The events of 2020 had necessitated a positive attitude; in China, a new philosophy of joy and laughter is being redefined by young people.
China has a long history of comedy, from traditional narrative styles like Xiangsheng/crosstalk to comedic folk operas. Television channels often air original skits from popular celebrities. In recent years, stand-up comedy and other types of modern comedy have developed quickly in mainland China. Its appealing and accessible style, paired with humorous content, has attracted many young viewers. In the UK, stand-up comedy is a mature industry complemented by pub culture. With on-site performances cancelled due to the pandemic, local performers are exploring new ways to convey the art of laughter. Under the pressure of Covid-19 and a “culture of discouragement” (丧文化) among young people, the empathy and joy that comedy brings are even more valuable.
Laughter itself has no borders, but comedic delivery is significantly affected by linguistic differences. How can stand-up comedy integrate into local culture? This year, OCF hopes to ignite a conversation with Chinese and foreign comedians about stories beyond the microphone, ideas and identity in laughter, and our contemporary world’s sensitivities and open-mindedness through cultural differences, lived experiences, and the chemical reaction of joy.
Covid-19 has popularised stand-up comedy in China, exemplified by “Rock & Roast” and a variety of other stand-up comedy TV shows. Today, OCF has the pleasure of interviewing Wei Shu, the director of the Comedy Panel, also a first-year DPhil Psychiatry student at Magdalen College, Oxford. Read on to hear her comedy story and fascinating experiences!
Wei was first exposed to stand-up comedy through watching the TV programme ‘Tonight 80’s Talk Show’, which made her realize that it could be cathartic to talk about worries in life in a relaxing way.
When she was working in London, Wei lived near a popular pub called Angel. She decided to go watch a stand-up comedy show at Angel Comedy Club with a group of friends on her birthday. Being one of the most established comedy pubs in the UK, Angel left a deep impression on Wei. The show she watched was called ‘Yellow Christmas’, an Asian Comedian Special. Sitting close to the stage, Wei was able to observe closely, which further motivated her to take up stand-up comedy. After that day, she signed up for a stand-up comedy workshop. Her instructor Ben Target led workshop participants to improvise, discuss pop culture, and more. The workshops were less about what exactly is a joke and what is comedy, and more about cooperating with strangers. Ben taught Wei how to observe a pub’s environment, the height of the stage, and the influences of lighting on the show and the audience’s psyche. At the end of the day, comedy is a psychological art.
Learning and performing stand-up comedy helped Wei make friends from all walks of life: some depend on government aid, some gave up their job to become full-time writers, some are well-known entrepreneurs, and some lost or broke up with their love partners. Everyone hopes to find a way to express themselves comfortably through comedy. Wei says that the charm of comedy doesn’t come from performers themselves, but from independent thinking and reactions to potential embarrassment.
The pandemic has made many of us reflect on mental health. Perhaps surprisingly, Wei knows many successful comedians who struggle with issues like depression and bipolar disorder. Wei believes that Oxford China Forum’s comedy panel will provide an exciting platform to discuss comedy and mental health in a relaxing yet academic environment.
Q&A with OCF
Q1: As a comedian, how do you get your source of creation? Is it from your personal experience? To what extent would your personal experience contribute to your creative work?
Wei: It depends. To me, my creativity is somewhat relevant to my personal experience. When I feel that trifles in life contain enough sensitivity, they all can be my sources of creation. One of my recent ideas came to mind when I was strolling in downtown Oxford with my friend. My friend said: ‘I think there’s some bubble of bubble tea when we noticed that there were a lot of bubble tea shops.’ I thought it was very interesting, though neither he nor I considered it a joke. However, as I went by the shops again later on, I couldn’t help laughing. In fact, this is a very simple piece of material for wordplay.
Q2: I thought of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She is in a society where women are expected to assist their husbands and educate their kids. Women taking up comedy is actually seen as a betrayal, but Mrs. Maisel still gained great success, becoming a comedian with great achievements. May I ask, as a Chinese woman who does stand-up in an English environment, have you ever encountered obstacles or challenges due to your identity, and how have you overcome those?
Wei: This is actually an issue that a lot of people care about. The status quo of stand-up in the UK —perhaps in the world — is that of a male-dominated industry. In the beginning, female comedians had few sources of creation. For example, some Asian women’s source materials for open mics are English accents and dating white men. When materials are restricted, comedians themselves are the ones who should evolve and expand their horizons in order to lead the audience and the industry’s perspectives. On the other hand, when Asian female comedians go deep into the issues of accent and dating white males, they themselves could deepen stereotypes of Asian women. For myself, as a woman, I am grateful that I have received great support in my comedy career. But I can feel that when you want to go further, you have to put in more effort than your peers do due to your gender and race. Extreme things can happen in every industry. However, when you are well-known and influential enough, conflicts resolve to some extent, so I think in the end it’s perhaps due to your creativity.
Q3: Historically, entertainers are often said to suffer from mental illnesses. Why so?
Wei: What I study at Oxford is mainly psychosis. One of its dominant symptoms is paranoia. It can be explained as overthinking about one’s surroundings. Clinically, most of the time, it is defined as negative. Patients think others will hurt them, and consider common things as threats. However, sometimes I think it’s a kind of sensitivity. It is very important to have sensitivity when it comes to comedy, since creating comedy needs over-interpretation. Some have asked me before what are some commonalities among comedians. I think everyone is contrastingly different, but to mention one thing in common, that will be sensitivity. Sensitivity is a double-edged sword. It can make you more insightful and sympathetic, but also pessimistic. As a result, some comedians themselves are not happy about life, and this sensitivity magnifies emotion.
About the Comedy Panel at OCF2021
There’s never been a better time to talk about laughter after 2020’s never-ending anxiety. Comedy, more specifically stand-up comedy, has become a new phenomenon in China in recent years. Promoted by online programs such as Roast and Talk-show Gig, which offer great spaces for boundary-testing content and relatable humour, an emerging young population in China has become fans of this new form of entertainment. Meanwhile in the UK, where stand-up has traditionally been nurtured by pub culture, comedians are looking for new ways to sustain laughter in a pandemic. While humour is universally enjoyed, its context is always linked to language and environment. As a narrative art driven by personal experience and introspection, what are the untold stories behind the stand-up scene, and how do mechanisms for humorous relief vary in different cultures? With all these open-ended questions in mind, we hope to gradually unpack the human conditions behind comedy both in China and the UK, and explore how the pandemic has reshaped the relationship between the comedy industry and its young audience’s social wellbeing.