I feel like a good bit of my time as an intercultural comedian in dealing with the problems of an angsty teenager. I spend a lot of time looking for that special person. Someone who understands me, who will support me, who encourages me to be the best person I can be, all the while complaining about how there is no such person.
When I first started doing comedy in China, I would spend all day thinking, “Nobody understands me!” because people literally did not understand me. Then, it evolved to “Nobody understands me!” because I did know the non-verbal aspects of communicating with an audience. From there, I moved on to “Nobody understands me!” when dealing with people in the media, as I always found myself typecast into the types of dopey roles available to foreigners in the Chinese media.
I don’t want to jump too far—we’ve only talked on the phone, and only once—but I think my search might be over. My knight in shining armor? A mid-level director at Shanghai TV by the name of Mr. Yin.
About a month ago, Mr. Yin and Shanghai TV extended a vague invitation to appear on a “Kings of Comedy” type show in February, and today we chatted specifics about what this might mean. Our conversation lasted only about four minutes, but it was unlike any other conversation I’d had with anyone in TV before.
“We heard you wanted to prepare your own jokes,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, defensively. Usually, this statement is followed by an uncomfortable explanation of how China is not the US (really?) and there are things that can’t be said on TV (really?) and that as a foreigner I might not notice (really????) but this means that they want to babysit my process or outright refuse to let me prepare my own jokes.
But not today. “We just want to make sure that the jokes are genuine. Having a foreigner go on TV and talk about being an exchange student was okay ten years ago but we want to get past that. We’re looking for more genuine comedy, where we can see how you view the world, little things from regular life. Joe Wong did that in America, and it brought him all the way to the Washington. While writing your jokes, can you think in that sort of way?”
Um, yes. Yes I can, as a matter of fact.
It was so amazingly refreshing to hear the opposite of the normal frustrating condescension and stale thinking that I remained jazzed up for the rest of the day. Being asked to prepare such a set made me question things I’d been doing in my stand-up for months. Why should I simplify my persona to appeal to the audience? Why should I avoid everyday topics that are not sufficiently “China-West” related, instead of doing what comedians do, and talk about what strikes them as funny?
Of course, creating such a set will be hard. A TV station insisting months from the shoot that this is the set they want might wind up with them losing their nerve if the outcome isn’t what they expect. Jokes of this sort might involve types of comedy that don’t play well on TV. The TV audience, regardless of what the station is willing to broadcast, might not be able to empathize with a foreigner who isn’t here in a simple role, like an “exchange student” or “worker at a foreign company.”
There will be a lot of learning for me to do in the upcoming month to prepare such a set. I need to find a way to explain to the audience, through jokes, who I am and why I am in China doing comedy. Some days, I can’t even explain that to myself. I will need to cut through the jargon and stories that are convenient for making quick (but flat) connections with the audience and get at the truth in my work here, and the comedy that truth contains. And I will need to take risks, go on smaller stages this upcoming month and fail, readjust, and fail again, in order to get ready in time.
But if I’m not willing to take on that challenge I shouldn’t get onstage in the first place. Whatever the final result, the process of trying to create such a piece is sure to be worthwhile.
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