Beijing's best comedy and stand-up nights

We pick the city's best comedy nights for guaranteed laughs


The city's stand-up circuit has exploded of late, with a host of new acts and comedy nights tickling the capital's funny bone. We clowned around town in search of the best comedy nights.

Best for bilingual laughs

What Open-mic night
Where Giggle Bar (free)
Who Beijing Comedy Open Mic
When 8pm, first and third Thursdays of the month

Held in the appropriately named Giggle Bar, Beijing Comedy Open Mic’s twice-monthly chucklefests are open to all in the city. ‘Chinese and English performances are what we’re all about,’ says organiser Emma Lin. ‘In fact, we encourage performances in any language!’ The rules are simple: do a five-minute set and get free drinks all night.

The night we attended was ably hosted by Paul Creasy (pictured below), a slick Brit with jokes as dry as the Beijing air. Self-deprecating one-liners are his forte – ‘I’m Paul Creasey, and I’m sorry about that’ – as is the odd risqué quip (‘I think the real problem with Hitler…’) and jabs at student enclave Wudaokao, where he lives: he jokingly refers to it as Wudao-chou during the set – a pun on the Chinese word for ‘smelly’.

paul5

Of the several Chinese performers that were brave enough to stand up and perform in their second language, Jeff Shi was our favourite of the night. His unassuming, almost humble manner and innocent grin juxtaposed nicely with his racy material – sexual puns and peculiar Chinese curse words all got a seeing to from this baby-faced assassin.

But our favourite performer of the night was American David Fertitta; an up-and-comer, relatively new to the scene. His languid, confident delivery – himself stifling back laughter as he paints bizarre situations and reams off perfectly executed observational comedy – is great fun to watch. His diatribe on China’s lunar programme being sponsored by Yanjing beer, and how other companies could learn from this strange arrangement – ‘The next US invasion of the Middle East, sponsored by Coors Lite’ – was a joy. As was his observation, made at a different night, that although China might be behind other nations in some areas of technology – car production, space exploration and so forth – it is light-years ahead in what he calls ‘broom technology’.

Being an open-mic night, the dozen or so performers were of varying quality, but only a couple were so bad that they made us want to poke our eyes out with the tiny wooden sticks holding our club sandwich together. A frustrated first-timer yelling, ‘Do you understand? This is my joke!’ was a particular low point.

Still, the small but enthusiastic crowd laughed loudly throughout the night and encouraged those struggling on stage with big whoops and applause – the true spirit of an open-mic event. Giggle? By the end of the night we were full-on guffawing.

One to watch David Fertitta
Steal this ‘In America there are lots of superheroes – Batman, Spider-Man, Superman – but we have superheroes in Beijing, too! Just look at any map of the city, we have Dongzhimen, Chaoyangmen… And there’s a guy who destroys everything – Andingmen.’ – Jeff Shi.

hotcat

Best for edgy humour

What Open-mic night
Where Hot Cat Club (free)
Who PekingComedy (under the auspices of Comedy Club China)
When 9.30pm every Wednesday

Hot Cat is always buzzing on a Wednesday night. Several amateur performers frantically pace the tiny bar alone – cigarette in one hand, scribbled notes in the other – gearing themselves up for their nerve-wracking moment in the spotlight. Meanwhile, as if to exacerbate their tension, hordes of funny men and women pile into their seats straight from the Beijing Improv bilingual workshop that finishes up just before the open mic starts.

As a venue, Hot Cat is reminiscent of a comedy club in London or New York – a dark, grimy, low-ceilinged space with a tiny, intimate stage at the back. The acoustics are good, and the small, easy-to-fill room fosters a crackling atmosphere as the first performer walks on stage. And, if that’s not enough, the laughs are helped along with 25RMB draught Vedett and 20RMB Tiger.

Sadly, on our visit the event was marred by Ryan Ha, the night’s main compère, whose cracks about hitting on Chinese women were sexist, racist and – worse – not funny at all. Thankfully, the other acts got the balance of edginess and humour right. We didn’t know whether it was okay to laugh at Robert Iwatt’s joke, ‘I’m Obama black – half black, half white – so when I walk around in Sanlitun, I don’t know whether I should be buying or selling,’ but we did anyway. Briton Nigel Tu also moved the goalposts of taste and decency firmly into funny territory with his cheeky one-liners. ‘What does a Chinese rabbi do at a bris? Chops dicks,’ is one of the few jokes of his we could print without risking a lawsuit or jihad. And American Greg Hutton made us spit beer through our nose with his tale of a Beijing taxi driver serenading him with a Chinese version of the 19th-century US folk song ‘Oh! Susanna’.

Again, quality was varied; a few too many English teachers boasting about how much they love beer and are God’s gift to Chinese women but, on the whole, the jokes were on the comedians, not on us for attending.

One to watch Nigel Tu
Steal this ‘Two Guys and a Pie? Sounds like a porno.’ – Niko Martinez

comedy

Best for consistent chuckles

What Comedy showcase
Where Various venues (around 50RMB)
Who Comedy Club China
When Different venues around town; check www.comedyclubchina.com for next event

Comedy Club China puts on regular showcases with talented semi-professional comedians handpicked from various open-mic nights. Although founded by funnyman Calos Ottery, the group is now run by Toby Jarmin and his pals after something of a comedic coup.

