Joe Wong, the new face of Chinese comedy — just not in China

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Comedian Joe Wong
Comedian Joe Wong
Having a bit of a lazy day this Sunday past, I took up residence on my sofa and watched three Russell Peters DVDs back-to-back. Russell, for those unaware, is a Canadian-Indian comedian whose routine is largely made up of racially-centric jokes, and he’s milk-out-the-nose hilarious.

I love stand-up comedy, and it is one of the things I miss access to the most here in China. It is a rare find to come across any stand-up DVDs in the local DVD shops for the reason that the comedy just doesn’t translate, so has little domestic interest. If you look at the foreign comedians that have made a splash in China, you’ll pretty muhc be limited to various Mr. Bean sketches — the humour of which is almost 100% physical.

When I moved here 5 years ago, I brought with me four (real) DVDs, three of which were live Eddie Izzard performances. Over the years I’ve tried to introduce my Chinese wife to the guy I think is possibly one of the funniest people on the planet, but about the only thing she finds amusing is that he’s a transvestite. It surprised me then, when she not only sat through Russell’s whole act, but was laughing out loud to the jokes.

Then today I came across this article in the Washington Post about Joe Wong, a Chinese-American who has been on Letterman and recently performed at the coveted Annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner (see performance below). The article explained that despite finding an American audience, Joe’s attempts to share his comedy with his birthplace have fallen flat.

Mr. Wong’s first live gig in Beijing, in late 2008, was “not successful,” [Wong] says. In America, he says, it’s funny to poke fun at yourself. But in China, there’s no humor in misfortune. The audience struggled to grasp the punch lines, and Mr. Wong recalls looking out on the blank faces of a “polite but serious” crowd.

“That was an unfunny routine,” says Ding Guangquan, a Chinese comedian, who invited Mr. Wong to perform there.

One of the jokes he told at Beijing’s Haidian Theater, Mr. Wong says, was about parking: “I’m not good at sports, but I love parallel parking. Because unlike sports, when I am parallel parking, the worse you are, the more people are rooting for you.”

That didn’t get as many laughs in China as it does in the U.S., probably because Chinese drivers park wherever they want to, he says.

A widely followed blogger in China on cultural issues, He Caitou, says he decided not to recommend Mr. Wong to his 500,000 subscribers. His jokes are impossible for ordinary Chinese to get, he says. “If jokes need footnotes, it won’t be funny at all,” he says. “Except for his look, how else can we relate to him?”

I think that last sentence is the key — comedy is all about relating to the audience, and if the routine I’ve seen in the videos below are any indication, there is a lot of material that your average Zhou-blow just wouldn’t relate to. I wonder if Joe changed his routine to incorporate more jokes about the (mis)perceptions Chinese have about Chinese living abroad, he might get more laughs. But then, I’m no comedian, nor am I Chinese.

Much of Russell Peters comedy, while ethnically focused, is geared towards 1st or 2nd generation North American immigrants, who have a somewhat combined identity — regardless of nationality — as minorities in a “Western” society, and all the stereotypes and labels that get attached to them largely out of ignorance. Perhaps because of this, many of his jokes also speak to us “laowai” here in China, where we are the first generation “immigrant” minorities in a heavily biased and stereotype-infused society as well.

Regardless of the reasons, they’re both damn funny. Here’s Joe Wong’s entire Annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner performance:

More on Joe:

H/T: torisefromashes on the Hao Hao Report

Talk on Joe Wong, the new face of Chinese comedy — just not in China


15 Comments
  1. Pingback: Joe Wong, the new face of Chinese comedy — just not in China | Learn Chinese Characters

  2. Nice clip, this guy is hilarious. His deadpan is pretty effective. I can understand why he isn’t received well over here though. Sarcasm is generally almost completely lost on Chinese folk. When I throw sarcasm, people usually take me literally, which can lead to problems. Even my students took some time to get adjusted to my sarcasm. I’ve noticed, though, most Chinese folk don’t even like standup comedy in Chinese. They generally like physical comedy or really obvious silly jokes that, in translation, seem pretty juvenile. Generally.

