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UPDATED: November 28, 2014 NO. 14 APRIL 3, 2014
Opening-Up Mics
Expats help to popularize stand-up comedy for Chinese audiences in the nation's capital
By Joseph Halvorson

Joe Wong, a Chinese comedian who performed at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, helped bring exposure to the art of stand-up in China after his performance found a global audience in 2010.

Another internationally recognized comedian has spent the past year living in China and filming his experiences for an upcoming documentary. Des Bishop, who was raised in New York, moved to Ireland as a teenager to attend boarding school and went on to entertain audiences with his observations of life in the country, taking on issues such as poverty and alcoholism.

Bishop, 38, was in the process of moving into a new apartment north of Beijing's Second Ring Road when he spoke with Beijing Review. After living with a host family for one year, his Mandarin skills have improved to a point where he has now met his goal of performing stand-up comedy routines in Chinese. At a recent event held at The Bookworm—where he performed in a live show featuring China's most famous foreigner, Canadian cross-talk performer Da Shan—the audience was as receptive to the humor as any despite being a relatively new phenomenon, Bishop said.

At a show he headlined in December, Bishop's commentary on life in China was on point, describing the often chaotic patterns of traffic in the country as being ruled not so much by law than by a mix of suggestion and instincts, which flow together in a kind of "Tao" state of fluid movement. His act also plays with the Chinese script, illustrating the bewilderment of trying to tackle an utterly alien language.

His stage presence and energy come across whether he is performing in Mandarin or English, displaying both showmanship and scholarship while delivering a perceptive view of contemporary Chinese life. And as his language skills improved, he discovered that his understanding of and interaction with society grew. "Once you learn Chinese, it opens up a whole new world," said Bishop.

A rising trend

In working with and offering guidance to a group of emerging Chinese comedians, such as Beijing-based CCTV reporter and part-time comic Tony Chou, Bishop said the stand-up form of entertainment is quickly reaching domestic audiences. "These guys are pretty pioneering," he said. "It's incredible that they have—on their own—brought a brand new culture to China."

In 2008, Bishop produced a television series called In the Name of the Fada documenting his attempt to learn the Irish language and explore social issues in Ireland. The experience was so successful that in 2013, he chose to translate the formula into Chinese. Through his first year collaborating with a group of promising stand-up acts in Beijing, he feels optimistic enough to continue living and working in China after the series premieres on Irish Television in the spring.

Bishop said China's emerging middle class is eager to find new forms of entertainment, and stand-up comedy offers an affordable alternative to the rock concerts and traditional performance arts that run upwards of 500 yuan ($80) per ticket. And while cross-talk remains more relevant to modern Chinese cultural life than some give it credit for, stand-up comedy is the more fast-growing genre.

And in a city where the pressures of cutthroat competition can make life seem a little too serious at times, there are bound to be more in search of a laugh.

Email us at: liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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