Have you heard the one about stand-up in China?

In 2018, Le Le Farley took his first steps to a stand-up career with two nervous, and he says, poorly received, performances in China. Back then, Farley was among a vanguard of young entertainers experimenting with what was a relatively new form of comedy in the country.
Much has changed in the five years since. Farley, an American who spent most of his 20s in China, is back in the States, where his comedy routines have grown more sure-footed. His YouTube videos, which often feature Chinese-related content, are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, mostly fans in Taiwan and other countries overseas.
But back in China where he started, stand-up faces a more uncertain future. A joke last month by the comedian “House” prompted canceled shows and a nearly US$2 million fine for Xiaoguo Culture, the production company that employs him.
Farley, whose real name is Lawrence, equated doing comedy in the country with “playing football in a minefield.” 
“You just don’t know how many things you’re not allowed to say,” he said. (Farley does know one thing not allowed: he says this bit got his performances banned in China.)
July 1 is International Joke Day (and, for what it’s worth, International Chicken Wing Day), but one main source of punch lines in China – the stand-up – has effectively been placed on hiatus.
In this undated screenshot, stand-up comic Li Haoshi, known by his stage name "House," performs. His employer, a Chinese comedy agency, suspended Li after he sparked public ire with a joke which some said likened feral dogs to soldiers of the People"s Liberation Army. Credit: Screenshot from Tencent Video Talk show
House’s arrest has had a “deadening effect” on joke-telling, according to an American China scholar who has performed crosstalk, a comedic style with a much longer tradition in the country. 
Stand-up is “still a very popular form, but now everyone"s kind of waiting to see if it"s going to have to go through some changes,” he said. 
So sensitive is the environment now that the scholar, who lives in China, asked not to be named. Even figurative spotlights are shunned these days.
Comedy’s evolution
Comedy with Chinese characteristics has always been a bit of an uneasy fit. 
Historically, crosstalk comedians were known to push the boundaries of good taste. (In crosstalk, one performer plays it funny while another plays it straight, like the “Who’s on First” routine made famous by Abbott and Costello.) But once the Communist Party took over, crosstalk shows, like other creative endeavors, were told to focus on promoting government ideology. 

In the Cultural Revolution, they became “very unfunny,” the scholar said. “You couldn’t say anything.”
Comedians got a little more room to maneuver in the decades after Mao’s death, as rules were loosened under the “socialism with Chinese characteristics” paradigm, the phrase coined by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. 
But it wasn’t really until the past decade that stand-up, a Western style of comedy known for its tradition of provocation, began to flourish. There were around 18,500 shows at 180 stand-up clubs in China in 2021, according to the China Performance Industry Association’s annual report. The $54 million those performances generated represented a 50% jump from 2019.
Xiaoguo Culture in particular came to dominate the stand-up scene. It produced a popular variety show called "Roast!," which drew inspiration from celebrity roasts seen in the U.S. on Comedy Central, and the Stand-up Comedy Talent Show, where many of the country’s best known comedians got their start.
Dogs, squirrels and soldiers
But in May a Weibo user shared a post expressing discomfort with a stand-up segment the user alleged had insulted the Chinese People"s Liberation Army. 
In the offending bit, House, whose real name is Li Haoshi, drew a parallel between his dogs chasing squirrels and the phrase "possessing a good fighting spirit and winning battles.” Chinese leader Xi Jinping once used the phrase to call for a capable and disciplined military.
Authorities subsequently fined Xiaoguo nearly $1.9 million and charged House with "depicting severe insults towards the People"s Liberation Army, resulting in a negative societal impact." 
He was also accused of willfully altering approved content. 
A show cancellation notice is seen outside a Xiaoguo Comedy theater in Shanghai, May 17, 2023. Credit: AFP
In China, public performance scripts are heavily scrutinized. The country’s "Regulation on the Administration of Commercial Performances” says that shows performed and broadcast can’t have a negative impact on the nation, its ethnicity, social stability or traditions.  
Organizers of commercial shows must submit an application to the local authorities before performances, to include a word-for-word transcript and a video of the artist presenting the script.
Joke inspectors on the job
There is little room for improvisation. According to one report, Xiaoguo Culture sent in text for one show that extended to 1,000 pages. In another instance, authorities found that a Xiaoguo comedian had included approximately 10-20% of content that had not been approved. Company representatives were called in for questioning, which in China typically means a warning from authorities. 
In Shanghai’s Huangpu District, where more stand-ups perform than anywhere else in China, a volunteer brigade of censors recruited by government cultural authorities actually go out into the city to monitor shows.
Inspection reports, which volunteers are required to complete on the night of the performance, should include at least three on-site photos, a summary of the show, and an assessment of how well it aligned with the preapproved script, according to job announcements posted in 2021 and 2022. 
A volunteer told Chinese media that she tries to be “sneaky” observing the comedian, using a hat or scarf to shield any light from her phone as she reads the word-for-word transcript to make sure it matches what she’s hearing. 
A man and a woman walk into a bar
Despite the guardrails, Chinese comedians still find ways to be funny, just as American comics in the 1960s when cultural norms were more conservative and legal rules regarding obscenity were tougher than today. 
Chinese stand-ups rely on self-deprecation and anecdotes about life’s absurdities to make their audiences laugh, while steering clear of politics or issues known to be important to the Communist Party, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 
The American scholar gave this example as a typical joke: A man and his date drive to dinner, then they drive to a bar for a drink, then to a park for a short walk, and finally back to her place. 
Feigning dizziness at all the driving, the woman asks the man to help her upstairs to her apartment. But instead of recognizing the opportunity, the man gets angry at the suggestion he’s a bad driver and speeds off, dangerously.
“They just naturally kind of wiggle their way into a sort of semantic space where they can be very funny but without being dirty or political,” the scholar said. 
Audience members laugh as a Chinese standup comedian performs during a comedy show at a bookstore in Beijing. May 24, 2015 photo. Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press
The list of offenders grows
Comedians have occasionally pushed against the boundaries of their craft – and paid a price.  
There have been at least two other instances where cultural officials found performances that strayed too far from their scripts since 2021, but in these cases the fines were relatively minimal: around $7,000 USD each. The nearly $2 million fine imposed on Xiaoguo Culture suggests a rising level of concern within the government. 
Chizi, whose real name is Wang Yuechi, was reportedly banned on multiple online platforms in February after a stand-up tour in North America where he reportedly talked about taboo topics such as China"s epidemic prevention policies and censorship rules.
Meng Chuan, who appeared on the Stand-up Comedy Talent Show from 2019 to 2022, was prohibited from performing after expressing support for White Paper protesters last fall.
And Kamu, a Uyghur from Xinjiang whom the American comedian Farley considers to have been among the edgiest stand-ups in China, was arrested in 2020 for what the police said was facilitating drug use. He received an eight-month prison sentence. He is active on Chinese social media but isn’t allowed to perform offline or appear on television.
In China, jokes travel
Comedians who may want to press their luck face another issue, beyond just the chance of being identified by a cultural investigator: the audiences themselves.
“What is said in the comedy club doesn"t stay in the comedy club,” said Jocelyn Chey, a University of Sydney professor and an expert on Chinese culture, including its humor. 