    My girlfriend, however, is pretty receptive to western comedy. She loves all sorts of comedy movies, and enjoys all sorts of standup comedy that I play for her, including David Cross, Dane Cook, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Eddie Izzard (she loves the bit about his childhood dream of being the best astronaut, so if he can’t he’ll be the world’s best shoe salesman), etc. We even listen to audio recordings, so there’s very little physical comedy involved. It’s not just a matter of her English level being off the hook good, she’s also very interested in western comedy in general. I’ve been playing a bunch of comedy movies for her lately (we just watched the Austin Powers trilogy, the Harold and Kumar movies and are moving on to Deuce Bigalow next). I’m considering doing a rack of John Hughes stuff (Ferris Buller, 16 Candles, Breakfast Club, etc).

    • Oh yeah, there is no way his comedy would work in china. Half of what makes his act work is the painful awkwardness.

      Meng, really? Chinese people don’t like standup? There’s almost always those duo-standup act in the CCTV new years programs(along with some skits). I think stand-up is actually a pretty longstanding form of comedy in china. It’s a kind of stupid to say Chinese comedy consist entirely of sight-gags and stuff that is “juvenile”.

      As for sarcasm, yeah I absolutely agree. It’s not like sarcasm is ever lost on some people state-side right? It’s totally reasonable to expect people still learning the language to grasp the subtle distinctions. I mean what the hell is wrong them?

      • Justin, I think you mean Xiangsheng or cross-talk — and you’re right, it’s definitely the equivalent of Chinese stand-up, but in a much more “Abbott and Costello” way than modern stand-up comedy, I would say.

        The WSJ article mentions Xiangsheng, and also talks about how even comics in Chinese aren’t getting a very warm reception (requiring “here’s why it’s funny/laugh now” footnotes).

        But then, I’m guessing it’s just a growing form of entertainment, and might blossom over time. God knows theres loads to poke fun at here :-)

        Side note: One of the most memorable days of our relationship was when my wife quipped sarcastically about something.

      • Yea, I totally lolled at bracketed “here’s why it’s funny/laugh now footnotes”. China does have a long ways to go before you get the same quality of comedy in the states or UK, but it’ll be a hilarious day when it does come. China in general would benefit from learning to laugh at itself.

        Also, I actually do think that sarcasm is a major landmark in a English learner’s progression just because there are many important elements required to fully grasp it. Things like tone, context, alternate meaning, thinking on your feet, stuff that can’t be taught very well in a purely academic setting.

      • Justin–seriously? You think that sarcasm is merely a matter of language? Being facetious is the most overt form of sarcasm, and not being able to deal with it has much more to deal with a difference in culture rather than language. I understand that learning culture is a part of learning language, but it’s just a small part. But then, what would I know, I just teach language. Silly old me.

        Yeah, xiangsheng is similar to stand-up, but then, I never actually called it juvenile, I merely said that in translation it could seem juvenile. I don’t know that many people that like this form of comedy nowadays, which, like the media, has become a mouthpiece for the government. Go ahead and jump to your conclusions. So silly of me to think that I could make a friendly comment on this blog without somebody calling me stupid.

      • If you teach languages then I’d would think twice about taking reading comprehension from you… What I was trying to get across is, Chinese people, often being beginner level English speakers won’t the requisite language proficiency to process sarcasm on-the-fly and a lack of comprehension on their part isn’t indicative of a cultural incompatibility with said sarcasm. Gawd, what kind of moron misinterprets badly made and misspelled sarcastic comments posted at a blog?

        lol, I’m actually sorry if I caused offense. I’m a pretty disarming guy in person and probably get away with a lot more than I do in text form. You seem like very nice guy and I’m just taking the piss.

