They’re some of China’s hottest celebrities: Sharp, funny, and self-effacing, many have online followings in the millions. But they’re not just pretty faces or empty shells. Socially conscious, they tackle pressing, taboo issues with a sense of humor that has won them more fans.
They’re not actors, musicians, or livestreamers — at least not exclusively; they are China’s rising generation of stand-up comedians.
Stand-up comedy isn’t new to China. Although a Western import, the medium was introduced to the country around the turn of the 21st century. For years, however, the scene was dominated by just a handful of stars, many of them regional acts, like Joe Wong, who once performed at the White House Correspondents’ Association gala, Cantonese-speaking comedian Dayo Wong (no relation), and the Shanghai-based Zhou Libo.
Even as recently as 2017, it wasn’t unusual for performers to outnumber audiences at live shows, while tickets for top acts generally topped out at 200 to 300 yuan ($30 to $45). Back then, if anyone had predicted that within five years, stand-up would be one of China’s most popular genres, they would understandably have been written off as talking nonsense.
They also would have been right. Five years ago, the stand-up landscape changed almost overnight with the rise of streaming reality competitions like “Rock & Roast.” That show premiered in 2017, but it would peak after the COVID-19 pandemic left everyone in need of a bit more levity in their lives. The third season of “Rock and Roast,” which aired in 2020, was watched more than 2 billion times — more than double the total for the show’s second season. The fourth season, which aired last year, was even more popular, with approximately 3 billion views to date.
As the popularity of online and televised stand-up performance soared, tickets to the live stand-up sets of comedians under the wing of Xiaoguo Culture, the production company behind “Rock & Roast,” have become increasingly hard to come by. Zhou Qimo, the winner of the latest season, organized a solo tour of 20 cities across the country, playing to venues of thousands who paid as much as 1,000 yuan to see him. Only two years ago, a ticket to one of Zhou’s shows would have topped out around 150 yuan.
The popularity of the company’s live shows has also helped Xiaoguo book ever more prominent bars, theaters, art spaces and other venues for its acts. Some high-end shopping malls in places like downtown Shanghai now boast dedicated stand-up theaters.
So, how did stand-up, for years neglected by mainstream Chinese society, come to dominate the country’s entertainment landscape?
There are two main factors at play here. First, the stand-up format is extremely social media-friendly, especially in the era of short video apps. There have never been more demands on our time or attention, and audiences are increasingly picky about content, especially anything that lasts longer than a few minutes. Coincidentally, that’s about as long as it takes for a stand-up comedian to tell a joke, from set-up to punchline.
The popularity of stand-up isn’t all about the humor, however; the genre’s rise is inseparable from its status as a voice for hard-working but frustrated young urbanites. Already the most vocal group on the Chinese internet — streaming platforms often tailor their offerings to fit this demographic’s aesthetic tastes, work habits, viewing preferences, and outlook — few formats have sparked their interest in recent years quite like stand-up.
Put simply, it’s not an easy time to be young in China. Chinese in their twenties and thirties have come of age in an era of mandatory overtime wherein their hard work often doesn’t translate into greater rewards. Incomes have generally failed to keep up with inflation, while housing prices are so high that it’s hard to settle down in the city. All this goes double for women, who increasingly feel themselves relegated to the status of the “second sex” both at home and in the workplace.
Given all this, many young Chinese long to see their frustrations represented on screen, for shows that can both sooth them and make them feel seen, and stand-up, with its emphasis on short, humorous rants about everyday inconveniences, is in a sense the perfect “safety valve” for this discontent — a way for young professionals to blow off steam after another exhausting day at work. For their part, comedians recognize this pent-up demand, and actively engage with topics relatable to their young audiences, whether that’s skyrocketing rents, long commutes, or the challenge of finding a man who isn’t too confident for his own good. There’s just something satisfying about hearing someone rant on your behalf about the things that annoy you.
In the process, stand-up shows have become a catalyst or forum of sorts for the discussion of important social issues. For example, take Yang Li’s act, in which she often discusses gender issues. Her jokes about mansplaining and rhetorical questions wondering “how men can be so ordinary, yet so confident” have angered some male audience members, but they’ve been positively received by female fans appreciative of the attention Yang pays to often neglected aspects of Chinese gender relations.
To an extent, the social focus of Chinese stand-up is a happy accident: the product of the reality show format’s emphasis on audience participation and voting. Historically, winners have succeeded by focusing their humor on topics relevant to audiences’ everyday lives. This is self-reinforcing, and together with the need to avoid sensitive or divisive topics, has pushed comedians toward broadly relatable topics like the petty inconveniences of life at the end of a subway line.
Meanwhile, as the medium’s popularity grows, live stand-up sets and online stand-up shows are becoming integrated into everyday life. On Friday nights, office workers might meet up to watch stand-up and have a laugh after a week of slaving away at their desks, while housewives might put their name down for open mic events as a way of getting their pent-up grievances off their chests.
For the most part though, stand-up fans are too exhausted to do much more than watch and share their favorite bits. And that ultimately explains why these shows have become so popular. They’re a kind of spiritual massage for young Chinese urbanites too tired to even complain for themselves. For many, the charm of stand-up is precisely that it speaks to them and for them, and in the process allows them to find humor even in the bleakest experiences.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Stand-ups perform during the 4th season of the reality show “Rock & Roast,” 2021. From @脱口秀大会官微 on Weibo)