Stand-up comedy hits new heights

Release time:2022-02-18 Publisher:South Asia Development

Younger audiences warm to jokes based on topical material

Zheng Bowen, known to audiences as Xiao Mai, began to perform stand-up comedy in 2019 at a time when the entertainment genre was still struggling to win a local following.

Growing up in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, Zheng started his stand-up career in the city by taking part in a performance just after graduating from a local college, where he studied art and design.

Zheng said that two years ago in Harbin, there were only 20 to 30 people in the audience for a comedy show he took part in, and such shows were usually staged in clubs or bookstores.

After giving free performances for six months, Zheng welcomed the chance to appear in his first paid show. Now, many new stand-up comedians can perform professionally within three months, he said.

"At that time, people in Harbin didn't know what stand-up comedy was. They only knew it was very popular online," Zheng said, adding that now the genre is much better-known and more venues have been made available.

Zheng said there have been obvious changes since the third season of the popular stand-up comedy show Rock & Roast, which aired on the Tencent Video streaming site last year.

"Watching stand-up comedy, especially in Shanghai, has become a way of life similar to going to dramas and musicals," he said.

As of October, Zheng had appeared in more than 500 shows, giving five paid performances and five free ones each week.

"In addition to making me happy, being a comedian gives me the opportunity to think. People generally don't like to think things through, but when you write the script for a show, you need to read a lot and learn to express your views. This is also a process of finding yourself," Zheng said.

He added that his parents didn't initially support him, because they only regarded stable jobs as a good career choice.

"They worried about me when they heard that stand-up comedians didn't earn much and that their source of income was unstable, but as the industry gradually improved, they accepted my decision," Zheng said.

He pointed out that since his graduation, he now earns more than most of his classmates, adding that the quantity and quality of the performances are directly related to his income.

"I hope that one day I can stage my own show, and audiences come just to watch me perform," Zheng said.
The origins of stand-up comedy can be traced to England during the 18th century, but with the emergence of radio, it flourished in the United States in the 20th century.

However, the genre lacked audience participation and was only performed by those wanting to express their views. Since the mid-1930s, many new forms of stand-up have appeared, audiences now play their part in performances, and the topics used for material focus widely on social issues.

Since the 1980s, stand-up comedy shows have accounted for 40 percent of the television programs in the US, chronicling significant changes in culture and society, with content focusing on political, economic, cultural and social development.

In China, stand-up comedy began with a TV variety program broadcast in 2012-the '80s Talkshow-which centered on the lives of young people and mirrored those of their counterparts in the US.

A leading domestic stand-up comedy enterprise, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co, was established in 2014. The company's co-founder Li Ruichao, also known as Li Dan, was a scriptwriter for the '80s Talkshow.

In his book, Li Dan's Stand-up Comedy Manual, he writes that when he received a fee of more than 7,000 yuan as a scriptwriter for the '80s Talkshow for the first time, he thought, "If this show can make money, I may not starve for the rest of my life."

Li also states in the book: "There used to be no stand-up comedy scriptwriters in China. But the team for the '80s Talkshow set a standard fee for a script. Since then, many of our friends have been recruited by the company. Gradually, it has created positions that were not available in China before, such as stand-up comedy actor, content director, theater manager and research institute director."
Rising popularity

In 2017, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co launched Rock& Roast on Tencent Video, gradually winning over audiences and promoting the development of comedy in China.

This additional attention significantly increased the influence of stand-up comedians and drove the development of offline shows.

Going to a stand-up comedy venue, listening to the performers sharing their stories of life, and relaxing with laughter after a busy day's work have become popular for many young people.

The genre is in high demand, so it is often hard to get a ticket for shows, as they are sold out.

Liu Lijuan, vice-president of Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co, said, "When the second season of Rock & Roast ended, we had witnessed an obvious rising trend in the stand-up comedy market, so we started to plan offline performances."

In April 2019, the company established a rehearsal venue called Goat on Xiangyang North Road in Shanghai. Three months later, the first Fun Factory, an official venue for stand-up comedy shows, was launched. This venue can only seat 80, but is always full.

Also in 2019, the company staged a nationwide tour for the first time, with nearly 1,500 shows attracting total audiences of more than 100,000. Nearly 80 percent of these performances were held in Shanghai, Liu added.

"Whether it's due to the number of clicks for the program, the material, or the driving force of the offline performance market, the third season of Rock & Roast made stand-up comedy truly stand out," Liu said.

According to the company, audience numbers for its offline stand-up comedy shows rose by nearly 500 percent in 2019, compared with 2017.

In 2020, daily performances with audiences averaging about 100 on weekdays and weekends could no longer meet demand.

Tickets that sell out fast after being released have become commonplace for Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co's offline shows. In particular, this was the case for the performance held at SAIC Shanghai Culture Square, which can accommodate an audience of more than 2,000.

Liu said, "Data show that nearly 600 people registered their IDs to try to grab one ticket. This is an amazing trend across the whole performance market."

Last year, more than 1,500 shows staged by the company were performed in over 25 cities, including rehearsals at the Goat venue. The shows attracted total audiences of more than 400,000 and earned over 80 million yuan at the box office.

According to the company, there are some 130 stand-up comedy clubs in China-mainly in Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Guangdong province.
There are many reasons for the genre's rise, one of them being that stand-up comedy mainly attracts young people.

Liu said it not only makes people laugh, but is also a way to engage with the younger generation seeking to escape life's hardships through humor.

He Xiaoxi, co-founder of Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co, said: "Young people like new things, and they will connect with and even pursue a performer who has good content. As long as you have sustainable content, this will win audiences, which gives us a lot of confidence."

Compared with when the '80s Talkshow launched nine years ago, audiences now attracted by the company's performances are from the post-2000 generation, some of them still in junior and high school, He said.

"Young people never like those who only please themselves. They like cool things. Cool people are those who do things sufficiently well. As long as you do something well enough, they will follow you," He added.

Moreover, people from different industries and backgrounds have joined the stand-up comedy industry, infusing new energy into the market, while others are seeing the infinite possibilities of these shows.

Huang Jun, a traffic police officer in Shanghai, tasted instant stardom after appearing in the fourth season of Rock& Roast. He said he wanted to break the stereotype and let people know that police officers are not always serious, but also interesting people.

Zhang Jiaxin, another participant in the show's fourth season, has difficulty moving his limbs due to a lack of oxygen in the brain at birth. But he made light of these problems on stage, with his unique take on life touching the hearts of many. Even though more people have entered the stand-up comedy business, the market still has a long way to go.

He, the company co-founder, said, "Compared with the mature comedy market overseas, although there has been explosive growth in China in recent years for our online, offline and other ventures, stand-up comedy is still in its infancy."

He cited Li Dan as saying that China's stand-up comedy shows have entered a "depopulated zone" and have nothing to refer to or imitate.

However, as many people have yet to see an offline stand-up comedy show, this is a market opportunity, He said, adding, "I always believe that more jokes, more interesting people, and choosing more interesting lifestyles are the way meet people's inner needs.

"As the current crop of stand-up comedy performers is mainly based in Shanghai, we will look to the market in that city as our next step.

"Comedy itself is a good connecting tool. After people are attracted to the genre, it can spread its wings in the future.

"Our goal is not to build a theater-it has always been to build an offline entertainment consumption experience space."