A Joke (Not Really) About Ambassador Locke

Wang Zijian is a popular comedian whose “Post-80’s Generation Talk Show” program is one of the closest things that there is to a stand-up comedy show on Chinese television. Many Chinese will bring up Wang Zijian and his show when I mention I do Chinese-language western-style stand-up, and I oftentimes watch this show to see what stand-up might look like in Chinese.

My feelings for the show are mixed. On one hand, I think it’s great that something like stand-up is growing and getting a major TV spot on a network like Dongfang Weishi—Shanghai’s main TV station. On the other hand, the routines—especially the setups—sometimes strike me as overlong, a result of a beleaguered writing crew tasked with producing 45 minutes of stand-up a week. The routines manage to go farther into interesting topics than I expect, though they also clearly stop short of anything that would count as daring by Western standards, but by Chinese standards, it represents a push against what traditionally is seen on TV.

I also pay close attention to any jokes on the show that have to do with Americans or foreigners in general. We’ll skip Mr. Wang’s nickname for his show’s black DJ (Xiao Hei 小黑 or “Blackie”) as an example of one of those “considered-fine-here-but-wouldn’t-go-over-well-in-the-US” things, and instead go right onto the first joke of the night, found at 1:10.

The first thing I want to share with everyone today is about the former US Ambassador to China, Luo Jiahui (Gary Locke). He’s resigned, headed back to America. A lot of people have interviewed him, asking why he quit, and he responded, “Well, I (coughing) was going to back to tutor (coughing fit) my son to get him into Coh-College.”

A lot of people in the media said he wasn’t sincere. If it’s your son going back to college, why do you need to go back with him and help him pick schools? Is that worth giving up such an important job as being the Ambassador to China? Isn’t that a bit insincere? Well, what do you want people to say? He said (coughing)… it’s clear, isn’t it? Can he really say it’s because of the smog?

The smog in Beijing has been a frequent target of jokes here—it’s a bit hack. At this point, actually, to simply make a pollution joke without bringing something new to the mix is a formula for a tired joke.

Wang Zijian goes on to joke about an expert who attributed Beijing’s pollution to too many people cooking at once. He muses on how to fix this problem—perhaps people should only be allowed to cook every other day, referencing Beijing’s automobile restrictions that allow people to drive their car only every other day.

Wang Zijian won’t be making tirades against specific officials, policies, or pollutant spills—that wouldn’t make it on television—but he doesn’t have to. By making fun of the lone “expert” who blames the pollution on cooking, he satirizes someone whose analysis is so far away from the sensitive areas of the issues that it implies clearly, “don’t let people pull the wool over your eyes.”

In doing so, he relies on the audience to realize what’s going on. He lets the audience see themselves as smart, as those un-fooled by those who would blame pollution on cooking. When it comes to sensitive issues, right now the comedian pokes one area to imply a second area he is not poking—look at Guo Degang’s omelet joke—which means that in the end, the audience didn’t hear anything sensitive because the comedian didn’t say anything sensitive, and nobody says anything about these subtextual exclusions. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

I often find that in Chinese culture, the truer something is, the less you can talk openly about it. People waiting for a Chinese comedian who looks like George Carlin might be waiting a while. But a Chinese comedian who addresses similarly complicated issues utilizing subtext might not be as far away as people may think.