Joe Wong is a Chinese national who moved to the US—following a brief stint as a chemical engineer in Texas—to become a stand-up comedian. Honing his craft since the early aughts, Wong achieved the funnyman equivalent of the American Dream nearly a decade later, following his performances on Late Show With David Letterman and Ellen in 2009 and at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner in 2010. But prior to becoming something of a household name stateside, Wong traveled to Beijing in 2008 to perform the Chinese language version of his act, opening with one of his best-known punch lines: "Hi everybody… So, I'm Irish."
While this intentionally ridiculous statement always received big laughs from American audiences, the Chinese crowd was entirely unresponsive, apparently unaware that Wong's comedy routine had begun. Suffice it to say, the rest of his act bombed. Wong learned the hard way that American humor doesn't always translate into Chinese and vice versa—in fact, he published an autobiographical look at the subject, The Tao of Humor earlier this year. Although humor is largely dependent on individual preferences, by examining broad socio-historic development of the United States and China, we can see how these two nations developed their entirely different sensesof humor.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to "LOL"
The United States is a nation of immigrants, often called the Great Melting Pot due to her citizens deriving from all corners of the globe. With such ethnic diversity, it's no wonder that so much of modern American humor derives from distinctive races, religions and ideologies. One group that became extremely successful was the Jewish community with comic legends like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Rodney Dangerfield, Woody Allen and Jon Stewart. Another successful minority is the African American community with classic TV shows like the Jeffersons, the Cosby Show and Family Matters; while stand-up comedians like Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock are also extremely popular. Particularly in the past several decades, Latino (Carlos Mencia), feminist (Roseanne Barr), blue-collar (Jeff Foxworthy) comedians and countless other sub-genres have all found a niche in modern US society as well. But while each of these cliques have found success within their own community, the commonly-identified Great Melting Pot mentality has allowed their jokes to permeate racial boundaries and appeal to individuals from all different backgrounds.
Another popular style of American humor is slapstick—a broad form of comedy that consists of boisterous, physical and/or mock-violent actions. Though early forms first appeared during the European Renaissance and in comedies by Shakespeare, slapstick really took off in the United States during the Vaudeville era (1880s-1930s). With so many Americans emigrating from different countries and speaking a variety of languages, slapstick, which wholly relied on the use of body language (pies to the face), props (the infamous whoopee cushion) and facial expressions to deliver emotions, was the perfect universal form of humor, as it didn't need spoken language to convey its message. Some of the greatest comedians of all time, such as the British-born Charlie Chaplain and the Three Stooges, were slapstick artists whose routines are just as popular today as they were nearly a century ago. And if you're still not convinced of slapstick's staying power, look no further than the crew from Jackass who put a modern, vehement twist on the genre.
Confucius says: Man who wants pretty nurse must be patient
While China too is a multiethnic/multilingual nation, 92% of the 1.3 billion are ethnic Han. Due to the homogenization of race and often closing its borders to the outside world, the Middle Kingdom never developed the same kind of racial diversity as the United States. Consequentially, the focal aspect of Chinese humor is its own language deriving from within its own borders. Mandarin is unique since it uses logograms, has many homonyms and homophones, and can be written and read in various directions. The most basic example of this linguistic humor is calling your mother a horse, as the only difference between the two is a slight change in tone (mother is mā 妈; horse is mǎ 马). Another common antidote is of a woman on a bus who stands up at every bus stop because she reads the Chinese sign from right to left ("When the bus stops, stand up") instead of from left to right ( "Stopping at the next bus stop").
Modern wordplay is oftentimes more risqué, such as the initially innocent-sounding grass mud horse, river crab and intelligent fragrant chicken. Grass mud horse (草泥马cǎoní mǎ) is pronounced nearly identically to the Chinese phrase for f*** your mother . Meanwhile, river crab (河蟹 héxiè) is just a few tones off from the Mandarin word harmony, a term used to mock the strict internet regulations that Beijing deems necessary for social and political harmony. And coming in last, intelligent fragrant chicken (达菲鸡 dá fěijī) is just one tone off from the modern slang word for masturbation.