Coup or no, Jarmin has been an integral part of the recent ascendancy of the still-nascent Beijing scene. ‘At Hot Cat Club [open-mic] we sometimes have over 20 comedians signing up,’ says the American comic. ‘When we were starting out a year and a half ago we were struggling to get five.’

The quality at the showcases is notably higher than any of the open-mics – no deluded wannabes here – and the wealth of talent makes the nominal entry fee (usually 50RMB) more than worth it. The show at the Hilton Beijing’s ritzy Zeta Bar (pictured), the most recent performance at the time of going to press, had a packed house in stitches with its roster of six stellar comedians.

Maria Thornton was a favourite, keeping the audience giggling with her Kristen Schaal-like kookiness and aloof delivery. She’s consistently funny, too – we’ve seen her out and about at a bunch of comedy nights of late, performing different material each time, with our favourite routine featuring an absurd graph that started with a film review and climaxed with Jude Law licking peanut butter off a swan’s neck.

But the star of the show was Jarmin and his 40-minute set – most of it based on his experience of having a gay father (his dad came out when he was 12). A lot of humour is found in recounting tales of playground taunts in Jarmin’s effervescent, oh-so-slightly camp manner: ‘“My dad is stronger than your dad,” they’d say. No way – my dad’s boyfriend is a personal trainer! “My dad’s richer than your dad.” No way – you should see my dad’s diamond-studded belt!’

We couldn’t help but ask, given the amount of material it’s provided, does he sometimes thank the comedy gods that his dad came out as gay? ‘Of course! I am definitely thankful for it. A lot people have the same topics, but mine are unique. I’m very happy to have a gay dad,’ says Jarmin with a mischievous smile.

Will the scene continue to grow? ‘I hope so. When we were starting out I was the one putting the chairs out – now people do it for me!’

One to watch Maria Thornton
Steal this [On indications that his dad might be gay] ‘His shoe closet looked like the basement at Yashow.’ – Toby Jarmin

bookworm

The very best of the best

What Comedy showcase
Where The Bookworm (100RMB)
Who The Humor Section
When Taking a break for the summer, will be back in mid-September (date tbc)

Irish-American comedian Des Bishop (pictured above) is in Beijing on a mission. Already a successful stand-up in Ireland (seriously; YouTube him) he’s living in the capital for a year as part of a documentary he’s making for Irish broadcaster RTE. The goal? To learn Chinese well enough to do a stand-up gig entirely in Mandarin. ‘It’s bigger than I thought it was going to be,’ says Bishop after the show, ‘that’s the challenging – but exciting – thing.‘

The humour is going to come from my experience of living here, as much as I can talk about Chinese culture without offending anyone. I think there will be a bit of trial and error.’

Indeed, on stage he tackles a few risqué topics but the jokes never miss the mark during a stunningly sharp performance – his ability to read the tolerance of the crowd is a testament to his professionalism. As he says himself, ‘I’m a comedian in China; if I can’t make fun of Chinese people, what the f**k else do I have?’

For now, he’s organising an English-language monthly comedy club, The Humor Section, at The Bookworm. As the compère he invites local stand-ups he admires, as well as a headliner of international pedigree – angry US comedian Jimmy Schubert had top billing at June’s gig.

But it was the local talent, as well as Bishop’s interludes, that provided the biggest laughs of the night. Li Jiayong, a Chinese comedian living in the US, provided some classic non-sequiturs on his Beijing debut. Straight-laced and deadpan, he machine-gunned through staccato one-liners, like: ‘Isn’t it funny that a microphone is bigger than a phone?’

Local comedian Tony Chao also impressed with his smoothly delivered set. An unassuming figure in a black traditional Chinese shirt, he confidently announced, ‘Like so many other products you value, I was made in China.’ He often makes himself, and his struggle to learn Western concepts, the butt of his jokes, executing the role of the idiot savant with aplomb.

Another huge crowd pleaser was Jesse Appell’s (see interview) set, delivered entirely in Mandarin. His impression of a guy from the US speaking Chinese with a thick Boston accent was as linguistically impressive as it was funny. Beijing has never had a stand-up night with such consistently high quality. The Humor Section will remain so long as Bishop is in Beijing. After that, who knows? See it while you still can.

One to watch Tony Chao
Steal this ‘People ask me what I think about the Chinese Government. I always tell them the same thing: “I can’t complain.”’ – Li Jiayong

More funny business

If you’re after more open-mic nights to check out Beijing’s comedy chops, or to have a go at cracking wise yourself, Comedy Club China holds a weekly night at Modernista on Thursdays and Paddy’s Irish Bar (Sanlitun) on Mondays. Meanwhile, Fangjia Hutong’s Hot Cat Club also plays host to Mandarin-only open-mic comedy every Saturday. Finally, if flailing limbs and surreal vignettes are more your scene, why not scope out the city’s wealth of improv nights? The city’s elder statesmen are Beijing Improv – check out their monthly English-language shows on Saturday 27 (50RMB; every last Saturday of the month) at Penghao Theatre. The associated Bilingual Improv Group perform at Tianzihong Dancing Studio on Saturday 13 (30RMB; every second Saturday of the month). Finally, new kids on the block PlusOne’s players are funny in two languages– go see for yourself at VA Bar in Wudaoying Hutong (20RMB; July date tbc).

For more, see our interview with Jesse Appell, the creator of the video 'Laowai Style'.
  • 4 out of 5 stars
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