When American comic Jesse Appell first arrived in China, his intestinal fortitude was tested by Beijing street food. And that's become material his stand-up act, which was on display recently at the Hot Cat Club, a small but popular Beijing bar and performance venue.
"I ate at restaurants that hadn't been renovated in so long they still had portraits of [Chairman] Mao up on the wall," he says.
The Mao reference seems suitably ancient to the young crowd of expats, and they burst out laughing.
The 25-year-old from the suburbs of Boston is one of a number of young foreign comics performing on Beijing's tiny but growing stand-up comedy circuit. While Chinese comics dominate the scene, Appell is an example of how China's opening society attracts foreign cultural entrepreneurs, including many young Americans, who go in search of opportunity.
And with Chinese traveling and studying abroad in record numbers, the subject matter that works for comedians like Appell has only expanded. That's a far cry from a couple of decades ago.
"Being non-Chinese would have been your entire identity," he says. "Now, being foreign is still a big part of my identity, but [now] I can ... talk about being from Boston, or tell a story about what happened in Harvard Yard."
In 2012, Appell won a Fulbright scholarship to study comedy in China. He apprenticed himself to a master of a traditional Chinese form of comedy called Xiangsheng, or crosstalk. It's a fast-talking formal, stylized art form, in which performers don't talk about themselves.
Canadian performer Mark Rowswell also got his start in crosstalk. Dashan, or "big mountain," as he's known in Chinese, has been China's most famous foreign TV personality for much of the past two decades. He has become the standard against which all Chinese-speaking Westerners are inevitably measured.
Lately, the 49-year-old Rowswell has been doing stand-up. He says this allows him to reinvent himself as an entertainer.
Going from crosstalk to stand-up is akin to the quantum leap from Abbott and Costello — think "Who's On First?" — to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor.
At a recent show in an auditorium at a Beijing university, he quips at an audience of students: "Are you used to eating Chinese food yet?"
It's a question Chinese often ask foreigners living in China. Rowswell — the foreigner — turns it around, implying that he's been living in China eating Chinese food longer than the 20-somethings in the audience. They laugh, but not uproariously.
For now, stand-up comedy in China is confined to bars and clubs. You won't find it in theaters or on TV or radio yet. That would require comedians to submit jokes to be vetted in advance by government censors.
Chinese comedians know where the political minefields lie, and how to avoid them. For instance, they steer clear of jokes about national politics, the ongoing anti-corruption campaign and the ruling Communist Party, although they don't hesitate to ridicule heavy-handed government censors.
Comedian Des Bishop, who is originally from Queens, N.Y., but spent much of his life in Dublin, Ireland, adds that most Chinese comedians have their hands full poking fun at society, "about things that haven't been talked about much before, that are fine to say. But for the audience, it's exciting, it's groundbreaking."
At a recent performance at a wine bar in a residential area, Bishop greets the audience with a shout: "Hello Beijing!" the 39-year-old says. "Keep your voice down, the neighbors are not happy."
He's only half joking. One neighbor really is unhappy because a foreign customer of the wine bar apparently had too much wine and then relieved himself in the neighbor's garden.
The irate neighbor strides onto the stage and points to a Caucasian man sitting in the audience.
"Was it you?" Bishop asks. The man confesses.
"It's just a cultural difference," Bishop tells the angry neighbor.
"What?" the neighbor asks in disbelief. "You Westerners relieve yourselves all over the place?"
"Just kidding," Bishop adds hastily. He sends the foreigner off to apologize to the neighbor, working the whole exchange into his routine.
The near-dustup has Bishop fired up. He launches into a spiel about experiencing a moment of enlightenment amid the swirling chaos of Beijing's traffic — which is another aspect of life in China foreigners always notice when first arriving.
Like all foreigners, Bishop says, he didn't realize there was a different way of driving — a "connection to the road," "this kind of sense of each other."
"You know at first, you don't get it. And then the minute it clicks, the whole thing makes sense, you just start moving with it, man," he tells the audience.
