How Stand-up Comedy Has Evolved in Shanghai

By Jon Fields, July 13, 2021

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Living in Shanghai can be stressful. If you’ve lived in this city for a reasonable length of time, chances are you’ve come across a stand-up comedy show. Who doesn’t enjoy a good belly laugh from time to time?

However, for the aspiring comedian, the scene here can be soul-crushing, even under the best circumstances. It becomes even more complex when society is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of cultures, rules and expectations which don’t always match your own.

To get a better glimpse into what’s happening comedy-wise, we reached out to several members – past and present – of Shanghai’s stand-up comedy community.

Darren Beatty joined the Shanghai comedy scene around 2018 and feels very positive about it. 

“I don’t know much about the history of the scene, as stand-up comedy had already been going for many years by the time I started,” says Beatty. “It’s nice that we have the opportunity to tell jokes to a live audience. Obviously, some audiences are better than others, but overall – Shanghai is still one of the best places in the world to be right now for comedy.”

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Andy Curtain performing in Shanghai. Image via @澳洲新快报/Weibo

“I’d love for another big name to come over here and perform”

Andy Curtain, the cofounder of Kung Fu Komedy (KFK), was one of the early movers in Shanghai’s comedy community – but there were others who paved the way before him. 

“In the early 2000s, there were a couple of guys from Punchline and Chopsticks comedy who were the first ones to bring headliners into the city,” Curtain tells us. “A guy named Richard Robertson did the Chopsticks show, and he knew a lot of huge comedians. He did bar shows in Shanghai with some big names like Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan. KFK did the first show in 2010.”

The recent lack of international comedians has been a low point for comedy in Shanghai, as the city previously would bring in some talented acts from overseas. “We haven’t had one since Dylan Moran came to Shanghai in December 2019,” says Beatty. “I’d love for another big name to come over here and perform.”

Although Beatty holds a decidedly optimistic outlook on comedy in Shanghai, issues in recent years have hindered the scene, from disputes between comedy clubs and performers to problems with venues and local authorities.

stand-up-comedy.jpgDrew Fralick performing at Kung Fu Komedy in 2014. Image via @Rachel Gouk/Facebook

We reached out to one long-time comedian who lives in Shanghai and agreed to share their experience – requesting to remain anonymous.

“When I started doing comedy in 2016, the major English-language clubs in Shanghai were KFK and the Shanghai Comedy Club (SCC). From what I understand, people from both clubs used to perform together in a room in a bar called Masse back when it was on Jinxian Lu (进贤路). But there was a falling out between some of the performers and they went in separate directions.

“Andy Curtain and Mohammed Magdi ran KFK, and Barney Rivera ran SCC. I started doing open mics at KFK when it was on Xiangyang Bei Lu, and they had a nice comedy room with a bar on the floor below Kartel.”

Comedians who performed on the weekend shows at KFK would have the opportunity to perform with established comics coming through China, like Mark Normand, Kyle Kinane and Kurt Metzger. The person we spoke with said this was because of Curtain and Magdi’s connections to the New York comedy scene while working for Live Nation.

“Shanghai Comedy club (also known as the Bunker) moved around a bit, but eventually, they made a semi-permanent home at Cages and had the advantage of getting spillover customers as audience members. They also put on some great shows and brought over big names like Doug Stanhope and Tom Green in their heyday.”

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Stand-up at The Bunker in Shanghai. Image via @Cuiping Jiang/Facebook

As both clubs brought in bigger names in the comedy world and cultivated homegrown talent, a new club – Comedy UN – was started in 2017. Some aspiring comedians were packing their bags and leaving other cities in China to come and give it a shot in Shanghai.

“The Chinese-language stand-up scene is booming. There were a few guys with KFK that sold 19,000 tickets for a show in Shanghai around October 2020”

Near the end of 2018, regulations on performing comedy tightened dramatically, with performance visas required in most cases. The anonymous source we spoke with added that a script of jokes also needed to be submitted before the show for inspection.

With the added obstacles to perform comedy sets in the city’s thriving clubs, we saw KFK eventually head south to Hong Kong to try their luck, while SCC – which would rebrand to SCB, stopped doing shows sometime after.

Comedy UN is putting on Chinese-language shows and, from what we’ve heard, they’ve been somewhat successful given the regulatory climate.

The person we spoke with had an optimistic outlook for more Chinese nationals performing comedy in Shanghai, saying, “If you are Chinese and want to get into English-speaking comedy then now is a great time to try it out.”

Meanwhile, Curtain sees Chinese-language stand-up comedy as an enticing venture for those interested in pursuing a career in the laugh industry.

“The Chinese-language stand-up scene is booming. There were a few guys with KFK that sold 19,000 tickets for a show in Shanghai around October 2020. For people really wanting to make it in the Shanghai comedy scene, it’s like any big art form, they need to fit into what’s allowed. The market for Chinese language comedy is massive. However, expats haven’t been able to get permission to do English-language stand-up since 2019,” he tells us.

“As far as the future goes, I don’t want to burst the bubble of any of the friends who live there, but the prospects don’t look good for expats doing stand-up comedy” 

storm-xu.jpgChinese comedian Storm Xu and other performers posing with an audience in Hangzhou in April 2021. Image via @StormXu徐风暴/Weibo

“The best thing anyone can do is just get involved in the scene of whatever city you happen to be in. My background is being a promoter, so I’m not that big into online stuff. While there have been some obstacles in Hong Kong, we’ve been able to make things work. There are benefits to doing online shows but you will need to start doing live shows at some point.”

Unfortunately for foreign nationals looking to get their feet wet in comedy here in the Middle Kingdom, the puddle appears to have dried up.

“As far as the future goes, I don’t want to burst the bubble of any of the friends who live there, but the prospects don’t look good for expats doing stand-up comedy,” Curtain tells us.

Like most things in life, however, change brings a little good and a little bad. While you may not be able to walk into a comedy club and hear someone bomb in horrendous fashion or leave crying with laughter, the scene has changed, and apparently to a larger audience.

[Cover image via Pixabay]

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