The first time I ever performed at an open mic comedy night in China was the first time anyone had ever performed an at open mic comedy night in China. I didn’t know enough about comedy to call it an “Open Mic”, and seeing as I had to pressure my three friends into performing with me, it was more of a sideshow than an actual performance.
“If I build a stage in the corner over there, will you agree to perform next month?” Shaun asked as he leaned over the bar late one night and pushed a free round of tequilas towards my friend Gino and I.
Shaun was an American from Central California looking for a hook to get customers into the newest bar in Suzhou, The Drunken Clam. I was a dude from Northern California with an itch for comedy that I had never scratched. I was also drunk.
On December 17, 2009, seventy people crammed into the shoebox-sized expat bar for one-dollar shots, two-dollar beers and a night of free comedy. There was seating for thirty people, which left forty people standing in whatever space they could push their way into, making the room feel like a subway car during rush hour. The stage was raised six inches off the ground and the comedians had to fight their way through drunken college kids and clouds of cigarette smoke to get to the stage. In any normal situation this room would be a disaster, but for stand-up comedy it was electric.
Everyone killed that first night. Stand up comedy in China was born. It almost died a month later on the second show when we all bombed. It turned out this whole thing was more difficult than we had imagined.
Seven years later stand up is thriving in both English and Chinese in the People’s Republic. My business partner, and fellow comedian, Andy Curtain runs the best club in Asia and the only full-time club in China, Kung Fu Komedy Club. Andy and I spent the last few years successfully developing branches in Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Chengdu and Nanjing. A good comedy scene exists up north in Beijing and down south in Guangzhou.
After spending my entire life as a comedian in Asia, in August of 2016 I landed in New York City with a goal to “make it” and no idea what step to take first. The sheer volume of everything comedy related in New York was overwhelming. Coming from a country that had a total of 100 comedians, I was suddenly in a city with thousands. The speed of and pace of the acts on stage was impressive. Comedy in 10-minute chunks, couldn’t waste time on long set ups and off-topic meandering. I had not developed a bad habit of over-explaining set ups, but I also talked noticeably slow on stage as I was accustomed to speaking to people in their second language. Speaking to all English speakers, predominately from the US was an adjustment.
One of the best parts of being in New York is spreading the word about the place from which I came. Now that the scene is on its way up in Asia, I have found that comedians here are looking east for gigs. With that in mind, I figured I would answer some basic questions that I get all the time regarding comedy in China.
Is Comedy a Full-Time Job in China?
No. If you stay only in China it’s not a big enough market for the English language, however, nobody in Asia thinks of the market as country-specific. We all consider ourselves “Asian-based Comedians” instead of China, Singapore, and Thailand etc. When I was living in China I would tour Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar as much as possible. If you throw all of those shows together you can make a part-time living off of comedy.
All that being said, the scene is growing at a rapid rate and I’m sure within a couple years it will be possible to tour full-time and never have to leave Asia.
What are the Crowds Like?
This is the number one question I get. The crowds in Asia vary dependent upon the country. If the country is English speaking (Philippines, Singapore), the audience will be mostly locals. If the country is not English speaking, the crowd will be expats from all over the world. The comedians in each country’s scene will be a mirror image of the audiences they are performing for. In the Philippines, the local comedy community is almost exclusively Filipino natives. At our club in Shanghai, we currently have comedians from the U.S, China, Australia, Egypt, Belarus, Chile, England, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, France, and Iran.
How Often Can You Perform?
You can perform as often as you are willing to produce a show. The oldest scene in Asia is in Hong Kong, which was started by New Yorker Jami Gong in 2006. Now there are roughly fifty cities around East Asia where you can perform. All of the scenes were started by comedians who wanted stage time. Andy Curtain has four nights of stand-up (two open mics, two booked show) a week plus one night of improv at his club in Shanghai. I lived in Suzhou and hosted an open mic night once a week. Andy and I would regularly take the train back and forth between cities (70 miles, 25 min on the bullet train) so we could do everything in a week.
You can perform 5-6 nights a week in the Shanghai area but you have to be willing to travel between cities for open mics to hit that number.
How are the Open Mics?
Amazing. The upside of having only a show or two a week in most cities in China (outside of Shanghai) is that there is no oversaturation. My city of Suzhou had 8 million people however only 10,000 expats. In a town of 10,000 people, we were able to put 30-50 audience members a week in the back room of a bar to watch the same 8-10 comedians try out new material. Shanghai had great open mics and the ones I have done in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has all been a lot of fun. When there is nothing else to do, people come out for comedy. I would take the stage time on many open mics in Asia over some bar shows in New York.
What is the Goal for Most Comedians?
The goals are almost nothing except having a good time. Comedy Central Asia is based in Singapore, and so there seems to be more of an industry and a path towards television in Singapore and Malaysia. In Shanghai, at the Kung Fu Komedy Club, I know that a few comedians are thinking of moving to New York some day, and the same for a couple friends in South Korea. For the most part, though comedy is just a hobby for people to do after work.
Would You Recommend Performing in Asia?
One hundred percent yes. It is an exploding scene filled with audiences eager to laugh. The scene has not become jaded in terms of fans or industry, which makes it really enjoyable. There isn’t a ton of money to be made so that shouldn’t be the goal when going. If you want to have a good time, meet crazy expats from a million different countries and see if your comedy translates across cultures, buy a plane ticket and get out there.
"Comedy in 10 minute chunks, couldn’t waste time on long set ups and off-topic meandering."
From China with Laughter.
Published on April 2nd, 2017 | by Free Standup NYC
Article by: Turner Sparks