A few months ago, I put together a story for the Boston Globe about local comedian Joe Wong returning to his native China to perform stand-up comedy. I set it up and gave some context, and then Wong told the story of his trip in his own words.
So when I found a link in James Fallows’ blog for The Atlantic about a film called My Beijing Birthday, in which an American goes to China to study stand-up comedy in a class with children, I wondered how the two experiences might compare. The film is playing at the Harvard University Law School tonight and the Hult International Business School on Wednesday (click the Atlantic link for details).
I got in touch Howie Snyder, the writer and director of the documentary, and the American in question, through e-mail, to ask a few questions about the film. The New Yorker went to China in 1996 and studied for about a year and a half in a class with 8-year-olds, then revisited them years later to see what they’d become. The film follows his interaction with the kids, in the initial class and his 2008 return visit.
What made you decide to pursue stand-up comedy in Beijing?
Well, I first went to Beijing as a foreign exchange student in 1981. When I would stop in the street, crowds of Chinese people would surround me just to stare and listen to me speak Chinese. I thought then that it would be easy to sell tickets, and so the seed for being a performer was planted.
What was your previous experience with stand-up?
No other stand-up experience here in America, although I was always a funny guy.
I know there is a tradition of stand-up in China, and it's starting to grow more towards western ideas of it -- from the two-person, straight man/funny man teams to individuals with an individual point of view. What were your expectations of the art form in China, and what did you find that surprised you when you were there?
Well, I am sorry to say that the art form is not really going towards the Western idea, as it is pretty controlled by the government. Making political and sexual jokes are basically not allowed, so the art form has been losing steam over the past few years. Any comedy must poke fun at strange phenomena in society, as so limiting political and sexual jokes really takes away from the art form's true potential.
Please see this link for some of the recent history on stand-up in China.
Did you find their thoughts about wanting to be in show business were different than those same kinds of dreams that kids have in America?
I think that those Chinese kids in 1996 were a lot more innocent and naive than US kids. They just liked the art form. There wasn't a real sense that they wanted to become celebrities and live a Hollywood life like people in the US want to.
What did you expect to find when you went back after twelve years?
I expected that the kids would all be in college or continuing with their studies, and that they would be "good" young adults. By "good" I mean not in to drugs or alcohol like many kids in the US. I expected that one or two of them would still be engaged in some sort of performing arts, but that most of them would have moved on to something else. This is exactly what happened.
Did you stay in China after the film?
I still live in China. I have been working for Coca-Cola on their Olympic sponsorship, and will probably work for them again in the Spring.