Stand-up guy: Jesse Appell interview

The 'Laowai Style' comedic mastermind talks censorship and dildos

Boston native Jesse Appell (pictured above) came to Beijing to study the traditional comedic discipline ‘crosstalk’ a year ago. He ended up making a PSY pastiche, ‘Laowai Style’, that chalked up over one million views online and helped rocket him to national notoriety. Now the darling of the Beijing comedy circuit, his Mandarin-only sets are sparking interest in stand-up among Chinese speakers. Here he tells us about comedy, censorship and improvised dildos.

What’s in store for Beijing stand-up?
I hope, and expect, that the stand-up scene will continue to grow. I think stand-up has a strong future for a niche crowd of Chinese. It helps that no ‘training’ needs to be done before one can step onstage and do stand-up, unlike, say, crosstalk, which is enough of a performance art to dissuade those just looking to make a few jokes. The freedom of the stand-up performer is an alluring image for younger generations of Chinese that want to try their hand at something culturally Western that doesn’t require any English at all.

For the uninitiated, what is crosstalk?
Crosstalk is a Chinese artform that hails back to the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912], where two performers onstage go back and forth in a comic dialogue, with much verbal swashbuckiling and linguistic pyrotechnics. The closest Western equivalent is probably the old Vaudeville routines, or Abbott and Costello’s classic ‘Who’s on First?’ routine.

When you performed ‘Laowai Style’ on TV, you had to change some of the lyrics. Will censorship hinder the development of Chinese stand-up?
It will hinder it somewhat, but not as badly as it hinders, say, people that study political theory at Tsinghua University and can’t publish freely about political issues. There are a million topics to joke about, and if censorship culls a few thousand from those, there will still be enough jokes to go around. I also think that there is not as immediate a connection between politics and comedy in China as there is in the West. This is the big difference for foreigners doing comedy in China: we can laugh with China, but we can’t laugh at China. Chinese performers can get away with it more so than foreigners, but on the whole, people here really like the idea that China is a rising power where things are getting better and better, and there isn’t as much comedy to be mined from poking fun at oneself or one’s country.

Are there any differences between Chinese and expat audiences?
Generally the Chinese audience makes you earn your laughs a bit more. It’s not tough to make both cultures laugh with the same joke, but it is very hard to make both cultures laugh at the same joke for the same reason.

Watch CRI talks to Jesse Appell about Laowai Style

Do you think some foreign standups cross the line when talking about Chinese society?
I think that Chinese people are constantly worried about a lack of respect from the West. If there is a foreign comedian that even implies disrespect to China, it doesn’t matter how well-composed the joke is, it will be hard to get Chinese people to laugh. This is why I am not sure if there is a squat-toilet joke that a foreigner can ever make Chinese people laugh with.

Of course, it is more complicated than this; there are aspects of Chinese culture that Chinese people dislike themselves, and so this cultural protectionism reflex can conflict with the desire to laugh at jokes. So on some topics (say, pollution), a well-crafted joke that manages to attack the Chinese system without attacking the Chinese people can be quite successful.

You’re also a part of the Bilingual Improv Group, I’m guessing Chinese audiences don’t immediately shout ‘dildo!’ like foreign audiences do when the players ask them what’s in their hand?
They don’t shout ‘dildo’ but they do shout ‘toilet’ and ‘bathroom’ a lot.

For more, see our list of the best comedy and stand-up nights in Beijing.
  • 4 out of 5 stars