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August 6, 2019

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Stand up and laugh: Comedy is contagious

Every Saturday night, a small theater called “Xigua,” or “Watermelon,” in Yongqing Fang, century-old alleyways in the southern city of Guangzhou, and capable of seating an audience of about 80, is packed to the rafters.

Three or four stand-up comedians walk on stage one after another and tickle the funny bones of the audience in a 1.5-hour show. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

“If you think what the performers say is funny, laugh out loud; but if it sucks, just heckle them with your applause,” said a comedian surnamed Ji when warming up the audience at the beginning of a show.

With Ji having barely finished speaking these words, the whole arena burst into applause, cleverly playing along with the joke.

Audiences growing

In the metropolis, which has precious few theaters for stand-up, there are no more than 20 shows a month, including in both Mandarin and Cantonese, with the ticket prices generally less than 100 yuan (US$14.50).

“When we first started out, there was one time when we had only two people in the audience but 10 comedians backstage,” Ji told the audience during a break in the show.

By any measure, the ticket sales from the shows were not enough to support a single performer in a small theater.

“So most of us are part-time performers,” said Pi Qiu, a comedian and the head of a stand-up comedy club named “Douban” in Shenzhen.

Recently, he staged his stand-up routines on the latest season of “Rock & Roast,” one of the most popular TV talk shows in China.

“If I were known to a wider TV audience, maybe there would be more people to watch our live shows,” he said, explaining his rationale behind performing on TV.

Li Dan, one of the most famous Chinese stand-up comics and a planner of the show, admitted in the program that though he is now well-known to the public through stand-up, this form of performance is still limited in China.

Stand-up comedy, which originated in Europe and North America, is quite young in China, with “open mic” shows first appearing in pubs in Beijing and Shanghai in 2009. Audiences in Guangdong came to it much earlier as it was first introduced to neighboring Hong Kong in 1990.

Dong Jiama, born in 1990 and deeply influenced by stand-up comedy in Cantonese, found besides entertainers, even ordinary people could perform stand-up when he read online about a show at a Guangdong club in 2014. Then, he began to perform onstage and started a stand-up club called “Banana” with his friends in 2015.

Although at first their audience were basically locals in Guangzhou and often posted numbers in the single digits, the industry gained more attention after a number of TV shows related to stand-up became popular in China in 2017.

Since then, their audience has steadily grown and now each of their formal performances can attract about 50 people on average. Sometimes, they will have people travel from other cities just to catch their show.

Meanwhile, their venues have moved from coffee shops, pubs and bookstores to a small theater, which is a more stable and formal venue for performing.

As one of the Banana club’s founders, Fang Yu used to work for a well-known technology company in Shenzhen.

His past work experience, workplace relationships and overtime work are all fodder for his jokes.


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