Zhou rejects the term “stand-up comedy” to describe his act because he does more than just talk: He sings, he dances, he does impressions. “They can’t do what I do,” he told me, referring to stand-up comedians.
I had gone to see Zhou because I heard he had a reputation for tackling thorny topics in his act. One of his best-known routines deals with corrupt officials and the absurdity of calling them “the people’s servants”: “Where do you have servants riding in cars while the masters ride bicycles? Where do you have servants living in villas while the masters live in assigned housing?”
While Zhou may venture into sensitive territory, he rarely says anything truly controversial. The reason, he said, is simple: “I’m patriotic. Wherever I go, I say: ‘China is good.’ ” Referring to comedians who take jabs at China or its leadership, he said: “They’re whiners, and they’re detrimental to the country. If I were a government bureau, I’d shut them down.”
The government bureaus are way ahead of him. In early June 2014, the week of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Joe Wong and a few other comedians were getting ready to perform at 69 Cafe, a small bar in central Beijing. Two officials from the local cultural-affairs bureau walked in and approached the organizer, and suggested that they not perform. The M.C. went onstage and announced that the show was canceled. “That’s not funny!” someone in the audience yelled.
政府部门走在了他前面。2014年6月 初，也就是天安门广场镇压事件25周年的那一周，黄西和几名喜剧演员准备在位于北京市中心的小酒吧69 Cafe进行表演。北京市文化局的两名官员走了进来，找到组织者，并指示他们不要演出。主持人走上台宣布，演出取消。观众席中有人喊道，“这个段子不好 笑！”
A week earlier, two officials dropped in on a Beijing theater show and upbraided one of the comedians for cracking a joke about the Chinese flag. After that, the Beijing Talk Show Club began treading carefully. Cautionary tales arise periodically: In 2012, a Beijing blogger was arrested for tweeting a joke about that year’s national Communist Party meeting.
Every comedian in China knows that there is a line, but no one knows exactly where it is. That’s how censorship works best: Keep the rules vague, and let everyone police themselves. Some comedians stay clear of the line. Others edge toward it, place a toe on the far side, then skitter away. Occasionally someone plows right across it, but the results aren’t always funny.
In practice, though, restrictions are usually felt only at high levels — on TV and in large theaters. In bars, comedians can say whatever they want, except during sensitive periods like the Tiananmen anniversary. “In China, sometimes you just have to wait a little bit, then you can do it again,” Joe Wong told me. In the meantime, controversy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Song said: “The more you ban something, the more people want to see it.”
But most comedians I spoke with argued that in China, there simply isn’t much appetite for sharp-edged political comedy. “In the U.S., people are relatively free,” Wang Zijian, a young TV host, told me. “They have time to follow racial issues or politics. Everyone has an opinion to chip in. The role of comedy shows is very different from China. Here, we’re still at the stage of ‘Just make me laugh.’ ”
In this sense, Chinese and American styles of comedy still differ radically. Discomfort is central to American stand-up. But in China, it tends to backfire. During the CCTV New Year’s Gala in 2013, the normally friendly hosts decided, or were told, to make fun of each other. “It didn’t work,” said David Moser, an educator and commentator in Beijing who has long studied Chinese comedy. “They weren’t raised on satire, so it just sounded mean and weird.”
This, more than political restrictions, may be the biggest obstacle to the emergence of truly good stand-up in China: people’s unwillingness to set aside their pride and take a joke. Wang Zjian told me: “If I talk about the Beijing smog, people will say: ‘You’re losing face for Beijing.’ ”