A New Class of Chinese Female Comics Isn’t Holding Back on the Punchlines

“A lot of comics tend to address certain issues, but my style is a bit different; I like to tell a story from beginning to end.” Xueqin says. “The audience might agree with your views, but it’s the minutiae of life, which they see refracted through their own experiences, that they really connect with.”

The best comedy, of course, is always drawn from hard truths. Xueqin’s story about being a “Bei Piao” (Beijing drifter), for example, spoke to an experience shared by millions of young people across the country who dream of working in the big cities, only to be driven home again by the insurmountable cost of living room.

“Everybody is stressed all the time; they’re just looking for something to lighten their day,” says Alex Shi, a 32-year-old comedian who also works full-time at ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company). “That’s why Douyin saw exponential growth during the pandemic, it was a comfort when people were isolated at home.”

Shi says she was “super obsessed” with the xiangsheng troupe De Yun She during college. “I loved their humor and how they worked with their audience.” Did it not seem unfair, then, that she was essentially precluded from this craft? “Not really, because there are prominent women in other fields, like sketch comedy, so I know I can be funny in my own way,” she replies. “It would be a different matter if people said: ‘Women are just not funny.’ That, I would protest.”

In the end, the entry point Shi found into comedy came through stand-up. “I would go and watch open-mics every week, and the more I saw, the more I thought, ‘It seems like everybody could just try this,’” she explains. Still, despite increased acceptance and popularity, it remains a challenging profession to succeed in. While some can achieve celebrity status, there are many—like Shi—who cannot afford to pursue it full-time. “It wouldn’t even pay for my beer,” she jokes over the phone. Nor can she justify the costs of traveling to perform at other comedy clubs around the country.

This year, the most profound evidence of stand-up comedy’s integration into culture at large came when Wang Mian, a male comic and Rock & Roast champion, was invited to perform on the New Year Gala—a television event often dubbed China’s Super Bowl—that was watched by 1.29 billion people. “You can’t deny comics are being put on a way bigger stage,” Shi says.

Many female comedians are branching out beyond the world of traditional stand-up, too. Last year, Yan Yi and Yan Yue developed a talk-show-stage play hybrid during the annual Wuzhen Theater Festival. And Xueqin is currently creating a sitcom to be broadcast on television. For these women, stand-up provided a means of self-expression through humor, and opened doors to other possibilities in an industry that—even globally—remains notoriously male-dominated. “Ultimately, producing comedy is about fun,” says Xueqin. “I love coming up with ideas to make people laugh.”

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