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

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