China’s Censors Love The Laugh Track

Chinese comedians are learning the art of the American sitcom.

Zhao Benshan, a famous comedian and a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), walks through a swarm of journalists outside the Great Hall of the People  on March 1, 2013 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
Zhao Benshan, a famous comedian and a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), walks through a swarm of journalists outside the Great Hall of the People on March 1, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

The Chinese comedian Yu Zhenzhong knows how to make 50 people laugh at a stand-up night. But tackling a potential TV audience of 1.4 billion people is another challenge — especially when there’s a smaller but less friendly audience of censors to face first. That’s why Yu headed from Shanghai to London last year to learn the secrets of the laugh track and the family sitcom.

Chinese love comedy as much as anyone else, but the two forms most popular in the country — traditional “cross-talk” and the scathing online humor of the young — don’t always translate to regular commercial programming. Cross-talk, reminiscent of the old Western music hall routines down to the somewhat naughty jokes and the comedy accents, turns around individual performers in a way that’s hard to replicate every week. Online sarcasm, meanwhile, is increasingly scoured from the internet and impossible to put on TV. Audiences and authorities want something regular, safe, and universal — like the multicamera sitcom.

Yu’s company, Houghton Street Media, has partnered with the U.K.-based China Media Centre to sponsor a seminar series teaching Chinese comedy writers how to write Western-style comedies. The workshop is one of several run each year by the China Media Centre, designed to “help Chinese creative talent produce their own ideas in a systematic and commercializable way,” said Hugo de Burgh, the director of the center. For years, these workshops focused on helping Chinese producers localize British programming, but de Burgh noted a recent shift toward equipping Chinese talent to develop their own shows.

Yu’s trip was a product of this shift. He attended three weeks of seminars and returned home to share this knowledge with a small cohort of writers who are behind China’s comedy shows. Houghton Street Media hopes this modest investment in Yu will generate great returns, teaching their writers how “to tell Chinese stories in a more entertaining way,” said Houghton Street Media CEO Rong Zeng.

There is good evidence that this investment will pay off. Foreign comedy shows such as Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and 2 Broke Girls have been hugely popular in China, each having garnered hundreds of millions of views on Chinese streaming sites. Since 1985, when Growing Pains became the first major foreign sitcom to run in China, foreign comedies have given Chinese audiences a chance to imagine life outside the Middle Kingdom, whether or not those visions comport with reality. The Chinese tabloid Global Times’s description of Growing Pains might well apply to all these shows: “[It] wasn’t just fun viewing, it also brought along with it a set of US values that were totally new to Chinese audiences at the time.”

But Chinese audiences have increasingly experienced life abroad, which has diminished the allure of foreign comedies and likely been a factor in their declining popularity. Expanding restrictions on foreign television programs, though, play a more prominent role in constraining the success of these shows and creating more space for local content to flourish — albeit in an environment where the government is taking a heavier hand every year on content. In 2016, China’s media regulator put forward new rules forbidding satellite TV channels from broadcasting more than two programs with imported copyrights during prime time. On the internet, foreign content cannot make up more than 30 percent of a streaming service’s programming. Shows that include time travel or luxurious lifestyles are frowned upon.

Sitcoms are a good vehicle in which to navigate these restrictions. The form is relatively safe, with a long history of taming some sharp tongues. Full House neutered Bob Saget. The George Carlin famous for his biting social commentary and willingness to defend free speech all the way up to the Supreme Court was a far cry from the innocuously witty George Carlin of the short-lived George Carlin Show. Everybody Hates Chris briefly positioned Chris Rock among the “family friendly.” While sitcoms can help expand boundaries — Modern Family helped normalize gay marriage, and The Cosby Show challenged stereotypes of black families — edginess is not expected. In China, where the lines between what is OK and what is not are in constant flux, taking advantage of the traditional sitcom’s friendly and well-defined limits seems a safe bet.

That bet is placed in a pool of total TV and video revenue that is projected to increase from $19.3 billion in 2016 to $27 billion in 2020, according to a 2016 PwC report. Chinese media companies that can tap into the appeal of these foreign comedies to create authentic, homegrown comedy shows will enjoy a greater share of that growing pie.

So the race is on. Well-known Chinese companies such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, as well as more specialized media outfits like the Houghton Street Media and Xiaoguo Media, have all invested in original content. Much of the comedy content is labeled as “talk show,” which refers to, as the Beijing-based comedian Jesse Appell recently put it, “[a]nything where someone’s talking funny.”

