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Monday, September 21, 2020, 18:06
Dearth of comediennes no laughing matter
By Chen Nan
Monday, September 21, 2020, 18:06 By Chen Nan

Female performers eager to make their mark

Kai Feng, founder of the C+ comedy club in Beijing, performs at the venue. (XU KANGPING / FOR CHINA DAILY)

The lack of stand-up comediennes in China has puzzled Yang Li for some time.

The 28-year-old comic, who made her stage debut in 2017 and turned professional the following year, when she also started writing scripts, has been struggling to come up with an answer.

As Yang, one of China's few female stand-up comediennes, has gained a fan base during the past three years, she has continued to think hard about this issue.

When she discussed it with her younger brother early this year, she found his opinion both hilarious and relevant.

Her sibling said: "It's not just stand-up comedy. Many industries have far fewer women than men. For example, in The Avengers (in Marvel Comics), there's only one female superhero, Black Widow."

Bursting into laughter, Yang conceded that he had a point as, like most stand-up comics, the superheroes in The Avengers are mainly men.

She wrote down her thoughts about perceived prejudice against stand-up comediennes, turning her ideas into material for performances.

When Yang appeared on the third season of the popular stand-up comedy reality show Rock & Roast, which premiered on July 22 and was produced by the online streaming platform Tencent Video, she became an instant sensation with her sharp views and unique humor.

"When men become superheroes, they save the world with their wit and power. What about Black Widow? Her superpower is that she doesn't age," she said on the show.

"She is always beautiful and in good shape. Audiences don't want to see a female superhero who is 60 years old and looks out of shape."

Yang's performances, which usually last about five minutes, have not only given her the chance to continue competing on the show, but have stirred a considerable amount of online discussion about the topics she addresses, such as gender issues, single women and prejudice against females.

Li Yu, a stand-up comedy fan, who watched Yang perform on Rock & Roast, said, "I feel close to the issues she raises on the show, such as prejudice against women at work and single women being pushed into marriage by their parents.

"She brings a fresh perspective to her personal experiences, which she shares with audiences, especially women-only ones, and her jokes have an unexpected twist."

It was not the first time that Yang had performed on Rock & Roast, which premiered in 2017. With some 2.3 billion online views, the show is aimed at popularizing stand-up comedy among Chinese audiences.

Last year, Yang failed to reach the semifinals of the show, but this year she set out to challenge herself.

"With more opportunities to perform onstage, I feel much more comfortable and confident. I have seen lots of online comments about my performances. No matter if the comments are good or bad, I will continue to speak out.

"I am a woman and I tend to address topics that concern women, based on experiences in my life. I feel fulfilled after I finish my performances."

A stand-up comedy act is staged at the BiliBili World 2020 carnival in Shanghai last month. (ZHOU YOU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Vision of the future

Born and raised in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, Yang graduated from the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, where she majored in graphic design.

Before becoming a professional comedienne, she worked in the capital as a graphic designer, and at one time checked theater admission tickets.

However, she said her life was boring and aimless, and it was not until she watched the stand-up comedy reality show Roast in 2017, produced by Tencent Video, that she realized this was where her future lay.

On Roast, celebrities perform as stand-up comics. They make fun of themselves and tell jokes about embarrassing incidents that have resulted in them hitting the headlines.

In 2017, at a small club in Beijing, Yang had her first experience of performing stand-up comedy.

"The club was recruiting new comics. I spent a week preparing for my performance. I just spoke about small incidents in my life, but I was very nervous about testing my ideas onstage," she said.

"Although I didn't get any laughs, I felt good afterward and enjoyed performing in front of an audience.

"Initially, I just wanted to talk, to express myself. It's fun telling my stories and bringing a touch of irony to my views, and it feels great when I make people laugh."

At that time, Yang was performing about 10 shows a week. Gradually, she gained experience in writing her own material, and her onstage nerves disappeared.

"I just performed as much as possible, which was a great way to help me forget my nerves," she said.