A popular Chinese version of stand-up is called cross-talk, or xiangsheng (相声). Xiangsheng is a mono or multi character performance that's comprised of speaking, imitating, teasing and singing. The character or characters usually talk directly to the audience, wear elaborate clothing, use creative puns/metaphors, and are known to take historic comic skits from the past and put a modern spin on them. Though xiangsheng can be critical at times (especially when subliminally poking fun at governmental policy) most of the humor would be considered rather childish for the average American audience, perhaps since the Chinese have the unwritten rule of saving face. In other words, jokes aimed at one's personal life are not perceived as funny in Chinese xiangsheng because this causes one to lose face. For example, when US comedian Judy Carter opened a gig in front of a predominately Chinese audience by saying, "I just broke up with my boyfriend," the audience didn't laugh—they actually awed out of sympathy since relationships are such a personal matter in China. Moreover, in a nation where pornography is illegal, any remarks—comedic or otherwise—regarding sex or sexually related matters are also extremely taboo and never mentioned on stage. So xiangsheng, unlike the majority of US stand-up acts, stays clear from these touchy subjects, instead opting for a more face-saving and innocent act.
The final act
It's not hard to see why Joe Wong's "I'm Irish" joke and others like it are hits in the US and not in China—it's purely based off the socio-historic development of each nation, just as much as language, customs and religions are. These same cultural differences are what makes Judy Carter breaking up with her boyfriend and the crew from Jackass hurting themselves funny for an American, while an intelligent fragrant chicken and a xiangsheng performance are hilarious for a Chinese. In the age of globalization, however, humor like so many other aspects of contemporary society, is becoming internationalized. As the growing influence of Western and American humor catches on in Chinese pop culture, it's hard to say whether or not the puns, idioms and historic parodies of traditional Chinese humor will disappear, or simply evolve. Let's hope, for the river crabs' sake, that it's the latter.
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Keywords: Chinese stand up comedian Joe Wong funny Chinese jokes differences in Chinese and American humor
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Does anyone else think the translation for the 草泥马 homonym is off? Granted, the difference is just between you and your mother.
I'd always understood xiangsheng to refer to comic dialogues and by extension *primarily* comic duo performances, not a "mono or multi-character performance" and some discussion of the parallel (?) form in the work of Abbott and Costello and/or Laurel and Hardy.
Also, I'd have expected even a brief discussion of the characteristics of American stand-up comedy to at least mention Lenny Bruce. Also missing is any reference to the influence of 'stoner humor' ala the Firesign Theater or Cheech and Chong.
Great idea for an article, but the delivery's a bit flat.
Oct 09, 2012 13:53 Report Abuse
That second paragraph should have read: "I'd always understood xiangsheng to refer to comic dialogues and by extension *primarily* comic duo performances, not a "mono or multi-character performance." Some discussion of the parallel (?) form in the work of Abbott and Costello and/or Laurel and Hardy would have been welcomed.
Oct 10, 2012 11:41 Report Abuse
Using comedy to become a successful teacher in China means adopting the slapstick style of the Three Stooges or similar. The kids love it and the more stupid you are the more they love the class. Intersperse the slapstick with the English you are trying to teach and you have a sure method of success. Play on words or using verbal humour is, of course, a waste of time in Chinese classes of all ages. Maintain simple worded jokes and the students will understand. Body language is the best. I agree with the writer about the enormous difference in western humour and Chinese humour and it's difficult to see the Chinese style ever changing. Then again is that necessary anyway? To each his own as long as you find SOMETHING funny in life!
Oct 09, 2012 15:48 Report Abuse
This is exactly what's driving the "foreign monkey" industry in China. The Chinese staff that teach English teach the "important" stuff like grammar, reading, etc. Meanwhile, foreign teachers must dance and "adopt a slapstick style" to get a couple of cheap laughs out of their students? Congratulations, you've traveled around the world to be a stooge for some rotted-tooth spoiled little emperor.
May 20, 2015 06:47 Report Abuse
Humor reflects the spirit of the age. Some of our best comics from as little as 20 years ago seem lame to me now, although I loved them at the time. And they seem very lame to new audiences.
Chinese humour reflects the Chinese zeit geist, I am not Chinese and don't expect to see the funny side.
Oct 11, 2012 01:21 Report Abuse
Gauging on what I've watched on Chinese TV for seven years, slapstick and mistaken identity/mistaken circumstance comedy is most popular here, which is the easiest and lowest of brown humor. Dry, droll, topical, sarcastic or satire are all but dead here. Hell, people here I know think the Three Stooges is too hard to understand.
Apr 20, 2015 08:48 Report Abuse
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