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It's no joke as we laugh at stand-up comedy

By Xing Wen | (China Daily) | 2022-10-18

Entertainment genre is growing as more performers highlight the funny side of life, Xing Wen reports.

The coastal city of Qingdao, Shandong province, is a place of fond memories for Mao Jian.

He was a soldier based in the city and served in the cookhouse of a naval escort fleet a few years ago.

The retired soldier returned this year, serving the people in a new role as a stand-up comedian under the stage name Maodou (edamame) and competed in the fifth season of the hit comic talent show Rock and Roast.

It was mission accomplished as his jokes hit the target every time.

Onstage he reminisced mostly about personal stories.

He mixed the banal with the bizarre for an incendiary combination. "On Somali waters, one of the most dangerous places in the world, I was marinating pig intestines," he told the audience before laughter exploded.

The 30-year-old's colorful life experiences make it easy for him to find his comedic voice and stay prolific in writing joke sets. "I have many personal stories to tell," he says.

After retiring from the army in 2018, he tried a number of trades and occupations: he has worked as a construction worker, a gatekeeper, a deliveryman and a cook in a friend's restaurant.

Currently, he is working for a water supply company in his hometown Dalian in Northeast China's Liaoning province.

After he finished his day job, he would head to a local stand-up comedy club.

The popularity of the comic form in China is epitomized in Dalian.

There are eight clubs in the city, Mao says.

Nearly 180 stand-up comedy clubs sprung up across the country by the end of last year.

Xiaoguo Culture, a Shanghai-based leading comedy company, ran more than 1,500 stand-up shows and open-mic events in 30 cities last year. This covered an audience of more than 400,000 people and attracted a box-office income in excess of 80 million yuan ($11.14 million).

The flourishing stand-up scene has been attracting a ballooning number of people from diverse backgrounds. This is reflected by this year's online stand-up comedy competition Rock and Roast where Mao and many other budding comedians, from different walks of life, and various ages, came to strut their stuff.

"Those who just broke into the business have brought in refreshing materials," says Bai Hongyu, producer of the comic competition.

He adds that stand-up comedians use their wits to anatomize social topics and help audiences overcome fears and anxiety.

Bai says today's young people tend to pay attention to authentic self-expression when they are watching recreational shows.

This means that stand-up comedy, one of the most personal forms of entertainment, has an advantage.

"It's more likely for you to resonate with the audience when your set feels personal and authentic," he says.

Chen Lin, another participant in the show with the stage name Danjuan (egg roll), agrees, saying that he could be captivated by colorful stories told by comedians with broad experience of life's ups and downs.

Chen himself started to be a part-time stand-up comedian in 2018. The comic form allows him to record and share his life stories.

Many of his sets revolve around the vagaries of life when running his own catering business in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Some are about his relationship with his family.

Regarding what motivates him to find a career in stand-up business, he says: "It's fun and earns me money."

"It's simply a job for me. I'm not eager to pursue any ideals in the performing art," he adds.

If possible, he's also willing to take other job positions behind the scenes in the stand-up comedy industry, such as scriptwriter and maybe even an operator of comedy shows.

Separately, being a part-time stand-up comedian, to some extent, ensures he stays grounded and learns from daily life. "I should weave the materials that I get from firsthand experience and observations on a daily basis into a set of jokes," he says.

"Living a life, devotedly, is pivotal for a stand-up comedian."

He says the boom in stand-up attracts many young people to throw themselves into the industry right after graduation. This, he believes, is a mistake.

Their stand-up routines lack the knowledge and experience of life and how fate always plays the winning hand.

It is being able to look at this with humor that provides the comic's ammunition.

Some comedians have a shot at achieving fame and fortune, he says, adding that many other performers who remain in obscurity should plan a sustainable career for themselves.

Invited to compete

As a general rule, stand-up comedians have to hone their stage presence and delivery of each punchline in open-mic events again and again before they make a name out there. Yet Cao Peng is an exception.

As a senior osteopath from Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, he helps with operations, conducts scientific research, as well as a number of other medical duties of every single day. He could only watch clips of other comedians and mentally refine his sets during work intervals.

However, lack of practice won't stop him sailing through comedy competitions. Last year, he claimed the top prize in the stand-up comedy competition Doctor Talk Show, a TV program that gathers representatives from healthcare institutions in Shanghai to deliver stand-up routines that help promote health awareness.

Later, he was invited to compete in another comic competition produced by Dragon TV and successfully made his way to the finals.

This year, he stepped onto the stage of the online comic show Rock and Roast, a gathering of the country's most famous and promising stand-up comedians. His role as an osteopath always comes first in his performances. And he regards the comic form as an efficient way to spread medical knowledge.

Today, it's hard to engage people's attention when they are overwhelmed by different sources of information conveyed by video, print and audio, Cao says.

"Stand-up comedy, a popular comic form, inspires us to turn serious knowledge into funny sets that are well accepted by the masses," he adds.

He also runs a channel on the video-sharing platform Bilibili to further promote useful tips on how to improve and preserve spine health, such as treatments for lumbar muscle strain and the best sleeping position for neck pain.

He hopes to retain the approachable, comic style he's learned from stand-up in filming the healthcare promotion videos so as to attract a larger group of viewers.

"I can also draw inspiration from the storytelling skills in stand-up to better capture the attention of audiences in my future public speeches, as well as communications with my patients," he says.

Contact the writer at xingwen@chinadaily.com.cn

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People from various walks of life and age groups, including (from top) Cao Peng, Mao Jian, twins Yan Yi and Yan Yue, Wang Shiqi and Chen Lin, display their knack of humor on the stage of the comic show Rock and Roast this year. CHINA DAILY

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Snapshots from the online comic show Rock and Roast. CHINA DAILY