Humorous events can acquire a range of “political factors or vortexes which rapidly engulf the comedian or cartoonist,” said Mark Rolfe of the University of New South Wales.
“A whole lot of other people pile their agendas on.”
As the House case shows, a cancel culture monitored by citizens exists in China as it does in the United States. 
The difference, of course, is the role the government plays. 
‘There is power in funny’
Rhetoric experts say authoritarian governments like China’s are particularly fearful of humor because of its effectiveness as a communications tool. Understanding a joke requires a shared knowledge base, so sharing a laugh is an easy way to find someone with a similar outlook (see Let’s Go Brandon memes).
Humor can also help convey complex or difficult issues more simply or palatably. 
Comedians can “couch very serious matters in humorous terms without losing the intended message,” said Beck Krefting, a professor at Skidmore College in New York who studies comedy. “Humor, as they say, helps the medicine go down.”
In the U.S., stand-ups have a history of joining other cultural arbitrators to push social changes, said Krefting, who is a part-time stand-up herself.
The civil rights movement, for example, “was aided and abetted by stand-up comedy and comedians, specifically [those] ... who had established a presence with black audiences but were also welcomed by white audiences,” she said.
But comedy is equally powerful in reinforcing an ideology, said Matthew Meier, an associate professor at DePauw University in Indiana. 
“The point at which I’m laughing at things, I have taken the premise of those things so for granted that they must be true,” said Meier, who edited a book of essays on comedy called Standing Up, Speaking Out: Stand Up Comedy and the Rhetoric of Social Change.
“Authoritarianism wants to control what is and isn’t funny because there is power in funny. And the power is, at least in part, its capacity to become viral.”
Xi has a sense of humor … just ask him
That desire for control extends beyond comedy. Chey said the case involving House reminded her of China’s recent crackdown on foreign consulting firms that analyze the country’s economic climate. 
“In many areas I think people are very careful and are very conscious of increasing restrictions on what they can say and what they can repeat,” Chey told RFA.
Chinese President Xi Jinping laughs during a meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York, Sept. 27, 2015. Credit: Seth Wenig/Associated Press
This isn’t to say – the Chinese government would like it known – that the party or Xi Jinping himself doesn’t have a sense of humor.
CGTN, China"s foreign-language news propaganda channel, made a video showcasing Xi"s "light-hearted moments," and the Central Propaganda Department endorsed a Shanghai government produced a "popular theory-based stand-up comedy show.”  (Chinese citizens displayed their own sense of humor in the comment section: "Please display instructions on the screen for when and how loudly to laugh, and indicate the maximum number of teeth I can reveal when laughing," one said.) 
"Xi Jinping"s humor is a reflection of wisdom and self-confidence,” said a 2018 propaganda piece intended to promote the leader’s funny side. 
“Whether among the masses or among leaders at all levels, Xi-style humor is ubiquitous."
Given the government’s response to House, it may be the only style left.


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