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Jesse Appell of Gangnam parody “Laowai Style” talks to The Nanfang about comedy

Posted: 07/2/2013 1:00 pm

Last year, Fulbright scholar Jesse Appell became an online sensation in China when his music video “Laowai Style” went viral. Since then, he has continued to develop his art and entertain more Chinese people, and China hands, with his talent.

Recently, after seeing an impressive stand-up act he gave at the Bookworm in Beijing, The Nanfang asked him to take time to chat. He kindly agreed.

Like the conversation itself, this write-up may meander at times because it’s difficult to stay on topic when you talk with somebody who has so many interesting things to say.

We started off discussing how stand-up comedy, as we know it in the West, is very different to the Chinese tradition of xiangsheng, which is usually translated as “crosstalk.”

One difference is in the audience-performer dynamic. In crosstalk, Appell said, the audience dynamic is more similar to a play, where the audience is expecting to be engaged but does not actively engage themselves. In stand-up comedy, the comedian’s persona is more often than not an everyman, lessening the distance between performer and audience. For this reason, direct bridge-building between performer and audience is a lot more common in Western stand-up comedy. Many young Chinese comedians who are attracted to the Western way of doing things enjoy this more direct engagement.

We then discussed how simply talking about how he’s a laowai has become central to his act. “There are two things to say about this,” he said. “Number 1, I wish it wasn’t the case. Number 2, we have no choice.”

Unlike in America, if a person who doesn’t look Chinese speaks the language and shows knowledge of the culture, people can’t get past the fact that they want to know why, Appell opined. The result is that people are curious about how and where that person learned these things, and that curiosity colors and overwhelms the reaction to laugh. “You have to get this out of the way at the start of the show, you have to acknowledge the fact that you’re a Laowai speaking Chinese,” he said.

However, unlike the CCTV comedy “Laowai Laile” he avoids jokes that revolve around the limitations of his Chinese or his understanding of China.

“Ultimately, my hope is to show through comedy that foreigners can and do understand China, so telling stories about how I misspoke one time or found myself in an awkward situation because of lack of knowledge about Chinese culture doesn’t help with that,” Appell said.

Despite his unwillingness to pander, Appell takes pride in the inoffensiveness of “Laowai Style” in the eyes of the Chinese viewer. There are many things that foreigners can’t be joke about in China, including making offensive implications about their host country and its government. And so creating comedy that engages people has been a challenge. Yet continutes to think of comedy as a force that transcends cultures.

Appell added that the reason many foreigners will speak the language well but never blend in in China is due to lack of understanding of the culture and how body-language works, he said.

We hope that Jesse can continue to learn enough to enlighten us and make us laugh for many years to come.

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