months ago to “If you found something you really like, go for it.”

What about your friends?

They’re very supportive. All of them have come to at least one of my shows. Sometimes they buy me food. I think it’s a transfer of emotions. They have the desire to be independent and chase their dreams but they didn’t do it because of “blah blah blah” reasons. But they see me do it –

And you inspire them!

Yes, they see me and think “there is a guy taking a step forward.” All my friends have been supportive.

What are you doing now to earn money?

I don’t have many ways to do that. Well, I write some jokes for TV programs and sitcoms and I have some income from performing but it’s very little.

Did you hear about SNL coming to China?

I wouldn’t be on, that would be tricky. It’s a big project. They have had amazing writers working for 40 years to make it big. So even though we bought the rights of SNL we wouldn’t make it in an instant. Everyone has the same feeling. If we had all of our strongest writers working together it wouldn’t be as good.

So you are still looking for a consistent job that will help you pay rent?

Yes.

Do you have a plan?

For the next year I want to work on my comedy, fill a theater, get good recordings and get assignments. I want a solid 45 minutes to show agents and show people what I can do. In the future I want to write for the best projects and stars. Hopefully I can be the head writer of SNL China.

What about China’s entertainment industry? Do you think it is ready for your comedic sensibility? Or do you feel that you’re ahead of them and want to raise it to another level?

Yes. I feel like comedy in China is like a desert. For example films here might sell millions of tickets, but the comedy is so bad. It’s slapstick or sometimes offensive to the disabled. Very easy jokes about gay people. It’s uneducated and makes lowbrow observations.

Final question: are you happy?

I’m happy. Very happy. Sometimes it can be painful – because of money, because of loneliness, because I have to make all these decisions about which program I follow or reject. I have to make decisions like this every day. And that can be a very dreary experience. But pain, like happiness, has many different levels. I want to have a higher level of happiness and to do that I have to take the risks and the pain that might bring. My pain isn’t from my boss yelling at me or pushing shit on me. Now it’s trying to get a joke to work.

Jeff Shi currently lives and works in Beijing. You can follow him on twitter @shilaoban.