'We're trying to bring cultures closer together through comedy': bilingual comic Jesse Appell

American cross-cultural comedian talks stand-up tips and Chinese comedy

Since coming to Beijing in 2012, Boston native Jesse Appell has researched traditional Chinese comedy as a Fulbright scholar, made the successful leap into Chinese stand-up, become a TV star and viral web hit, and now opened Beijing’s first dedicated cross-cultural comedy club – the right guy to speak to about all things funny here in the capital, then.

How would you say Beijing comedy is going right now?
The English stand-up scene fluctuates with how many expats are here but, as a whole, it’s a little stronger than when I first got here in 2012. The Chinese side, however, has seen explosive growth in that time; from around six or seven comedians on the circuit when I started, there’s now open mics nearly every weekday, it’s on web and TV shows, and there are live shows every weekend. What would have been the biggest and best show just two years ago would be an average one now. A lot of comedians who were in the underground scene when I arrived are now making a living from stand-up.

Which Beijing stand-ups should we keep an eye out for?
David Fertitta (pictured, below) is always very funny, Jonny Whinna and Lincoln Van der Westhuizen too. There’s also Josh Tyas who I really like, but unfortunately he moved to Shanghai recently. As for Chinese comedians, look for Shi Laoban and a guy named Zhou Qimo. He just won this big online TV standup show.

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What tips would you give someone looking to get into stand-up? Is Beijing a tough place to start?
It doesn’t matter where you are really – if you can get up on stage for the first time, you’ve already conquered the biggest fear. Do an open mic, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I do stand-up for a living now, but even if I write ten new jokes, I only really expect two or three to work. Just get up there and try to connect with the audience.

Is it important to not be too negative, offensive or critical as a comedian – particularly if you’re a foreign stand-up in this, a host country?
It’s tricky because there’s no law that says comedy’s not allowed to offend. As a guest in another country though, there should be an element of respect; really make sure you know exactly what you’re saying – you owe it to the audience to at least do that. A lot of times when expat humour is offensive, it’s not because somebody thought, ‘You know, I really think I’ve got a point here’. More often, they were just going off the top of their head.

So steer clear of hot topics?
Comedy’s as a good a place to offend as anywhere, because at least it’s an open forum: if one comedian comes on and says something a little off-colour, another can come on and talk about it, or a Chinese comedian can come on a rip them a new one. It’s an open forum for thought, and with people from different cultures coming together, you might eventually bump heads. It’s far better to have these open forums than not have them though.

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We last spoke to you in 2013. What have you been up to since?
At the end of that year, I started trying to make living as a full-time Chinese comedian, and it’s actually worked out! I do shows around the country, in big theatres, small theatres, on Chinese cruise ships and on Chinese TV shows – a little bit of everything. I’ve been in Shanghai for the last couple of months, writing and performing with a team from the US-China Comedy Center on a Chinese sketch show called Mofan Jiazu, which is up on iQiyi. It's kind of like a knock-off version of SNL, where we do live stage sketches and occasionally some stand-up routines. It’s been crazy, with lots of ups and downs, but we’re doing it, we’re actually doing it! There’s been a lot of experiences that have been very informative.

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The Beijing Broads, Beijing's first all-female improv troupe, in action at the US-China Comedy Center

You started the US-China Comedy Center in 2016. Tell us more about it.
It's a cross-cultural comedy club set in a hutong courtyard, but it's also a social enterprise: we're trying to figure out a way to bring cultures together through comedy. We host English, Chinese and bilingual comedy shows, including stand-up, improv, and occasionally mime and traditional xiangsheng. We hold free and paid workshops where people can learn how to do improv, and also have a professional improv team that serve as a writing team for Chinese sketch shows.

We’re alive after one year of operations and we’re growing, doing more shows than ever, and we got our Chinese improv troupe on a professional big production that’s coming out soon. We also recently won a grant from the US Embassy to do a tour of Chinese improv and standup for Chinese audiences in second- and third-tier cities. So in 2018, we’re gonna be travelling around taking this Western-style comedy to people who might never have seen it before. It will be a great experience.

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