Comedian Jesse Appell Presents “The Great LOL of China”
By Mary Margaret Hogan '18 | Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Mary Margaret Hogan '18
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Sponsored by the UMass Amherst Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, East Asian Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature programs, and the Five College Center for East Asian Studies and Asian/Pacific/American Studies, Jesse Appell presented “The Great LOL of China: Chinese Comedy on Stage and in Life” and discussed the rhetoric of Chinese comedy as well as his experience being a successful Jewish-American comedian in China. As a Newton, Massachusetts native, Appell had a unique way of finding himself in a permanent residency in China. His road to China began during his junior year at Brandeis University when he studied abroad for six months in Beijing. Here, he went through an intensive Chinese language program where he would learn up to 70 characters a day. “I soon spoke enough Chinese, and I decided, ‘What if I did what I do here [in the United States] in China?”’ He was active in the improv and comedy scene on campus, and decided to expand his craft nationally when he received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2012.
Appell was immediately paired up with a comedy master, one of the only masters who takes foreign students for their year of study, and focused his research and performances on the Chinese style of comedy, Xiang Sheng, or “Crosstalk” comedy.
“This is a two-man comedy style,” Appell explained, “where there is a back and forth between the two comedians on stage. The Do Gen De is the ‘Joker’ who says all the nonsensical quips on stage left, while the Peng Gen De is the ‘Straight Man’ who acts as the Joker’s foil while he remains on stage right.”
Xiang Sheng comedy derives from the street performance when the Beijing Opera was banned from the nation, from performers who were training since they were four, attempting to make a profit whilst performing on the street. Once recognized by Empress Dowager, the Qing Dynasty regarded Xiang Sheng comedy acceptable and indulgent in their high class culture.
Appell describes the elements of Xiang Sheng to be very similar to tropes we often see in Western comedy: Incorporating a hyper-specific shuo (“speak”) is to eloquently and precisely enunciate and articulate a duo’s dialogue in order to show off the performers’ abilities of memorization, dictation, and comedic timing. On the other hand, xue (“imitation”) in Chinese comedy is identical to its uses in Western comedy, as performers impersonate characters well-known to the general audience. Describing himself as a comedy researcher, Appell explained his discovery that the world technique to comedy does not vary between nations. Exaggeration, puns and metaphors, self-deprecating humor, and breaking societal normatives always fall into comedic categories despite national borders.
Appell explains that the only difference between Western comedy and Chinese comedy is warped cultural misunderstandings: “The comedic elements can be lost in translation, but the themes and stories are nothing completely foreign,” Appell explained, as he projected a Venn diagram on the screen--on one side, “Chinese Knowledge Base,” on the other, “Western Knowledge Base,” and in the center, “LOLs.” Appell experimented with his theory of the universality of comedy in one of his stand-up routines in Beijing, utilizing jokes he’d translated from deceased American comedian Mitch Hedberg. Appell specifically used Hedberg’s commentary on various meanings of color in the world: “With a stop light, green means 'go' and yellow means 'slow down,’” he said. “With a banana, however, it is quite the opposite. Yellow means 'go', green means 'whoa, slow down.’” Though the wording was slightly different in Appell’s translation, the shared cultural understanding of bananas and traffic lights made the joke land successfully.
“I’m not very used to pro-Semitism, but I encounter it a lot in the Chinese culture,” Appell laughed. He explained that there is a very unique fascination and admiration of Judaism and the Jewish culture in Chinese. “Perhaps it’s because they value many of our stereotypes as advantageous in their society,” Appell surmised. “There was a proposal sent to the Israel Embassy for ‘JEWLAND’ to be established around Shanghai and Hangzhou.” He emphasized the reality of this proposal as the audience laughed at the outlandish ideas proposed, including a theater showcasing a “5D” presentation of the Prince of Egypt and a double-decker bus that would “give the Westernized experience” while it traveled to the Tower of Babel.
Jokes aside, Appell couldn’t fully express the invaluable experiences he has had since moving to China. From going viral with a spoof of “Gangham Style,” performing for Chinese Government Officials, and being featured on national platforms such as CBS and NPR, his career as a comedian has skyrocketed in China. “There’s a formula I follow: what you like to + how you would do that in China,” he finished. “It may be substandard here, but in China it’s cutting-edge exploration.”