How to Write a Joke in China

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Jami Gong has a sense of humor. Without one, he'd never have been able to open a comedy club in the heart of a culture that deems it impolite to laugh out loud — Gong has actually seen Chinese audience members at his TakeOut Comedy Shop chiding gigglers to quiet down. (That's why he prefaces each Chinese-language show with an explanation that here guffawing is welcome.) Then there's the question of what makes people laugh: China maintains a long tradition of two-person comedy performance involving slapstick-heavy dialogue between worthy combatants called xiangsheng, or "cross-talk," but without a trace of the sarcasm, irony and hyperbole that are the mainstays of Western stand-up.

Then again, as Gong, 38, often advises his local amateur comedians, "To structure a good joke, you've got to put together two things that don't normally go together." Say, Hong Kong and stand-up comedy... In fact, stand-up comedy is a rarity throughout Asia, and most of the bars that do host an occasional night usually import anglophone comics for expatriate audiences.

Gong, who moved to Hong Kong this year from New York's Chinatown, where he grew up, is out to change all that at his low-ceilinged dive bar. He developed a love of stand-up comedy at college in the U.S., and at the height of his career had performed at Caroline's in Times Square and on Conan O'Brien's TV show. But he was always struck by the rarity of an Asian-American comedian. He moved to change that by initiating an Asian-American comedy festival in New York, and promoting a nationwide tour. Conquering Asia with comedy is his next big project.

Opening up down the hill from his late grandmother's beauty salon (his parents moved from Hong Kong to New York in 1967), Gong found an enthusiastic crew of local amateurs ready for the spotlight. Vivek Mahbubani, for one, was frustrated by the expat comedy fare on offer before Gong set up shop. "It's all about being British," he says. "Which I'm not."

TakeOut Comedy Shop, by contrast, was meant to reflect the city's natural diversity. Its performers work day jobs as architects, accountants, teachers and brokers — one is a Chinese police officer. (Click here for a video of some TakeOut Comedy performances.) Vivek Mahbubani won the Cantonese-language category of the club's recent competition to find Hong Kong's Funniest Person with a set that opened by asking the judges not to crown him the winner just because they're amused he can speak Chinese, despite his foreign appearance (his parents are Indian). The English-language title was won by Tom Schmidt, a 41-year-old architect from Colorado who has lived in Hong Kong for ten years, who riffed on the difficulties watching movies alongside chatty audiences that translate the action on-screen in real time. One of the judges, Hong Kong basketball star Matthew Jung, had warned that he was looking for someone whose jokes weren't "typical expat humor — just joking as an expat about how difficult it is to get around."

Schmidt agrees there's a typical Hong Kong joke: "It all relates to crowding and miscommunication."

The difference in outlook between expats and locals may be the most difficult gap for the Hong Kong comedian to bridge. Bilingual comedians complain about the Cantonese language's use of tones to signify meaning, because it denies them the ability to use emphasis to signal a punch-line (because emphasis changes the meaning of the phrase). Nor does such a precise and efficient language offer much in the way of double meanings. Then there's the question of pacing: English audiences want an average of six punch lines a minute, but Chinese audiences prefer a longer, well-told story.

Explains Damien Lee, a Cantonese-speaking comedian, "you have to deliberately slow your story down," and put in time between the setup and the punch line.

A joke Mahbubani tells in Cantonese starts with him narrating a recent trip to the market, where vendors address him in Chinglish, hoping he will help improve their English. But when he replies in fluent Chinese, they're disappointed. Says a shop clerk: "Buy whatever." Chinese listeners laugh at the absurd situation, at the clerk's change of heart. In his English act, Mahbubani retools the story to have an attractive store clerk batting her eyelashes and asking, "Accuse me. Can I held you?" It provides a neat one-liner: "You don't have to accuse me of anything, you can hold me anytime!" And the audience roars.

Comedy works for both camps as a form of therapy to bridge Hong Kong's unique cultural gap, which, together with its everyday chaos, creates plenty of material. "The city's hungry for this," Gong says. "I know comedians in New York who'd kill for this kind of a crowd." And the crowd is growing: Three of the four shows making up the Hong Kong's Funniest Person Contest sold out in advance. But Gong continues to search for new talent. Following the last show, he finds himself talking to a performer about building new material. If you hit a wall, he reminds her, remember, "the funniest things that happen in your life are true stories."