In 2013, comedian Joe Wong returned to China after living in the United States for close to two decades — first graduating from Rice University in Houston with a doctorate in biochemistry, then moving to Boston and learning his love for the chemistry of making strangers laugh, which earned him performances on Late Show with David Letterman and Ellen.
Back in Beijing, Wong goes by his Chinese name, Huang Xi, and hosts a popular variety TV show, Is It True?, on the state-sponsored CCTV2. “Hello, everybody, I’m Huang Xi,” he has told his audiences: “Huang like a cucumber, Xi like a watermelon.”
As Christopher Beam reports in a profile on Wong in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Wong’s journey isn’t just about his own career advancement — as he plays to a potential audience of billions — but about the evolution and potential revolution in stand-up comedy happening in the world’s most populous country. Beam looks back at the old traditions of “cross-talk” duo acts in China, the Communist regime’s not-too-keen attitude toward free speech in opposition of it, as well as a culture not quite attuned to speaking out of turn in public. He writes: “Every comedian in China knows that there is a line, but no one knows exactly where it is. There’s the obvious stuff — the “three T’s” of Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen — but the details are anyone’s guess. That’s how censorship works best: Keep the rules vague, and let everyone police themselves. Some comedians stay clear of the line. Others edge toward it, place a toe on the far side, then skitter away. Occasionally someone plows right across it, but the results aren’t always funny.”
Beam also talks to Xi Jiangyue, the founder of the Beijing Talk Show Club; Song Qiyu, a 27-year-old stand-up inspired by Wong’s one-liners but aspiring toward George Carlin’s honest storytelling and inquisitiveness; and Zhou Libo, 48, who stars in the Mr. Zhou Live Show as well as China’s Got Talent.
Here’s an excerpt specifically about Wong’s transition from Chinese-American comedian to Chinese comedy TV host:
The restrictions on TV were even tighter. “Is It True?” had given Wong a colossal audience and a steady paycheck. But the show was an awkward hybrid that combined stand-up with science experiments, and Wong found that he and the producers had competing visions. To appeal to a broad audience, they simplified complex jokes, or got rid of them altogether. Politics and religion were off limits, as usual, but even a harmless joke about infidelity was axed.
On the other hand, Wong found himself telling jokes that would never fly in America. “Here you can joke about fat people,” he told me. “One of my writers is overweight, so we just wrote jokes making fun of him.” It was also acceptable to joke about beating children, Wong said, and to compare people to animals.
Wong’s act had evolved considerably over the past year. He still talked about his life in the United States, and the strangeness of being back in China. But onstage in Tianjin, he was more animated, more vaudevillian. Telling a story about skiing, he pantomimed climbing up the mountain and taking the chair lift down. He bugged out his eyes during punch lines and mugged for the audience. He sang a song, a version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with the lyrics changed to reflect the daily irritations of life in China. The crowd loved it.
“I would not sing a song in America,” he told me later. “It’s so uncool.” Just as Wong had to learn what American audiences wanted — brevity, clarity, unexpected truths about American pieties — he was now learning how to perform for the Chinese.
You can see and hear Wong talk a lot about this all, and from a year ago this week, in fact, from an interview with China’s English-language Blue Ocean Network “On The Level” program. Roll it.