After becoming a scriptwriter for Roast, in 2018, Yang signed for Shanghai Fun Factory Entertainment Co.

Founded in 2014, the company promotes stand-up comedy in China through live performances at home and overseas. It also produces stand-up comedy reality shows, including Rock & Roast and Roast.

The origins of stand-up comedy can be traced to Europe and North America in the 1800s.

However, it is still relatively new in China, with open mic nights first emerging in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai in about 2009.Successful stand-up shows, such as 80's Talk Show and Rock & Roast, have seen the Western style of comedy take root in China, attracting many young fans.

Some bars and clubs in the bigger cities offer Chinese stand-ups the chance to perform to live audiences.

With the profession taking off in the country, these stand-ups can now make a living from it, but some also have to continue doing their day jobs.

Although there are still only a few stand-up comediennes in the country, some of them have shown they have the talent to perform and have won large fan bases with their views on life from a feminine perspective.

Fifty comics from across the country-13 of them female-took part in the first round of competition for third season of Rock & Roast.

In addition to Yang, twin sisters Yanyi and Yanyue stood out with their performances on the show.

Born in Jiangxi province, the 25-year-olds began their careers as stand-up comics after graduating from Southwest University of Political Science & Law in Chongqing three years ago.

They got into the business by taking part in a workshop launched by Shanghai Fun Factory Entertainment Co in 2017, before becoming stand-up comedy scriptwriters.

Yanyi said: "Since childhood, we've loved reading books and we always dreamed about becoming writers. We've watched some Western stand-up comedy shows online but we never planned to become comedy writers and performers ourselves."

The twins were encouraged to take part in the workshop by the writer, scriptwriter and stand-up comic Li Dan.

Li, 30, was a scriptwriter for the 80's Talk Show. In 2017, he helped launch the first season of Roast, which was a huge success. Four seasons of the show have been broadcast, attracting a total of more than 7 billion online views.

Yanyi said: "Starting out in stand-up comedy can be overwhelming and a little scary. Li Dan kept encouraging us to write and perform, which was tempting but challenging for us."

Last year, the twins performed during the second season of Rock & Roast, but finished last.

However, this year, they won plenty of laughs and applause during their appearances on the show-far-exceeding their expectations.

One of their routines centers on prejudice about women's weight. They tell jokes about the fashion house Brandy Melville and its line of extra-skinny clothing.

"We actually went to one of the stores to shop. Many young women were trying to shimmy into Brandy Melville's only-size skinny jeans, and this inspired us to talk about weight discrimination," Yanyi said.

Capturing attention

After one of their performances, an audience member posted on a social media platform, "After watching you perform, I decided to stop obsessing about size."

Yanyue said: "We never expected to be able to bring about change. In addition to being funny, we want to deliver thought-provoking ideas with our performances.

"The best part of performing stand-up comedy as twins is that we can easily catch people's attention. However, it's also a disadvantage for us, because we have to make the act work as a pair and we cannot improvise."

Yanyi said: "Everything we talk about onstage is written and rehearsed well. We usually write and rewrite, over and over again. What happens to us, to our friends and on the news forms part of our material. We want to be in a position where there are no limits to the roles we can play."

The twins also said that since stand-up comedy in China is still in its infancy, there is huge potential for it, with performers continuing to test their ideas onstage and audiences keeping open minds.

Yanyi and Yanyue, who live in Shanghai, hone their comedy skills by giving numerous live performances. They also write scripts for stand-up comedy reality shows.

Through live performances and online reality shows, audiences have got to know more about young stand-up comics, such as Pang Bo and Wang Jianguo, and bilingual comedienne Yang Mengqi, who is also known as Norah Yang. These performers tour nationwide and also overseas.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Li Dan has had to cancel or postpone his shows in China and abroad, including stops in the United States and Canada next month.

He told The Paper in March: "A stand-up comedian is on the verge of success when he or she can perform for a full hour. For Chinese stand-up comics, everything is possible and new. There are no rules."

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