Standing up for laughs
Updated: 2014-01-19 00:51
Funny thing is, Chinese performing Western-style stand-up are getting guffaws in a society long dominated by traditional comedic cross-talk dialogues.
Belle Taylor gets a feel for what's tickling the country's funny bone in a new way.
Mia Li was stark naked the first time she tried her hand at stand-up comedy. The bar remained silent after she told her first joke. Soap has a tendency to do that. "Other people sing in the shower. I would tell jokes to myself and I would be laughing, 'ha ha! You're so funny Mia!'" The 29-year-old doubles over in mock laughter — an exaggerated impersonation of her comic bathing routine. "For the longest time, I had this joke about me being a reporter. I said: 'I have to go to press conferences wearing a badge on my chest that says 'Press'. And then some people would press! Now I have two choices: Either I can press back — in that case I am a correspondent. Or, I can tell my boss about it — in that case I am a reporter.'"
"I just thought of this in the shower, and I would laugh for 10 minutes."
The problem was, outside the shower, Li had few performance opportunities.
Ever since discovering clips of US comedians online, Li had been an avid stand-up comedy fan, devouring online footage of acerbic, perspicacious comedians like George Carlin, Robin Williams, David Cross, Jon Stewart and Mitch Hedburg.
But the Western-style form of comedy hadn't yet reached Beijing.
Li was stuck telling jokes to the soap.
That was, until 2011, in the midst of a particularly bleak Beijing winter.
"I had a group of friends who really liked stand-up, and one day we got really bored," Li explains.
"We were just like: 'What could make us happy? What would cheer us up?' And we were like: 'Oh! We could have a comedy club and we could have a little bar or something, and we would tell some little jokes and that would save us from this depression'."
They approached a local bar and printed posters advertising the gig.
"We had no money so we printed like five copies," Li says.
"We had one outside the bar, one inside the bar, one in the green room for ourselves to admire. I don't know what happened to the other two."
They staged one of Beijing's first-ever grassroots comedy nights.
"I was the only Chinese person. I was the only girl," Li says.