On Saturday, February 11, Beijing-based comedian Jesse Appell was invited by the William & Mary Confucius Institute to give a performance about his Fulbright experience and his life as an American comedian performing Chinese comedy. He also introduced the audience to much of his hilarious and original comedy. While pursuing his undergraduate degree from Brandeis University, he studied Chinese and was involved in an improv comedy group. After graduation, he was awarded a Fulbright grant to study classical Chinese comedy and the intersection of comedy between cultures. Following this project, he was granted a Blakemore Fellowship to continue his language studies in Beijing. Obviously, his intense language training had paid off, as his Chinese vocabulary and pronunciation are excellent.
Appell started by introducing himself and his Fulbright project. As a Fulbright Scholar, Appell apprenticed himself to a Chinese comedy master of the style known as xiangsheng. Xiangsheng is a form of 2-man comedy, in which one person acts as the joker or dougen, who stands on the left or the stage, and one acts as the straight man or penggen, who stands on the right. The two go through a loosely scripted back and forth, where they bounce off of each other. Today, this form of comedy is passed from master to student, and Jesse studied under a master of the 7th generation of xiangsheng, the only master in China who takes foreign disciples.
He told the audience that comedy between cultures has a lot more overlap than we may think. There are so many techniques, like puns, metaphors, and similes, to name a few, that are used in both Western and Chinese comedy. For example, the tonal nature of spoken Chinese creates many opportunities for jokes with words that sound similar, but have completely different meanings.
Appell showed the audience some of his master language skills, demonstrating impressive tongue twisters that amazed both Americans and Chinese in the audience. He also offered ten hilarious but important tips to Americans living abroad in China. He emphasized that, in order to understand things in China that Westerners might find funny, it is important to understand the culture that created these things.
One of his tips was that in China “things mean different things and that’s okay.” He said this in reference to T-shirts that a Westerner may see on any normal day, such as a shirt that read “666” in large numbers. Westerners may think that she is “opening a portal to hell,” but in Chinese culture, 6 is a lucky number, so three 6’s together means three times the luck!
Another tip was that “you represent your entire nation, for everything, no matter what.” One time while he was abroad, a friendly Chinese woman offered him a banana again and again. He was not hungry and did not want to take it, so she assumed that all Americans just don’t eat bananas! Appel jokingly said it was a special moment to be present at “the birth of a stereotype.”
Jesse Appell played for the audience two of his self-made music videos, such as “Laowai style,” aka “Foreigner style,” his remake of “Gangnam Style,” which documented what it is like to be a foreigner in Beijing. Another music video he showed was one of his rap songs as the artist “Bling Dynasty.” He performed a live version of the song, “Mo’ money, Mo’ fazhan” ( Fazhan means development, as in economic development) over a recording of the video.
He encouraged the audience to follow the China Magic Formula, which is to combine “what you like to do + how they do that in China = cutting edge exploration.” He said this can go for anything you like to do! He encouraged the audience to seek out interesting opportunities in the Chinese way, just as he did.
Appell’s visit taught the audience a lot about the intersections of Chinese and American cultures. In reality, these cultures are more similar than we might think—both find similar situations and jokes funny, both laugh the same way, and both find similar reasons to smile. The members of the audience definitely experienced the hilarious comic performance of Jesse Appel that they were expecting, but also ended up learning a whole lot more about intercultural communication than they could have expected.