Bilingual Comedian Hopes to Make Learning About China More Fun With New Web Series

When American Jesse Appell made a Chinese language "Gangnam Style" parody video in 2012 called “Laowai Style” about a foreigner who’s gone native in Beijing, he had no idea what was coming next. It racked up more than a million views on just his original posting, then it was re-uploaded by strangers on more than 80 other Chinese video-sharing accounts. “That was what was really gratifying,” Appell recalled at last month's 2015 National Chinese Language Conference in Atlanta. “Not only did I create something that people liked and found funny, but I created something that people wanted to steal.”

Appell, who was studying Chinese humor on a Fulbright Scholarship at the time, was thrust into nationwide fame that yielded a raft of TV appearances and live performances. The exposure allowed him to turn professional and make a living performing his bilingual brand of standup comedy and traditional Chinese crosstalk. Now, influenced by Chappelle’s Show’s molding of sketch comedy, standup, and music videos, he’s launching a bi-weekly intercultural video series called The Great LOL of China in cooperation with Asia Society’s China Learning Initiatives. Episodes are bilingual with subtitles and will be released every two weeks. In conjunction with the first episode,"Goggles" (shown in the above video), Appell sat down with Asia Blog to discuss what he hopes to do with the show and where his comedy falls in the bigger picture of cross-cultural interaction.

How did this show come about?

I’ve loved making funny videos since I was a kid, and when I went to China it was sort of a natural thing to keep doing. The impetus behind this show is that if you’re interested in China or you want to learn Chinese, there’s not a lot of interesting stuff to watch. I remember when I was learning Chinese, the textbooks were really boring, so we’ve created these comedy sketches and standup routines about China and the little things people might not normally think about when they think of the country.

The first episode deals with interracial dating, which is a big topic in both China and Western communities. There’s a lot of frustration about it and there’s a lot of tension, so it’s a great topic for comedy to address. The goal of this piece is to show that when people have conflict, sometimes it’s not because of giant intercultural issues, it’s just because those people weren’t right for each other. It’s very easy to lose track of that when you go to another country. It’s like if you say, “A Chinese person and a foreigner got into a fight in a bar.” No, it was just two drunk people that got into a fight. If you want to say you’re being looked down upon as a foreigner in China, you’ll find issues that support that even if it’s not necessarily where the problem comes from.

In your standup routines in China, what sorts of topics really resonate with young Chinese?

Definitely stuff that has to do with intercultural exchange. People are very interested in the West in China, but the trick is actually being able to add nuance to it, because the audience is way too willing to allow me to fully represent everything about everywhere in the West, and I don’t have the right to do that. But the audience would let me do that. The bits that resonate tend to be ones where people can feel like I’m being authentic in who I am — a foreigner who’s come to China — and it also tends to be things that are important to them. It may be hard to do a piece on something like food safety as a foreigner in China, because people might get defensive and say, “Well if you don’t like the food here, go back to where you’re from.” You run that risk, but if you do it right, that’s a very important topic for people in Mainland China right now, so that can really resonate. Also, there’s the idea of a foreigner coming to try to do comedy, whether I’m funny or not. That itself resonates because it shows where we’re at in this new sort of world of interaction between China and the West. I guess I’m a small part of that.

Have you ever flopped spectacularly?

Oh yeah. Once we did a 15-minute traditional crosstalk piece in a drug rehab facility, and nobody laughed throughout the entire piece. It was really bad. For comedy it’s really hard because if it’s not working and you try harder, people feel like you’re becoming desperate and it’s even less funny. I’ve also been at small clubs and tell jokes that I think are really funny, but they just don’t work, or I’ll try to set up the joke and the way I do it ends up being too direct or it steps on a sensitive topic too directly. Generally in China if you can get away with saying something without actually saying it, it’s more effective comedically. In America, you can kind of beat around the bush and then go at it directly, but in China it’s difficult to go at anything directly. That’s not a censorship issue or anything like that, it’s just the culture. It would prefer to deal with topics indirectly.

Speaking of sensitive topics, it seems that non-Chinese reporters who’ve interviewed you almost always bring up the political question. Does that ever get annoying?

That’s always one of the first things people ask: “Oh, but do you have censorship?” It is actually annoying getting asked the same question about censorship again and again, not because it’s a bad question, but because it’s looking in the wrong place and I think it underscores part of the communication failure between China and the West. I’ve had smart people, when they hear something like there will be a Saturday Night Live in China, genuinely ask me: “But how can you do that if they can’t do political jokes?” I’m like, they could joke about anything else. There’s more to life than political jokes. Sit in a comedy club and see what they joke about for two hours. A lot of it is the same stuff you will normally talk about: I got this new app that does something silly, or I can’t find a girlfriend, or there’s somebody down the road who bought a new car and I don’t know where they got their money from … anything. In China it does get more complicated because a lot of things that wouldn’t be political issues in America become political issues there. But really, when it comes down to it, Chinese live similar lives to what we have in America and laugh at similar things…and the Chinese Internet is crawling with cat videos.

About the Author

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Eric Fish is a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.