      • The next time you go ahead and attack somebody’s level of reading comprehension, maybe you should review what you wrote before you post it. I’m not going to be your personal editor, but there are quite a few errors in that initial paragraph in terms of grammar, as well as a couple of missing words. Despite having spent time as an editor for a publishing house in NYC, I don’t normally care about such things in a thread; as long as you express yourself properly, I don’t even bat an eyelash at simplistic parlance. I do, however, balk at somebody trying to catch me up on such things instead of actually engaging in a healthy discussion. I don’t mind being criticized for my ideas, but don’t insult me just because you think I don’t understand you. Sarcasm is incredibly difficult to process on a written level, that’s why many scholars say satire is a dead art form. I personally disagree, but I think satire today, at least in the west, shows up in film and TV (the Daily Show, Colbert Report). I don’t think it’s impossible to teach culture in an academic setting. Film is a tremendously effective format for teaching culture, especially if there is a post-viewing discussion. I teach speaking and listening–口语–and I’m constantly stressing the importance of language and culture immersion. Also, I’m not sure anymore what beginner level Chinese English speakers are… I have students that have been studying for 5-6 years and are amazing, but I also have students that have been studying for 10-11 years and can barely put a sentence together. I take a measure of pride in knowing that even the worst students have gotten better under my care, that even the most timid have become more confident. I have a friend that has been studying English nearly 20 years and still sounds like Yoda, and yet my girlfriend has been studying for 6 years and was recently mistaken at a club for a westerner (a Chinese girl told her, “Welcome to China!”).

        If you think I’ve misinterpreted your response again, please try to remember that, like I said, sarcasm doesn’t translate well in written form, and that I’m generally replying to these things really late at night, when my brain has been spent through a day of sorting through Chinglish.

  3. I thought it was an interesting comment about Chinese people not finding it funny possibly due to a cultural difference in what they percieve as funny.

    SO, I sent a web link out on QQ to 2 Chinese friends here in China, all early 20’s – 1 thought he wasn’t funny at all, the other thought he was hilarious! Coincidently another Chinese friend in another city sent me a link to the same video yesterday as well wanting me to check it out – he also thought this guy was good.

    He’s no Bill Hicks, but still got some solid laughs :)

  4. Ryan, the point you make – about why Joe Wong’s stand-up gig doesnt’t work across cultures – reminded me of something I read a while ago.
    In Hong Kong, there is an Indian who won a prize two years ago as the best Cantonese-language stand-up comedian! He also does stand-up in English. But he does different routines for his two sets of audiences. He explains it here http://tinyurl.com/y7o7bgd
    You can catch him on Youtube (but since he does Cantonese routines, you might not be able to follow them if you speak only Putonghua). In any case, he’s dashed good.

  5. Thanks for the video clip, Ryan – I’d forgotten to follow-up on this guy after enjoying his first Letterman Show appearance.

    I reckon he should do a version of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV” at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, and it’d be called “3,279 Words You Can Never Say On CCTV”.

  6. Profile photo of Ericka

    I think this guy is great. My Chinese husband thought he was hilarious too, but he’s been to America and so might get the jokes more than other Chinese people.
    One reason that some Chinese people might not get all the jokes is because the subtitles on youku are not all right.

  7. His commedy is smart..and even in the US, it requires an level of education to “relate”. That’s why he is comedian’s comedian. He has the intellectual content and Russell doesn’t have that….So, really, I would say don’t compare them..their humors are very different..Personally, I like Joe’s much better.

    He is right about Chinese humor. Chinese people have a very hard time to enjoy depreciative humor, which is ..um..a little sad. When people act depreciative, really there is an anger inside, not humor.

    The Chinese stand up comedy has no “life”. Young people can’t relate anymore…the new humor in China is on the internet, but not in performances.

    Joe Wong’s style won’t be successful in China, and I don’t think he is seeking to be successful in China either. He is a star in the US scene though.

    (btw, I am Chinese).

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