April 2012

Humorous Adaptation

By Rebecca Carden

A few brave souls have ventured to export Western humor on to Chinese stages in Shanghai

Home away from home is difficult. To combat this, expats have simply transferred some favored elements of their home countries’ entertainment scenes to China. (Now, everyone in metropolitan China knows where boisterous laowais congregate at night.) Occasionally, the opportunity arises for a group of likeminded entertainers to build upon their interests and develop it into a form of income. Comedy is no exception.

Starting from scratch

Curt Mabry, leader of Zmack, became involved with the city’s comedy scene when he moved to Shanghai in 2008 and performed improv with Zuloo Productions. When the group decided to cease operating, Curt, a primary school principal, took over and has now been successfully running the group for three years. During this time, a number of other comedy troupes have sprung out, including The People’s Republic of Comedy (PRC), Kungfu Komedy, and an improv group for Chinese speakers, Yu Zhou Ju Le Tuan. The last is run by David Warner, creative director of Zmack, and bears a name that loosely translates in to the “universal instant gratification society.” Both Chinese improve groups and PRC found it was necessary to run free shows at first in order to assess interest and find an audience.

Kungfu Komedy, a stand up comedy group run by Audrey Murray, Morten Fausboll, Joe Schaefer and Andy Curtain, who also take part in the PRC improv shows, have recognized that it is necessary to take a different approach to stand up comedy than the improv shows. PRC is able to stay at one venue, Malones, because every show is different. But the nature of stand up comedy is based on routine, where you can’t get the same crowd to the same show watching the same material. Schaefer said a regular change in venue is needed to gain the most exposure and longevity from one routine. “We have performed at O’Malley’s, Masse, Beedee’s and other locations for this reason,” Murray, the groups sole female performer, said.

Finding a welcoming space

Performing comedy in China does present challenges which might not be prevalent in other countries. The former Zuloo Productions group was forced to abstain from further performances of ‘M Butterfly’ due to its controversial communist subject matter. Having learnt from this, Zmack is careful not to make jokes about the government. In fact, the content of any jokes the group makes about China primarily refers to expat life in China, such as visiting the fake market.

Choosing a venue also presents a number of issues. Not only is it preferable for the venue to have a performance license but Zmack also tries to find venues which have supported other expat organizations. But, Mabry said, “the biggest problem with booking a venue for an improv comedy show is explaining to the Chinese manager what improv comedy actually is.” Although the language barrier can present problems, venue owners and managers are generally supportive in seeking a deal that’s advantageous for both the bar and the performers. Joe Schaefer mentioned that it is favorable for the bar to pay the groups directly since it suggests the management has faith in the act, and the performers can be guaranteed a certain amount. Another option is to take a percentage of the ticket prices or of the bar’s income. This is less preferable for performers, as Schaefer pointed out the large amount of good faith performers must place in management.

Making profit from comedy shows is not essential since the costs of running an improv group are relatively low. Expenditures are limited to the hiring of rehearsal space. Furthermore, as a consequence of publicizing the group by utilizing expat websites, there are essentially no advertising costs. Comedy also has the potential to be financially viable as a growing number of Chinese are becoming involved.

Forthcoming punchlines

Mabry estimated that Zmack’s audience has grown more bilingual, consisting of around 70% young professional expats while the remainder is Chinese professionals and students. When the group first started, the audiences were almost wholly western due to marketing focus on expat magazines, but when the group introduced a translator to its workshops, the Chinese attraction grew. David Warner has exploited his knowledge of the Chinese language to create Yu Zhou Ju Le Tuan Chinese improv, which has an almost entirely Chinese audience.

In addition to groups which have emerged organically in Shanghai, The Punchline Comedy Club provides entertainment solely for English speakers through importing comedians from the UK. Operating in a number of Asian cities including Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo, the comedians are not expats themselves and so in contrast to the groups which have originated in Shanghai, their material has no real local influence.

With a constantly changing potential audience provided by the relatively temporary nature of expatriate work contracts, there’s no sign that comedy in Shanghai will be short of new audiences. As long as performers are able to capture viewers through original, humorous material and find innovative ways to expand beyond the expatriate market, the potential for growth is infinite. Zmack aims to expand by offering workshops in addition to the shows and classes it currently runs, while those involved with Kung Fu Komedy and PRC are looking into providing corporate classes.