The story appears on

Page C1 - C2

April 15, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Events and TV

Ladies who leave 'em laughing

FEMALE comedians are rare in China, and that's no joke. Female stand-up comics are still an unknown species and there's no Chinese Lily Tomlin (to go way back) or Chinese Tina Fey with national celebrity status.

There's certainly no female Zhou Libo, irreverent and sometimes outrageous, making audiences roll in the aisle with his insights into Shanghai folks and foibles, making fun of China's problems.

The reason a woman's touch is lacking: Direct comedy is considered unladylike and vulgar, though okay for men, so any article about women comedians is also about traditional perceptions of women and their changing roles. And how women succeed in spite of stereotypes.

Chinese women are supposed to be pretty and poised, elegant and dignified; they don't want to appear foolish or poke fun at themselves. Slapstick and broad physical comedy are out. Of course, being a pretty actress in a sweet romantic comedy would be perfect.

So women's options are limited. It takes courage to walk the boards and deliberately make people laugh, without being vulgar. It takes a special kind of talent, timing and a gift for nuanced body language to get the message across - edgy, unmistakable but not excessive.

One woman in Shanghai who makes people laugh is Wu Aiyi, a performer in her 30s with the Shanghai Qinyi Farce Troupe (farce is huajixi meaning funny play) and on the popular TV sitcom "Happy Brothers."

"What a woman comedian needs is not a beautiful face or charming postures on stage, but a strong connection with the audience," Wu tells Shanghai Daily in an interview.

"Farce is difficult and for a woman comic, it's even more difficult to be funny in way that's natural and not too exaggerated. That would be a turnoff given the public's perception of how a woman should behave, with reserve," she says.

Hard for gals

Wu is attractive and animated, with a highly expressive face, ready smile and eloquent hand gestures and body language. Clearly, she's not a shrinking violet, and she has real presence.

Perhaps she owes her confidence to tough early days when she lived with her parents who were banished from Shanghai to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

A resourceful young woman, she returned to Shanghai to make her own fortune and send money back to her family. She started in farce when she was in her early 20s.

In all of Shanghai there are believed to be just around 80 performers, including 20 women, says Gong Renlong, deputy director of the Shanghai Qinyi Farce Troupe. Figures also include the Shanghai Farce Troupe and TV performers.

Over 10 years, Wu has made audiences laugh with her natural and very funny depictions of cute, naive, feisty, out-of-town bumpkins. She's a bit worried that she's getting stereotyped from her work in popular TV comedy sitcoms "Red Tea House," "Happy Apartments" and "Happy Brothers."

"Farce, with its broad comedy and exaggerations, is a special challenge to women as convention places certain limitations on their expressions and body language," says Gong, himself an accomplished comedian. "Women cannot behave as outrageously and dramatically as men, otherwise they would be criticized for improper and indecent conduct."

And farce, with its satire, parody and exaggeration often laced with slapstick, isn't exactly for retiring types.

In Wu's early days on stage, she was spotted by famous local comedian Wang Rugang, who predicted, "You are about to become popular."

And so she did. Women comics note that because there are so few of them, it's easier to make a name for themselves, if they are good.


"Though Shanghai farce has been popular in the city for many years, we still have to fight against some people's prejudice," Wu says. "They usually label us as simply crowd pleasers, questioning our artistic abilities. What I want to tell them is that comedy is not as simple as they think."

Wu says the stage is a magnifier that allows the audience to get in touch with the performers in a direct and intimate way.

Shanghai farce plays emphasize the art of talk, miming, teasing and singing. It can be quite creative, involve traditional opera, folk entertainment, dialects, punning, improvisation and coming up with original skits.

Performers need to be versatile and appeal to different audiences, but develop their own style.

Asked the secret of famed comedians such as Yao Mushuang and Zhou Bochun, Wu says: "These comic masters are also masters of psychology who know exactly the kind of response and rhythms audiences need at any time."

Besides physical comedy and slapstick (but not for ladies), Wu says it's important to have strong storytelling skills and language rhythm.

"A woman comic can't use too much funny body language that might make her appear rude and shallow. But since she still needs to be funny and cool, it really takes time and effort to plan the postures and movements that match her roles, even if the movement is as simple as drinking water," she says.

Wu frequently tries her new work out on her friends to find out whether her new roles are pleasingly edgy but not excessive and will be well received.

She is keen to develop her imagination and creativity, "but never let them run wild."

"Any comic should avoid being superficial and vulgar," Wu says.

On stage and screen, Wu has partnered with noted male comics such as Wang, Gong and Shu Yue. They have helped raise her confidence, develop her sense of timing and analytical skills about the characters and situations.

Since Wu is pregnant, she's taking temporary leave from "Happy Brothers" but plans to return in November.

"I will be back in November," she says. "Maybe next time I will be an elegant lady, though that might scare many of my colleagues. But I don't want to be stereotyped as an out-of-town girl."

The expectations about women's behavior and her own desire to play "nice" roles made it difficult at first for Wu Hanxin, a fresh graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, to take on funny, low-class characters.

She really had to summon her courage to play a rustic migrant nanny from Jiangsu Province in the new, World Expo-related episodes of "Happy Brothers" sitcom. It airs at 6pm on the Entertainment Channel from Monday to Saturday.

"Of course every girl wants to be beautiful and charming on screen," Wu Hanxin says. "It took some time for me to make up my mind to play a nursery maid ... As a newcomer, you need to be willing to play any role and drop your mental baggage."

Comic veteran

Veteran female comic Zeng Yi has been working for 18 years and the former apprentice of famed comic Wang says women have both advantages and disadvantages in comedy.

"Shanghai farce is very much an ordinary people's art, and performers need to shorten the psychological distance between the audience and themselves," Zeng says. "A female comic should be adept at joking about herself and should be willing to take on any role, even one in which she looks ugly.

"Since there are very few female comics willing to do this, it's easier for a woman to get popular in this field."

Of all the traditional forms of theater, Shanghai farce demanding multiple skills and timing is definitely the most difficult one to master, says Zeng. It took her more than 10 years to get the feel, she says.

"Compared with the highly stylized performing styles of many other stage arts, farce requires all of its performers to have a quick wit, good imagination, versatility in performing skills and considerable knowledge," she says.

Though some people say a beautiful face should guarantee an actress' popularity in China, women's studies sociologist Zhu Yi'an says what a popular woman comic needs is genuine humor and warmth, plus an amiable appearance.

Zhu, a professor at Shanghai Normal University, observes: "Many popular women comics look like neighborhood ladies, who are warm-hearted, considerate and smart.

"Unlike men's somewhat aggressive humor style, including satire and teasing, women comics' low-key humor and good communications skills are more likely to be accepted by the audience," Zhu concludes.

Shanghai People's Farce Troupe

Program: Classic scenes, including "Tongue Twister," "Singing Peking Opera," "Shaved Heads," "13 People Playing Mahjong."

Date: Every Friday and Saturday, 7:30pm

Venue: Huangpu Theater, 780 Beijing Rd E.

Tickets: 50-280 yuan

Tel: 6350-8739


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend