American Comedy Vs. Chinese Comedy

I just saw this great article on WSJ about Joe Wong and his difficulty carrying his American-style, though Chinese inflected comedy over to China.

First off, I’ll say that I’ve never heard of Joe Wong before and I wasn’t exactly blown away by the clips I saw of him.  Apparently he got an appearance on Letterman that jumped him up a notch on the comedy circuit.  I’m sure Eddie Brill saw something worthwhile in him, so benefit of the doubt.  He even got to appear at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner.

I’ve wondered how my own humor would play in Asia.  It did well in the UK when I was there.  Haven’t done the rest of Europe yet, but feedback from my fans in those areas has been good.  My Asian themed jokes do very well in front of Asian-American audiences, but I have no idea what would happen in a pure Asian setting.

American comedy is based in tragedy.  Especially personal tragedy.  And strangely enough, a Chinese audience just feels bad for you instead of laughing, according to the article.  Without self-deprecation, a lot of comics would be out in the cold.  And Joe Wong certainly works in the realm of self-deprecation and stereotype.

The article discusses China’s Cross-Talk style of comedy.  It’s kind of like old Vaudeville duo routines.  I’ve see it on the variety shows on the Chinese channels.  Unfortunately there’s no subtitles, so I still have no idea what the humor is like.  Though apparently it’s falling out of favor these days and younger audiences are getting into the solo standup style.  But with footnotes?  The comic has to explain why the joke is funny at the end?

It’s so counter-intuitive to what we learn to do here.  Not that I haven’t had some audiences that needed the explanation.  But it’s hard to wrap my brain around it.

I think it’s interesting though that humor is not universal.  Even from one region to the next you’ll get completely different responses.  Comedy is deeply embedded in each person’s individual psyche and the artist’s job is to find the bits that will connect with as many people as possible while still retaining an individual voice.

As an example, here’s a clip of mine about Disneyland (click to stream) Many of my fans are Disney people and it does great in front of them.  In front of a regular west coast or east coast audience it does well, but maybe doesn’t kill every time.  In the midwest… no-go.  It’s very hit and miss because they’re just not bombarded with Disney stuff as much as the coasts are.  It might work in Hong Kong though. 🙂

And that’s why I call the it the most dangerous art in the world.

Phil Johnson

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