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Emerson Laughs in Any Language

Bilingual comedian Jesse Appell, dressed in the traditional robe of a Chinese street performer, talks to an Emerson audience about the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western comedy. Photo/Ilse Damkoehler

Bilingual comedian Jesse Appell explained to a group of roughly 25 Emerson students and faculty members the similarities and differences between Chinese and Western comedy Wednesday, February 17, at an event he called “The Great LOL of China: Chinese Comedy on Stage and in Life”.

A Newton, Massachusetts native, Appell studied in Beijing during his time at Brandeis University, where he majored in East Asian studies and international relations. After developing an interest in Chinese comedy, Appell extended his time in Beijing as a Fulbright Scholar, studying Xiangsheng, or “cross talk” comedy.

Dressed in a traditional street performer’s “big robe,” Appell explained Xiangsheng acts consist of two people — a Dou Gen De or “joker,” and a Peng Gen De or a “straight man”– conversing back and forth. They roleplay, and sometimes perform “meta comedy,” where they address their roles in their jokes. Their comedy consists of history and Chinese legends, everyday occurrences, cultural practices, and witty banter, and is performed in venues of all sizes, from small clubs and tea houses to stadiums that hold 10,000 people. Appell said he finds playing smaller venues more fun.

There are four skills necessary in order to master Xiangsheng, according to Appell. Shou, or “speak,” emphasizes comedy as linguistic performance art. Xue, or “imitate,” means a comic must be able to play roles and switch from a narrator to a character in order to tell a joke or story. Dou, or “joke,” focuses on the effective structure and delivery of a joke. Chang, or “sing,” reaches back to Xiangsheng’s roots in Beijing opera.

Jesse Appell talks to Emerson students after his talk on Wednesday, February 17, at the Max Mutchnick Campus Center. Photo/Ilse Damkoehler

Appell said that although there is a specific set of skills necessary to master this particular form of comedy, much of what makes Western audiences crack up translates into other cultures’ comic style. Both he and Chinese comedians use puns, self-deprecation, juxtaposition, and metaphor, among other devices, to make people laugh.

He emphasized cultural translation over literal translation, saying ideas translate better than words and syntax do. Appell told the audience a story about how his parody of Gangnam Style called Laowai Style went viral in China, because he took a popular Western song and incorporated Chinese cultural references. He also played videos of a Mitch Hedberg-inspired stand-up act in Chinese, and a rap song under the name Bling Dynasty, both of which similarly blended Western and Chinese culture.

“It was fun to be able to show the translated Mitch Hedberg jokes because Emerson is a school where you get a lot of comedy heads,” he said in an interview after the talk. “It seemed like the sort of thing that was perfect for the school.”

Audience member Yvonne Xiao ‘18 said she was interested to see how a Westerner would learn and practice Chinese comedy.

“It’s sort of faded away, foreigners doing Chinese comedy,” she said. “He explained Chinese stand-up comedy really well in a way that both the Chinese approve and Americans understand.”

In Beijing, Appell is still touring and performing live bilingual improv, stand-up, and Xiangsheng, although he noted he is limited in his public release of his performances online or on television due to government regulations.

He is also currently working on a bilingual buddy comedy screenplay as part of a new writing fellowship. He said with it, he hopes to create deeper cultural connections beyond poking fun at cultural difference, and he hopes to show other students of all majors that they can do the same.

“It was a lot of fun to go into a group of people who do writing, comedy, television, the business side,” he said. “I think in general, if you can tell stories, if you can interest people in what you’re telling, you can do stuff all over the world. That was really cool to make myself realize through giving this talk.”