Make 'em laugh

By Greg Tantala Source:Global Times Published: 2011-6-27 8:16:00

On a Wednesday night at Beedees, a small, dimly-lit bar on Dagu Road, Australian Andy Curtain introduces Morten FausbØell from Denmark, who then takes the stage at open-mic night for Shanghai's only stand-up comedy troupe - Kungfu Komedy.

As FausbØell takes the stage he makes a joke about this week's modest turn out, then moves into his act - ripping on animals. The atmosphere is laid back and the audience interacts with him. Relying on both physical and verbal comedy, he does a bit on pigeon infidelity where Mrs Pigeon berates her husband for his untoward behavior with other female pigeons. FausbØell covers both voices in the argument cooing in pigeonese, fortunately the husband's lines are translated into English for the audience.

He continues his assault on bird relationships by attacking the laziness of female penguins and how the husbands, while keeping the eggs warm, must still conceal this fact from other male penguins, "Why would I have an egg up my ass?" Then he talks about how much he hates pandas, as their lifestyle is better than his. The audience applauds and the Danish purchasing manager takes a bow.

Curtain gets up again and makes a comment on where comedians find inspiration, pointing out that FausbØell must have been watching a few documentaries lately.

He then introduces the night's second comedian. Joe Schaefer gets up and puts out his notes. He brings up his Chinese girlfriend and tells the audience the best thing about having a Chinese girlfriend - access to Taobao! He continues about the bargains one can purchase on Taobao, and how this reflects the quality of the product. He then lists certain cheap deals he has seen, such as rock climbing equipment and 180 yuan ($28) botox. He then segues into what it is like to be a poor expat in Shanghai.

Shanghai for laughs

The founder of Kungfu Komedy is Andy Curtain from Melbourne - a city famous, in Australia, for its comedy scene. But it was in Shanghai, when he was between jobs, that he decided to give comedy a try. "It was on my bucket list. I've got to try it I thought," Curtain said.

When considering a way to get into comedy in Shanghai, Curtain noticed that the city had an improv club and decided to audition. Noticing that Curtain had something to work with, he was asked to join the improv group the People's Republic of Comedy (PRC). But it wasn't until there was an "anything goes" open-mic night on Sinan Road that Curtain had his first taste of stand up. "The guy before me was a drunken Chinese guy singing a song, then I was told 'you go on stage.' I got a good reaction from the crowd. It was during the Expo period so I talked about that, and being a foreigner in China. If you're lucky enough to have something everyone is thinking about, the crowd will be receptive. So after that I went back to the PRC and asked 'who can put on a 10-minute show?'" Curtain told the Global Times.

The first time Kungfu Komedy performed, the budding comedians were very nervous and didn't invite anyone. However, according to Curtain, they had "great laughs and a lot of fun." The second time they performed the venue was filled to capacity which showed how desperate Shanghai's expat community was for a laugh. "Every major city has an established comedy scene, but in Shanghai there are two improv groups and us. There's also a comedy scene in Suzhou which is more established. We've met with them and they've taught us a lot."

All the comedians enjoy the support the group gives them. "It's so good to have comedic minds together," said Schaefer. "Everyone gets up once the ball is rolling. It's a fun process." For Curtain some of his best moments since forming Kungfu Komedy have been working on jokes together. Although the comedians can still give each other "brutal feedback" on material, it is still better than getting bad feedback from a whole room of people, according to Curtain. "Still when it's only comedians in a room, things are very unrestrained," he said. However, the group is far from inclusive and they invite other aspiring comedians to join. "We would love to have as many people join us as possible," Kungfu Komedy member Audrey Murray added.

More so than most art forms, comedy is extremely culturally specific and on occasions certain humor might not translate to Shanghai's cosmopolitan audiences, which makes working on jokes with an international group all the more important. Curtain has had to adapt to performing in front of an international audience, which is something he first learnt through performing improv. "There are  certain references people won't get and for certain rhyming games I had to adopt a US accent. So the reference point is the US." As FausbØell performs in his second language, he perhaps has to compromise most. "There are many jokes, my little darlings, that I have to cut for an international audience," he said.

Audrey Murray, who is originally from Boston and works as a freelance writer in Shanghai, first performed stand-up comedy in January this year with Kungfu Komedy. According to Murray, most of her acts focus on being a Westerner in Shanghai. "When playing in front of an international audience, the only thing people have in common is being an expat in Shanghai, so that's the basis. And you can't assume everyone has great English." To combat this Murray uses a PowerPoint presentation and piano player in her act which has worked well. "The visual stuff really works," she said.

