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Arts & Culture
Arts & Culture
UPDATED: July 21, 2015 NO.30 JULY 23, 2015
Make Them Laugh
The arising group of young comedians in China
By Yuan Yuan

Wang Zijian poses at the promotion activity for movie Let's Get Married, in which he played a role on April 1 (CFP)

A deceivingly common situation appeared on the TV program Post 80s Generation Talk Show on May 30: a wedding ceremony with a bride and two grooms.

In this case, however, the host of the show Wang Zijian was the bride and two representatives of the audience--one man and one woman--served as the grooms, while the "wedding ceremony" was a special celebration of the third anniversary of the television show.

The talk show was launched in May 2012 in Shanghai. It soon became the most popular talk show program in the city, and made Wang, a Beijing native, known to the audience nationwide overnight.

Thoroughly modern

Wang, born in 1984, has held a deep interest in crosstalk, or xiangsheng, a traditional Chinese form of stand-up comedy, since childhood. Dropping out of university after studying for one year, Wang worked for TV programs and advertising companies but finally jumped back to his first love: the stage of crosstalk. In 2007, Wang performed crosstalk with a partner in Beijing Normal University, his first formal show.

Wanting to share his passion, in 2010, Wang set up his own crosstalk troupe and started to perform in small theaters in Beijing. His talent was affirmed; every time the theater was packed. Wang continued to vary his shows to fit the times, for example by introducing some popular Internet terms.

However, despite the fact that he was quickly becoming a recognized performer in his field, he refused to attend formal crosstalk competitions. "They are more like students showing off for their masters, who are mostly over 50 years old. They would even bust out jokes that were used years ago," said Wang. "How can such an art attract young people, especially millennials?"

"It is not that difficult to make people laugh," said Wang, who claims to have read hundreds of Western novels--including Pride and Prejudice, The Red and The Black, and is more open to the Western world than the older generation. Wang proves that the talk show, the Western style of "crosstalk," can also survive in China.

Now as the program grows in popularity, the other TV networks are rolling out their own talk shows in the top three or top five in ratings across the country. Some even contacted Wang directly to offer double pay for Wang to skip to their show.

Miao Fu and Wang Sheng walk in their traditional performing gowns in Xi'an (XINHUA)

Street where you live

When Wang held his first formal crosstalk show, Miao Fu and Wang Sheng, both born in 1982 in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, formed their own crosstalk troupe Qingqushe in Xi'an, the capital city of the province.

Wang and Miao were primary school classmates and possessed the same passion and love for xiangsheng. The troupe grew quickly over the years and grew from only a few members to over 100. They hold 20 performances every week in two tea houses in Xi'an.

Unlike other crosstalk performers who always have the script ready before the show, Wang and Miao only write an outline and perform it directly on stage to see the response from the audience. "This method has prompted a lot of inspiration," said Miao. "Sitting in a small closed room and racking our brains is not a great way for funny material to come about."

Compared to many young comedians who like to use familiar online jokes, Miao and Wang's comedy is based on Chinese literature, particularly well-known folk tales.

"We don't avoid online jokes when we perform in our own theaters, but rather than copy the whole thing we prefer to borrow the idea and structure behind those jokes," Miao said. "Traditional xiangsheng is the result of 100 years of accumulation and improvement, and classics can still be performed even after 10 or 20 years."

Based in Shaanxi, Miao and Wang said they wanted to show a crosstalk style that is different with that commonly seen in Beijing and Tianjin, which are considered to be the center of this art in China.

"The personality and culture of Shaanxi is shrewd and fierce, thus audiences there prefer fast-paced comedy," said Miao. "This differs from Beijing and Tianjin audiences who enjoy more foreshadowing before revealing the punchline."

Xi'an used to be one of the top xiangsheng centers in China but later experienced a decline. "That's why we like to say we are 'revitalizing' northwest China's xiangsheng instead of 'developing' it," said Miao.

In Shanghai, Wang's playground of choice, it was once known as a place that never showed interest in crosstalk, but now it also has two famous xiangsheng troupes. While in January 2013, local Shanghai xiangsheng comedian Zhao Songtao performed a three-hour show in front of a full house.

"We're also working on building a national xiangsheng small theater alliance to encourage more communication among performers from various areas in China. The atmosphere right now is wonderful. We're all putting effort into the same thing: the art of xiangsheng," said Miao.

Shen Teng performs on stage at the Spring Festival Gala at CCTV on February 18 (CFP)

World's a stage

Shen Teng got famous as a comedian moving from a small circle to a much bigger one after landing the stage of the Spring Festival Gala broadcast on the China Central Television (CCTV), where he has performed since 2012.

Before that, Shen was an actor for Kaixin Mahua, or Happy Doughnut, a Beijing-based celebrated private comedy theater.

Formed in 2003, Happy Doughnut originally performed one big drama show annually, involving all the comic elements, either from current events or new movies, in one drama. The shows gained popularity among younger generations. The performers in the shows are also mostly born in the 1980s.

2007 was an important year for Shen, as he became the director of that year's drama Crazy Stones and received a glowing ovation.

Since 2012, actors and actresses expanded the fame of Happy Doughnut by performing short sketches on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala for several consecutive years. Shen is also more well-known as his stage name Hao Jian. Few people know his real name.

"We worked under great pressure," said Shen. "The script writing needs to start as early as September, and we always feel we are at the edge of running out of inspiration. It's really stressful."

Miao and Wang also performed at the Lantern Festival Gala of CCTV in 2014 and the Spring Festival Gala of CCTV in 2015. "I lost about 5 kg during the script writing," said Miao. "Unlike the tea house show, there were few interactions with the audience directly at a TV show, so we must spend more time on preparation."

Inspiration is also a headache for Wang Zijian. Wang said that his talk show team currently has two full-time writers only. "The genre of the talk show is quite new in China, so there aren't many talk show writers available," said Wang. "About 90 percent of Tonight 80's Talk Show's writers are part-time."

Despite all these difficulties, they are all happy to see the revitalization of this art. "Even though we are much busier now and almost have no time for ourselves," said Miao, "it is our own choice and we are happy to see more young people getting into this art form. They are the future."

Wang Zijian also expressed his confidence in this art. Before he took his show, Guo Degang, a crosstalk performer from Tianjin already became a hit in the past years nationwide with his unique way combining traditional technique and modern comic elements. "Guo is a great crosstalk performer. He gave this dying art a new heart," said Wang. "What I am going to do is make it open its eyes."

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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