During a recent open mic party in a Beijing bar, a young Chinese comedian got angry when he told a joke about the escalation of censorship.
Rules that require clubs to filter content from performers were about to come into force. Before long, he said, China would become the Soviet Union, where comics had to submit punchlines for pre-approval.
Few in the audience laughed. But the fact that the gag was controversial reflected a sense of unease in Chinese stand-up comedy, a form of entertainment that has grown from a fringe activity in big cities to a cultural force across the country – and which has attracted more and more scrutiny.
Rock & Roast, a last-person competition that concluded its third season last year, has become an established presence on Chinese television, and live stand-up shows are popular across the country.
But this success has also put the stand-up in the spotlight of authorities and socially conservative commentators. The very busy underlying nationalism being stoked by Beijing as it clashes with Washington and other Western governments has amplified some sensitivities.
Many actors have underlined a 2010 performance by Joe Wong, a then relatively unknown Chinese-American comic book, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as a starting point for the rise of the Chinese stand-up scene.
The act extensively explored the immigrant experience – “What is Roe v Wade?” Two ways to come to the United States ”- but it also gave American politicians some punch at times. Wong told then-vice president Joe Biden that his autobiography was more impressive than seeing him in the flesh.
The idea that a Chinese-born comedian could grill one of the world’s most powerful politicians has sparked a fascination with comedy in China.
“It was a breath of fresh air for the young people,” said Tony Chou, a former Chinese state television reporter who now works as a comedian and performs in English and Mandarin.
But members of the Chinese public have become increasingly sensitive, Chou said, especially when he uses English terms or obliquely mentions topics deemed sensitive. “I always want to push the audience,” he said. “It’s easier with a Western audience. You can be more pissed off, a little rude. ”
Knowing how to control what they say is often second nature to those working in China’s cultural industries. But official efforts to manage public discourse have grown rapidly over the past year, making it harder for even experienced artists to experiment with risky content.
The Culture and Tourism Bureau released draft regulations last year to tackle “weak links” in censorship in live performances and make event planners and clubs responsible for checking content. . It came after an industry association released a list of 94 rule points for online platforms last February, including a ban on stand-up shows that engaged in “one-sided analysis.” and extreme social problems ”. Both decisions were implemented after China’s powerful TV and radio regulator tightened rules for chat shows and comedy in 2018.
Years of intensified censorship followed the cancellation Liang Huan’s Vicious Show, a Chinese version of late-night American-style talk shows, midway through its second season in 2017. The rationale was never made public, but fans were quick to point out the reference seemingly oblique from a member of the public to Liu Xiaobo, the dissident Nobel Peace Prize laureate who deceased liver cancer while in Chinese police custody.
For Wong, who returned to China in 2013 to help build the stand-up comedy scene, avoiding certain subjects is the same in China. “Due to China’s national condition, the majority of stand-ups will avoid sex and politics [and] there aren’t a lot of people who pay attention to racial issues, ”he said.
Yet Chinese comedians usually find themselves at the center of the controversy, even when they avoid politics altogether. In the last season of Rock & Roast, the predominantly male critics criticized the actresses’ actions as being too “aggressive” and feminist. When Yang Li, one of the contestants, joked about how men could “look so ordinary but be so confident in themselves,” it sparked a firestorm online, a well-known commentator said. accusing her of believing she was a “princess”.
The increasingly busy environment can make it difficult to find suitable material for audiences, especially actresses, said Bernice Ding, an amateur stand-up who advises avoiding politics altogether. “Because you never know if there might be a ‘little pink warrior’ or a ‘wolf warrior’ out there,” she said, referring to the country’s most ardent nationalists.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing and Qianer Liu in Shenzhen