Appell's Show

By Jonny Clement Brown Source:Global Times Published: 2012-11-29 19:25:05


Jesse Appell came to China to learn the art of xiangsheng (cross-talk), but ended up skyrocketing to fame with his distinctly American brand of humor. Photo: Jonny Clement Brown/GT
Jesse Appell came to China to learn the art of xiangsheng (cross-talk), but ended up skyrocketing to fame with his distinctly American brand of humor. Photo: Jonny Clement Brown/GT

Settling into an hour-long chat with Jesse Appell is every bit the energetic spectacle you would expect of the star of "Laowai Style," a parody of South Korean pop star Psy's "Gangnam Style" about life as a foreigner in China.

Before his interview with Metro Beijing even started, Appell jumped from his seat to make tea. A moment later, he was on his feet again demonstrating a new dance routine he's yet to master.

The 22-year-old American is an intelligent live wire, swept up in the fame his viral video clip, which features him singing in polished Putonghua and dancing at iconic Beijing landmarks, has generated. He shot the video with friends, or his "crew" as he calls them, over a single day.

"Laowai Style" is as funny, outrageous and, some will claim, annoying as its K-pop inspiration. But one aspect is indisputable: it's incredibly catchy.

Unleashed on video sharing website Youku at the end of September, it has been viewed over 1 million times and received hundreds of thousands of repostings on microblogging service Sina Weibo. Despite his fame, however, Appell stills lives the frugal life of a student.

"My phone is out of credit, so I can't call you but you can call me," he says, before giving directions to his apartment in Beijing's student hub of Wudaokou, Haidian district. Upon entering, it's abundantly clear the "million views man" is in fact just another student living in humble digs.

Hunt for 'Chinese humor'

Appell graduated from Brandeis University in May. He came to Beijing on a Fulbright scholarship from the US State Department, which he describes as "basically a program that encourages you to create your own project."

His project is to learn about Chinese culture through humor by studying the traditional performance art of xiangsheng (cross-talk), famously mastered by fellow North American Mark Rowswell, aka Dashan.

Appell grew up near Boston in Newton, Massachusetts, where he notes "nothing really changes; it was a big deal when the KFC closed down after 40 years." He attended Newton North High School, where he was a regular fixture on the debating team, theater club and improv comedy troupe.

To date, he has written two unpublished science fiction novels. He is sincere when he describes one about a "globally corrupt government ruling the world," but by and large laughs off writing as an adolescent endeavor.

His active mind saw him enroll at Brandeis University in 2010, where he tackled a double major in East Asian studies and international and global studies, minoring in Chinese.

After this, Appell clinched the prestigious Fulbright scholarship that paved his way to studying with renowned xiangsheng master, Ding Guangquan.

There's a lot to snicker about Appell from afar. A browse of his Linkedin profile reveals a young overachiever not short on self-confidence. "I am a people person who loves to interact creatively with interesting people and contribute to organizations with strong and valuable missions," his profile reads.

In person, however, nothing could be further from the truth. He is willing, hospitable and affable, yet with understandable media-savvy.

"I am a self-motivated self-starter with an entrepreneurial spirit," his profile continues. It's this "spirit" that arguably inspired him to create "Laowai Style."

Springboard to stardom

Appell isn't the first Putonghua-speaking American to discover online fame in China. Earlier this year, Mike Sui made uploaded a viral video of him impersonating a dozen different Chinese and foreign accents.

"When I was thinking about how to make 'Laowai Style,' I recalled seeing Mike Sui's video. I don't know what his ultimate purpose was in what he was doing, [but] I hoped to go for the same sort of angle," Appell said.

The pair hasn't met, but it's obvious he admires Sui, who has over half a million Weibo followers.

"I hope to be able to meet [Sui] sometime soon. I'd really like to talk to him to hear what he thinks about 'Laowai Style.' I'd be interested to know," he said.

Appell's nearly four-minute-long video was shot without a budget. He recruited friends as dancing extras, and the clip was edited by the star himself on his laptop.

Its amateur production is mostly noticeable by the poor sound, which Appell concedes is proof he "never expected to become an Internet sensation."

"I put [the video] online and I went to school the next day. I checked after the morning and there were 1,000 views," he recalled.

"I went to get lunch and I came back and it had gone up to 5,000 views, way more than what I thought we'd get. Later, I went to dinner and we had 20,000 views and it was promoted on the home page of Youku."

Future comedic plans

The idea and success of the video, according to Appell, proves connecting China and the US culturally requires careful consideration of what Chinese find funny.

"['Laowai Style'] very clearly has ridden on the coattails of 'Gangnam Style,'" he said, noting the rich satirical value of the Chinese language should not be underestimated.

"Everybody already knew [Psy's] song and everybody likes to see people dancing silly. Especially foreigners dancing silly," he observed.

Although "Laowai Style" has received strong support from most Web users, some have been disgruntled enough to slam the parody. One Chinese Web user named "Jiajiameiyouxiao" on Youku wrote: "Idiots! He's ridiculing [and] mocking our China!"

Appell says he doesn't take such criticisms too seriously, although there is a hint of annoyance in his voice when recalling some hurtful posts. "It's not a big deal," he insists.

This weekend Appell will reshoot "Laowai Style" for Beijing Television in a move that promises far better production values. The video will be aired before the International New Year's Festival gala broadcast nationwide.

He's visibly excited, but acknowledges it's a small step to realizing his larger comedic ambitions in China. "I'd like to put together a team that can create a multicultural, multilingual comedy sketch show set in 'new Beijing.' I'd call it Appell's Show," he said, light-heartedly referring to American comedian Dave Chappelle's Chappelle's Show.

Youth, idealism and a hit viral video; much like his K-pop mentor, it seems there's no stopping the creator of the "Laowai Style" juggernaut.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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