Hailing from a small town in the US which he describes as a "liberal oasis in rural Ohio," Joe Schaefer, uses his experiences in Shanghai as the basis for his act. "I usually talk about what I love about China, such as the directness and the lack of rules, and use it in my act positively. I don't want to rant about things as this gives a sour note to it," he said. "I'm wary about sounding mean spirited when talking about life here."

FausbØell agrees and said there must be a balance when making jokes about Chinese society. "We comment on our lives in China, but at the same time we don't want to make fun of the Chinese. Expats might laugh, but locals will be offended. It's not cool," he said.

Brushes with fame

International comedians have also been known to grace Shanghai's audiences. Daisong Li from Canada has started a business providing comedy to Shanghai. With a partner he founded Lauphilos Media which recruits comedians from the US and Canada. "There's virtually no one doing comedy as a business on the Chinese mainland especially in English entertainment. So my partner and I thought we may as well provide a need and do something we love," Li said. "We have connections in Canada and the US and we want to team them up with local talent. So far we have brought out two comics and produced four shows. The last show we had Andy (Curtain) with us, which was great."

In April this year Canadian comedian Geoff McKay performed at Cotton's on Xinhua Road, and crossed paths with Shanghai's local comic troupe. "We were doing a show at O'Malley's and one comedian did a bit where they roasted McKay. Right before the comedian performed, McKay was spotted in the audience. He took it well and performed a couple of jokes at the show," Schaefer said.

McKay then invited Curtain to MC his show and do the warm-up act. "I was so overwhelmed by luck, that I didn't feel any pressure," he said, adding that the scariest thing about stand-up is doing sets for the first time. "Jerry Seinfeld once said, 'telling a joke the first time is like going to work without pants.'"

Both Curtain and Li see the importance of establishing a local comedy scene in terms of attracting international acts. "A UK comedian has come through, so I have been in contact with her. It's easy getting contacted by professionals because we're the only ones doing it," said Curtain. Li added that it is hard to get comedians to leave a developed market and take a risk with a developing one as there is no guarantee they will make a profit, and that it is up to local comedians to develop the market. "Local comedians make a show relevant," Li said.

Future jokes

Based on their second night performing the comedy troupe realized that they needed a bigger venue and monthly shows. "Beedees took a risk, and we're very grateful for that, the reaction that night exceeded our expectations," Curtain said. "Friends complained not enough people could get in!" FausbØell added. Since that time the troupe has done shows at other bars in Shanghai and Suzhou, however they are still looking for a home. "In comedy the venue is the most important thing you need to grab the audience's attention. A venue with a flat roof that is dark is perfect, as the spotlight is on the comedian," Curtain said.

Recently the group did their first "corporate gig" for the Danish Chamber of Commerce. "It was our first corporate gig, but we're not in this for the money. Comedians tend not to have traditional incomes. If your hobby generates cash it can sustain great, but we're all driven by passion," Curtain said. Schaefer, however, does enjoy being paid for his passion. "I got 1,000 yuan for 10 minutes. I'm down with corporate gigs," he said.

One future plan is to get comics from Shanghai attending the Hong Kong Comedy Festival. "We are also looking for venues in Pudong and Puxi. Some overseas comedians have contacted us too. Hopefully we can do a three-night tour and cover Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. It's so much effort to write a set so it's a shame to only say it once. We need to try expand and find new audiences. It's hard to find audiences in Shanghai and get them at the right time. There's not many channels so when you miss them, you won't get the crowds," said Curtain.

Li also has plans for the future of comedy in Shanghai. "Chinese comedy is 500 years old, they have their own structure. For example if we see a group of performers and like one or two of them we can't tear the group apart. We'd eventually like to have a combined comedy festival but there's still a lot of work to do," he said.

Murray and Schaefer are enthusiastic about the future of stand-up in Shanghai. "There's no other place (for comedy) so people are really excited to have it. It's easy to connect with people and they are more likely to cut you some slack," said Murray. "The future is bright, there are many expats. It's pretty much laid out, unless we screw it up," Schaefer added.

Kungfu Komedy founder Andy Curtain gets the open-mic night rolling at Beedees. Photos: Cai Xianmin/GT

Founding member Joe Schaefer who is originally from the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Founding member Audrey Murray entertains audiences with her deadpan style.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

blog comments powered by Disqus