Not just for fun

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-26 18:33:01

Comedian explores new path for Chinese comedy

Shen Teng pays tribute to Charlie Chaplin in a sketch Where is the Thief on comedy competition Merry Comedians. Photo: Courtesy of Huang Nan


Even though his real name is Shen Teng, most Chinese only now him as Hao Jian - the hilarious character he has played during the annual Spring Festival Gala. Now, however, he should probably be known as the "King of Comedy." 

Facing strong competition including comedian Jia Ling, who stirred up quite a bit of controversy for her interpretation of Hua Mulan, Shen and his FunAge team Saturday won the championship round on Merry Comedians (Huanle Xijuren) - a reality show for top comedians across China - with a comedy sketch about love during the end of world.

Over the past several months before the championship round, Shen impressed audiences with his unique interpretation of comedy. Thought-provoking in nature, Shen's sketches provided audiences in China a new experience while also extending the boundaries of comedy. Behind these attempts is a comedian who is bold, adventurous, complicated, persistent and, most importantly, confident when it comes to making the stage his experimental laboratory.

Chemistry lab

The comedy Shen displayed on the Merry Comedians stage was rather distinctive, from skits like Tropic Thunder, which discussed the harm caused by war, to Babababababa, which explored the social issue of child trafficking, his work went beyond just trying to be funny.

In addition, when it came to production values each of his sketches, far from using simple props, Shen's works had the feel of a movie blockbuster about them as they paid attention to little details such as make-up, clothing and stage settings. Works like Tropic Thunder and The Infected looked like the level of quality you'd expect from a hugely expensive film.

On stage Shen experimented with many different styles of comedy by integrating various elements, from pantomime to Westerns. According to Shen, this experimentation was actually the reason his team joined the program in the first place.

"They promised me that I could create unrestrained, so we came. We continued to put the competition second and creation first," Shen told the Global Times. "If I had wanted to actually compete, the name Hao Jian would have won hearts much more easily."

"I wanted to create something different on this stage. The public's aesthetic tastes need to be guided," Shen told the Global Times.

 While experimentation can be risky, the rewards far outweigh risks when it succeeds. In Babababababa, Shen plays a human trafficker to warn about the severity of children trafficking in China. Though not really a subject people enjoy laughing about, the work won Shen first place that episode.

"I was very very happy for that 'first place' since it was not merely a comedy but a work of social duty. I worried about it beforehand, but the result was such a big relief. I feel what we've done was worthwhile."

A comedian of depth

What impressed the audience most about the works of Shen's FunAge team was most likely their depth. While most other sketches tried to make audiences laugh through the use of funny plots and witty language, Shen and his team went further and added a layer of depth to the amusement.

A senior actor and director with the Mahua FunAge Entertainment Company, Shen said that his team knows how to amuse audience. "That's what Mahua FunAge has been doing since 2003. But now our belief is that we'd better move forward in order to tell our stories better and allow the audience to fall into thought after laughing," Shen explained.

In Where Is the Thief, a silent sketch paying hail to Charlie Chaplin, Shen uses the story of a man who spots a thief on a bus and tries to tell the other passengers only to be rebuffed even after they find that the thief has stolen their belongings to reveal the ugly and selfish side of human nature.

"Just like drama, comedy can make people think. No master can become a master only by amusing the audience. They won't last long if there is only laughter," Shen shared.

According to Shen, after Tropic Thunder a teacher at the Shanghai Theatre Academy showed it to his students as a teaching aid. "This professional recognition really satisfies my vanity," said Shen laughing. "We've never tried to cater to audiences, and sometimes we actually do the opposite. It might be a bit idealistic, but I believe it is a good thing when more of these types of works appear."

Moving forward

Now a famed actor and comedian, Shen revealed that his relationship wasn't love at first sight, but rather a gradual thing. 

"They [my classmates at the People's Liberation Army Academy of Art] would laugh the minute I took the stage," Shen smiled. "And my teacher told me that I didn't need to worry about cultivating my funny side at all. So I mainly studied tragedy and serious plays at college."

Now 36, Shen rose to fame overnight in 2012 with the penetrating funny character "Hao Jian" that appeared on stage during the annual Spring Festival Gala. After this "Hao Jian" continued to appear at the gala over the next 10 years.

To this day, "Hao Jian" has become something of a spell that Shen has tried to break. He explained that he had long wanted to escape out from under the shadow of the character. Merry Comedians provided a wonderful opportunity where he hoped people could see some of his other facets. "I think playing just one role in life is far too narrow a path."

Now that his position as the "King of Comedy" has been defended on Merry Comedians, Shen can breathe a sigh of relief as he now will have more opportunity to show off his talent. "Some even say that I'm the successor of Zhao Benshan, but I think I'm still far away from such a title," said Shen.

Although that doesn't mean he has total freedom. According to him, comedy in China, which is developing in chains, has a ways to go. "In the West, sex and politics are the main subjects that are used to make people laugh, but in China we need to avoid them. Once we free ourselves, comedy will see explosive development."

In the future, Shen will turn to TV and film. After all, compared to stage performances, the market for film and TV is much bigger. "Growing older, we have a responsibility to give our families a better life. I will not leave the stage, but I will also try acting in film."

His next film, premiering next month, is Goodbye Mr. Loser, a comedy produced by FunAge in which Shen plays the lead.

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