He Xiaoxi, the CEO of Xiaoguo Media, said: “Talk show has a different degree of development in China and the United States. The United States already has a huge number of screenwriters, performers, and audience members. … But in China it is just now developing.” A director at a leading Chinese media and entertainment investment firm agreed: “The Chinese audience’s palette for comedy shows is expanding. These forms of comedic entertainment are underdeveloped in China, partly due to the lack of properly trained creative and performance talent.”

Can comedy’s growth also be attributed to a psychological shift in Chinese society? Perhaps. According to Zeng, the Houghton Street Media CEO, “the popularity of comedy reflects a deeper social and cultural insight. The Chinese society is moving forward so quickly. … Our life pace is too fast and therefore creates a lot of anxiety. Comedy is a good therapy.”

None of this is to suggest that Chinese media has no history of canned laughter. China’s first homemade sitcom, I Love My Family, came out in 1993 and successfully ran for 120 episodes. Its creator, Ying Da, later solidified his title as the “godfather of Chinese sitcoms” when, in 1998, he created the show Chinese Restaurant. The success of Ying Da’s shows inspired others: 2004’s Home With Kids the analogue of 1985’s Growing Pains; 2009’s iPartment the cousin of 1994’s Friends. Other comedy styles have grown as well. This year, the show Roast started introducing Chinese audiences to comedy roasts, à la Comedy Central’s celebrity skewerings. Stand-up comedy entered the national spotlight in 2012, when the Post-80s Talk Show featured stand-up comics riffing on popular topics.

Continued growth, though, will depend on cultivating great writers. Western production companies benefit from a mature market with a slew of wannabe and experienced writers from which they can pick and choose. They could hire based on an agency’s recommendation, review sample scripts submitted by young hopefuls, or scout out talent at the hundreds of comedy clubs, improv comedy groups, and black box theaters across the nation. But China, until recently, has lacked these luxuries.

The rising popularity of stand-up comedy throughout China has coincided with an increased production of local shows based on Western comedy styles. The rise can be attributed in part to the efforts of local production companies, several of which own and use comedy clubs to find talent. Zeng confirmed that Houghton Street Media owns a performance venue at which it hosts weekly comedy shows. He, the Xiaoguo Media CEO, noted that investing in live performances has played a useful role in the company’s growth because it has helped Xiaoguo Media recruit good comic talent while also familiarizing Chinese audiences with a foreign style.

Even if stand-up comics remain de facto independent, the growing writing opportunities afforded to them have helped sustain their work. Yu said Houghton Street Media hired nearly half the comics at his Shanghai club; Xiaoguo Media hired the other half. Appell, who runs the US-China Comedy Center, a comedy club in Beijing dedicated to introducing Western-style comedy to China, has spent the last several months in Shanghai with several comics from his club, all of whom were hired to write for a forthcoming show.

Appell pointed out: “In China, there are so many shows and very few people with any experience doing Western-style comedy, so relatively young and inexperienced people have lots of opportunities to get right to the top and make a living being paid to write comedy.” These many opportunities are currently going to a group of fewer than 100 comedy writers across all of China, according to independent estimates by six comics. They primarily live in Beijing and Shanghai — although many of the Shanghai comics got their start in Shenzhen before they were brought to Shanghai to begin TV writing.

This small and supportive community is hungry to develop its craft. Books have provided a collaborative opportunity: Lacking Mandarin-language texts to learn about Western comedy, some writers have dedicated their time trying to read the relevant English-language books and share it with their community. (When he came to meet me for lunch, Yu held an English-language copy of Scott Sedita’s The Eight Characters of Comedy under his arm. He planned to share what he learned with his fellow writers once he could get through the whole thing.) Others have taken to translating: The comedian Walter Chenglu translated Greg Dean’s Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy into Mandarin and shared it with the other writers.

The future of China’s comedy entertainment is yet unclear. Shows produced within the country are unknown to global audiences, and censorship pressures on what is acceptable will likely bar them from enjoying global appeal. But that does not pose a serious problem when there is a built-in market of 1.4 billion people and a steadily increasing urban middle class eager for entertainment after a day at the office. While protectionist walls hold their Western progenitors at bay, Chinese media companies have the room and resources to adapt Western styles for local tastes. Their efforts are likely to be successful, whether or not overseas audiences take notice.

Adapting tried-and-true Western comedy formats for domestic audiences is a sensible move in a society where pushing the boundaries brings more risk than reward. By training writers overseas, translating books, and hewing to foreign formats — such as sitcom and stand-up — that have been successful when they’ve trickled through protectionist barriers, Chinese media companies can profit without taking on the high costs that come with experimentation in search of truly original content.

Dave Hicks is a Shanghai-based writer focusing on the Chinese economy and international relations.

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