Comedy? Comedy! Lastly, a comedy tonight (or this morning for my American readers). The first night of FACES one of the delegates asked if some of us wanted to go to an improve show. This was an enticing concept all on its own, and when I heard one of the troupe members was named Jesse Appel and was a personal friend of this delegate I knew I absolutely had to go. For those that don’t know (all of you, I assume) Jesse Appel is a Bostonian former Fulbright Scholar who studied Chinese humor in Beijing and has become somewhat of a minor celebrity, as evidenced by the fact that I had heard of him when he performed at a talk I attended at John Hopkins SAIS over the summer in DC. He now does comedy writing, improv, standup and traditional Chinese humor, mostly in Beijing, and bills himself as “The Great LOL of China”. His rap name is Bling Dynasty, as seen in his cover of Biggie Smalls’ “Mo’ Money Mo Problems”, entitled “Mo Money Mo 发展 (fa zhan, fa jaan, development in English) which raps about the last hundred and fifty years of Chinese history. See the video below. The subtitles are bilingual (just like the song), but you may have to pause to read everything, please enjoy. If you’re having trouble loading, just search “mo money mo fazhan” on YouTube.
His rise to semi-fame was also helped by the fact that he’s one of the few foreigners to study traditional Chinese comedy, crosstalk, ( 相声, xiang sheng, she-ang shung, literally face and voice). Another famous western practicioner has likened it to Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” which happens to be one of my favorite routines ever. The art is made up of four skills, speaking, imitating, teasing and singing, usually delivered in a rapid bantering style that is unique to the art. It relies heavily on puns, wordplay, social commentary, and music to entertain and is nearly unique amongst traditional Chinese art forms in that it actively seeks modern innovation. Here’s a video below. The first three minutes give a nice intro.
On to the show though! If you had asked me prior to that night if I thought Chinese people could do improv, I would have been skeptical. In my mind improv ala “Who’s Line is it Anyway” is a very western art form, and honestly I’ve never met a Chinese person who I thought had the temperament necessary to come up with the bright, random non sequitur humor required of improv in English or Chinese. How wrong was I. The show was absolutely wonderful. The troupe was about ten people, half Chinese, half foreigners of various countries of origin, and the opening announcements were delivered in Chinese and English. They played a lot of classic improv games, death by improve, suggestions, scene change etc in addition to some long form improv, where they asked the audience for a location and maybe a plot device and then go from there. All the while they moved fluidly between English and Chinese as necessary based on context, sometimes waiting for a scene to change or just inserting the odd English or Chinese word into another sentence. The kicker though was the last skit where they added in some Italian Comedia del ‘Arte characters, incorporating the traditional roles into the skit. I was dying of laughter the whole time, and even the audience members who seemed to only speak one of the two languages still enjoyed themselves.
After the show we got a chance to talk with Jesse and the troupe leader, a towering Dutchman who does consulting during the day. He explained that when they started the troupe seven years ago, it took a while to get the flow down. Since not everyone was completely bilingual, sometimes languages would switch out of necessity, or actors would have to make sure to reiterate the important parts of their lines in both languages with some rephrasing. I apologize for my inability to convey how amazing of an experience it was for me, but if you ever get the chance, I recommend you go. Below, find some pictures of the conference taken by a much more professional camera.