BEIJING (AFP) – “The thing about stand-up is you need to know where the line is,” says Irish-American comedian Des Bishop, but China makes it easy: “The government tells you where the line is, so don’t worry.”
In China, where outspokenness can be perilous, Western-style stand-up comedy remains a niche art form, but Bishop is hoping to change that, one Mandarin-language performance at a time.
Born in London, raised in the New York borough of Queens and sent to a boarding school in Ireland at 14, Bishop is no stranger to new cultures.
Within Ireland, he is best known for his TV series “In the Name of the Fada”, in which he lived in Connemara and immersed himself in the Irish language, culminating with a performance in it.
He did the same for “Des Bishop: Breaking China”, living with a family in Beijing for a year and chronicling his experiences learning Mandarin, but had to make a few adjustments for a new audience.
“When I first started doing stand-up here, everybody said, ‘It’s not going to work. You’re not going to be able to make fun of China,’” he said after a showing of the series.
“But actually, you can. They’re open to some things. I found it a lot easier than I expected.”
Laughter may be a universal language, but it comes in different accents and what draws laughs in China differs from the West.
The country has long has its own traditional type of comedy called “xiangsheng”, most often performed by a duo and involving rapid-fire wordplay.
But solo stand-up has only established itself in recent years, and is still limited mainly to large coastal cities.
“Most people have no idea what (stand-up) is,” said Mia Li, a comic from Shandong province who performs in both languages.
“At the beginning of a show, the host always says something like, ‘You are about to see a person just standing there talking and he or she will try to make you laugh by talking to you,’” she said.
Most political jokes are off limits, as is dirty humour and any punchlines considered too critical of China.
Even innocuous-seeming attempts at humour can spark a backlash from authorities, and China’s state media watchdog last month banned the use of puns in advertisements and TV broadcasts so as to avoid “misleading the public, especially minors”.
Bishop, 39, points to Communist Party limits on expression that draw a sharp line between having an opinion and publicly voicing it. But some topics such as pollution can be made fun of, and attitudes among China’s younger generation are changing.
After a summer away, he drew laughs from a Chinese audience with a joke about the country’s tightly-controlled news outlets.
“I’ve been in Ireland for a month, looking at foreign news, and every day, there’s news about China,” he said. “Slowly but surely, I’ve been a little disappointed with China.
“But I’ve been back in China now for three days watching the Chinese news. Now, everything is good.”
Performer Joe Wong, however, pointed out that the notion of some topics being out-of-bounds was not limited to China.
One of the country’s best-known comics, he grew up in China, moved to the US two decades ago, returned to Beijing last year and now hosts a TV show.
Compared with their Western counterparts, many Chinese comics try to include more physical comedy or focus on topics related to love or family, Wong said.
“There’s kind of some limits in every culture,” he said. “In America, there are things you can’t talk about onstage as well: you can’t make fun of, say, the disabled, or women, or minorities.
“In China, there’s certain things you can’t talk about, but there’s still a lot of things you can talk about.”
Sometimes the lines are neared – or crossed.
Answering questions from a crowd after his Beijing viewing, Bishop remarked that stand-up in China currently exists only in three cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
“What about Hong Kong?” an audience member asked.
“Oh, Hong Kong? Yeah. You can do whatever you want in Hong Kong,” he replied. “Except vote.”
Bishop has long immersed himself in unfamiliar environments and then used stand-up as a way to narrate his experiences.
He made documentaries for Irish broadcaster RTE on a month he spent working at various minimum-wage jobs, and a much-debated investigation of Ireland’s deep-rooted drinking culture.