"For years, I was watching people doing Tai Chi in the park. I thought it was exercise," he says. "It's a driving lesson. It all makes sense! It all makes sense!"
Bishop has lived in China and studied the language for just two years, and performs in both Chinese and English.
He says he wants to make both Chinese and foreigners laugh — and then think.
"If I can succeed in my goal, and understand them enough to make them laugh," he says, "I think we'll be able to translate that into something that people in the West can say, 'Oh, I had never thought I would see China that way.' "
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
China has opened up to the world over the past few decades to the point where it has become a destination for foreign artists and cultural entrepreneurs to build careers, including many Americans who are there to open clubs, make films or run magazines. And recently, a few have been drawn to a tiny but growing stand-up comedy scene. NPR's Anthony Kuhn went to some of their shows and filed this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY CLUB AUDIENCE)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: An auditorium full of college students in Beijing makes a lively audience. For many, it's their first taste of Western-style stand -up comedy. And Jesse Appell may well be the first comedian they've encountered from Boston.
JESSE APPELL: (Speaking Chinese). I park my car in Harvard Yard. (Speaking Chinese). (In Boston accent) I park my car in Harvard Yard.
KUHN: With more Chinese traveling and studying abroad these days, they're more likely to have actually been to Boston. And so, Appell says, he can joke about a specific city in the U.S., unlike a couple of decades ago when...
APPELL: Being a non-Chinese would've been your entire identity. Now being foreign is still a big part of my identity, but I can start to pick and talk about being from Boston.
KUHN: In 2012, Appell won a Fulbright scholarship to study comedy in China. He apprenticed himself to a master of a traditional Chinese form of comedy called Xiangsheng, or crosstalk. It's very formal. And performers don't talk about themselves. Canadian performer Mark Rowswell also got his start in crosstalk. Dashan, or big mountain, as he's known in Chinese, has been China's most famous foreign TV personality for much of the past two decades. Going from crosstalk to stand-up is like a quantum leap from Abbott and Costello to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor. Lately, Rowswell's been doing standup
MARK ROWSWELL: It's really liberating for me because all the stuff I did learning Xiangsheng was great, and I hope to bring those skills into it. But now I'm telling my own stories. It's my own creativity.
KUHN: For now, stand-up comedy in China is relegated to bars and clubs. You won't find it in theaters or on TV or radio yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY CLUB AUDIENCE)
KUHN: One recent show was held at a wine bar in a Beijing residential neighborhood. Comedian Des Bishop is on stage. He's from Queens, N.Y., by way of Dublin, Ireland.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ACT)
DES BISHOP: Hello Beijing. Keep your voice down. The neighbors are not happy - please. Thank you.
KUHN: One neighbor is particularly unhappy because a foreign customer of the wine bar apparently had too much wine and then relieved himself in the neighbor's garden. The irate neighbor then strides onto the stage and points to a Caucasian man sitting in the audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ACT)
BISHOP: Was it you?
KUHN: Bishop sends the foreigner off to apologize to the neighbor while working the whole mess into his comic routine. He launches into a spiel about experiencing a moment of enlightenment amid the swirling chaos of Beijing's traffic.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ACT)
BISHOP: Like all foreigners, when I got here, I didn't realize that they have a different way of driving to us - right? - bcecause they have, like, this connection on the road. You know, this kind of sense of each other that we don't have? You know, at first you don't get it. And then the minute it clicks, the whole thing makes sense. You just start moving with it, man. For years, I was watching people doing tai chi in the park. I thought it was exercise. It's a driving lesson.
KUHN: Bishop has studied Chinese for just two years. He performs in both Chinese and English. He says he wants to make both Chinese and foreigners laugh and then think.
BISHOP: If I can succeed in my goal and understand them enough to make them laugh, I think we'll be able to translate that into something that people in the West can say, oh, I had never thought I would see China that way.
KUHN: So whether it's about China or comedy, Bishop is just trying to help himself and his audience to say, I get it. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.