When Comedians Cross Borders

Ryan Ha, a Chinese-American and CEO of the Comedy Club China in Beijing, is bringing stand-up comedy to China. Host Rachel Martin asks him what's funny in Beijing.

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Comedy is something we tend to think of as universal. If a joke's funny, it's just funny, right? Not really. Turns out humor can be really culturally specific. And today, we're going to look at what happens when comedians try to cross over from one cultural to another. Our next guest has some experience with that. His name is Ryan Ha. He's a Chinese-American who lives in Beijing. And he is the CEO of something called Comedy Club China. He's joined us in our studios this morning. Hey, Ryan. Thanks for coming in.

RYAN HA: Hey, Rachel. My pleasure.

MARTIN: So, tell us about this, Comedy Club China.

HA: Well, essentially what we are is we're a brand. And the brand is basically comedians who want to perform. They come to our brand and then, you know, we'll book the shows and we'll find a venue and make payments, so on, so forth. We have a comedian from Australia. We have comedians from England. Because when I say like a comedian in England, you're thinking like a white English person, but, you know, that's also multicultural country. So, we'll have, you know, Chinese, like Asian comedians from England. So, they look like me - they speak, you know, British accent.

MARTIN: And who's in the audience? Are they Chinese?

HA: The audience, I would say, is about 90 percent ex-pat, 10 percent Chinese. Then the Chinese audience members, they speak English and they understand Western thoughts and ideas. We also have Chinese comedians who perform in English.

MARTIN: There is a guy named Joe Wong, a Chinese comic who has come to the States and he's been fairly successful. He's been on a couple of big shows - "The Late Show with David Letterman," he's been on "Ellen." He says he's struggled to make Chinese audiences laugh, though, because part of the humor that he's using is to talk about misfortune, being really self-deprecating. And I think - do we have a clip of this? Let's play this.


JOE WONG: Were you guys worried about the economy? I'm not. 'Cause I grew up poor, you know. If I become poor again, I'll just feel young.

MARTIN: Is it funny in China and in the U.S. to talk about your misfortunes, to talk about how life isn't working out for you?

HA: Yeah, I think so, in the sense that what audience members want and what people like, what people find funny is if they're able to relate. And when you go to a comedy show or when you're invested in comedy, there's a psychology that goes in, that makes you kind of want to laugh, kind of understand the humor and, you know, laugh and have a good time.

MARTIN: I want to talk about another comedienne, Chinese comedienne you work with, Mia Lee. And I think we've got a clip of her. Let's listen to a little bit of her.


MIA LEE: And on the other side of the ocean, we got this wind turbine and there's our dear leader standing under it saying, oh great, if we can get it to turn that way, we can dry seven shirts at the same time.


LEE: And the scientists would be, like, you know, that's not a drying rack. That's actually powers other things. But the dear leader, like, when has the dear leader ever listened to any scientist in China?

MARTIN: So, I wonder if you see comedy as being a way that people, specifically Chinese comedians, can talk about some uncomfortable political realities.

HA: Oh yes, absolutely. The best part about stand-up is that it's a medium of free speech almost. Because everything you say up there is a joke, right? And so you can riff and make fun of people but everyone there is invested in this is a comedy night. I'm here for the humor. I want to have a good time. So, you can talk about stuff that wouldn't be kosher in more formal settings such as, you know, Chinese government, communism, journalism.

MARTIN: People talk about that stuff? They push...

HA: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...those political subjects?

HA: Yeah, but you don't push it in, like, a way that, like, you wish...

MARTIN: You know how far to push it.

HA: Yeah, yeah. You kind of, you know, it's a gentle subject, but if you do it right, it gets the biggest laugh.

MARTIN: Ryan Ha is the head of Comedy Club China. You can check it out online, ComedyClubChina.com. Hey, Ryan, thanks so much for being with us.

HA: Thank you. My pleasure.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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