[Here’s the set with subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvcL73sNi2w]
My first week in Taipei I scoured the internet for comedy shows in Mandarin around the city. My first few searches were discouraging. A few dated links advertised shows at English- and Chinese-speaking comedy clubs, but when I went to the addresses listed, I learned from locals that the clubs had been shut down. After some asking around and a few more false starts, I found a weekly stand up show in Mandarin, at a bar called Siris in a bustling downtown neighborhood.
I felt a little nervous as I walked into the bar that first Wednesday night. The place looked like any other in Europe, except for the characters everywhere. I walked downstairs, where the show would be held, and found a seat at an empty table towards the front.
People’s glances have a kind of weight to them, especially when you’re alone. It made sense, that I would get some glances: I was the only foreigner in the room, at an event that would be conducted in Chinese.
It was too awkward. I needed to say something to someone, even before the show began. I scanned the room for people who look like comedians, and headed toward a group of them huddled together in the back. (As a side note, it turns out that, even in an entirely different culture, it’s not hard to tell who the comedians are. They’re still the ones hovering around in the back, wearing grey-scale t-shirts and jeans, blue ink on their hands reminding them of their jokes.)
The comedians were very warm when they heard me speak Chinese—they’re still not accustomed to foreigners who speak it well. One of the comedians, a guy who goes by his stage name, Beardy (he has a Fu Manchu-esque look going) explained that stand-up was still developing in the city. “This is really the only regular show in Mandarin in town,” he said. “A lot of people here don’t really know what it means when you say ‘stand up comedy.’”
I had had the same experience. The Taiwanese don’t have a word that quite means ‘stand up comedy,’ and many don’t know the English loanword. So when people had asked about my project, I told them I was studying talkshow-style comedy, probably leaving them with the impression that I was going to be on TV. I hadn’t gone out of my way to correct them.
I kept talking with Beardy. He seemed to like talking to me, because I also have hair on my face. While we were talking I kept thinking maybe I should call myself Scruffy. But I don’t want to cramp his style.
“There are some English language shows that happen pretty regularly,” Beardy told me, “but I guess that’s not really what you’re looking for right now.”
After Beardy drifted off, I chatted with the host of the show and explained my project to him. “Well this is typically an open-mic,” he said, saying “open-mic” in English. “So you’re welcome to come by and give this a shot next week, or even tonight if you just want to get up here and stand talking,” he said. I laughed. He did not laugh. That happens a lot.
Then the show started. I was struck again by how similar everything looked: this bar could be Scotland, Canada, South Africa, or any of the other places I had visited. There were pints on the table, strange décor on the walls, a stage with a mic-stand, and a little sign in the corner that said “Comedy Club.”
The comedians dug into their sets, talking about politics, romance, daily struggles, and other familiar sources of humor. In most cases, I understood the premises of the jokes. But I probably understood about a third of the punchlines. I can chalk some of it up to a lack of cultural understanding. Some of it was also just plain old linguistic trouble—punchlines involve more word games, are delivered faster, and involve a kind of surprise, meaning you can’t always rely on contextual cues as a crutch. But for the most part, I think the punchlines in Mandarin—like punchlines in any language— simply require some focus and quick leaps in reasoning. And it’s very hard for me to devote that kind of attention to the joke when I’m already focusing hard to understand the language. In some cases, when I thought about the joke, I could see why it was funny. But by that time, it was already too late for me to actually laugh. And, while I had been figuring out one joke, I inevitably missed another.
A few times, I was the only person in the room who laughed. Other times, I was the only person in the room who didn’t. Sometimes, though, I felt in sync with the crowd and the comedian. And those felt like moments of connection.
Still, not understanding so many of the jokes made me nervous. I was worried that maybe someone would call on me and make me explain the punchline, exposing me for a fraud, a foreigner pretending to speak the language. At some point I tried closing my eyes, as if somehow that would sharpen my listening. But of course then I missed the facial expressions, the gestures, and all of the physical aspects of the humor.
About an hour in I went to the bathroom and took a deep breath. I felt drained and anxious. As I looked in the mirror, at my distinctly non-Chinese face, I realized what was really making me nervous: how could I ever do stand up in Mandarin, if I can’t even understand their jokes?
The next morning, I started combing through my jokes in English, trying to figure out whether any would translate. I could quickly remove many of the jokes that relied on wordplay—while sometimes English phrases have Chinese equivalents, they are typically not perfect parallels. In the case of my jokes, the misdirection of the joke either became too great or too small in Chinese. The translated versions of the jokes, in other words, either made no sense or too much sense. They didn’t hit that sweet spot where the audience makes a few quick logical leaps and then laughs.
After that, I had some longer, storytelling bits. These jokes are tricky to tell in English, let alone Mandarin. My first time out, I didn’t trust myself to handle these in a language whose emphasis, pauses, and implications were not natural for me.
Finally, I had a few plain, reliable pull-back-and-reveal jokes—jokes whose humor comes simply from hiding a particular idea or aspect of a situation until the punchline, which casts a new light on the premise and makes it funny. Here’s an example of such a joke (which I tried to translate into Chinese):
I lost my job recently. I was fired for drinking during working hours.
But, in my defense, you have no idea how boring it is to drive a bus all day.
Analyzing jokes is a bad idea, but stick with me for a second because I want to make a point about translation. If the joke works, it’s because the last line forces the audience to reimagine the premises. “What?!?” they should think, “I thought you were drinking in an office, but this is actually a much worse place to drink!” In Chinese, the joke ought to work the same way. Nothing about “drinking during working hours (上班的时候喝酒) in English or Chinese suggests that I was driving a bus. But neither does it contradict the possibility that I was driving a bus. So the punchline in Chinese ought to cast the same new light on the premises, leading to that magical series of leaps we call laughter. So the joke ought to translate! I thought to myself.
The joke did not translate.
My Chinese friends agreed it was not funny. “What if you change the order of the joke?” one of them suggested. “What if you first say you were driving a bus, then say you got fired, and then say it was because you were drinking?” To him, that seemed funnier: the audience wasn’t being misguided; they were just being told a funny story, he thought. To me, though, this way of telling the joke sucked all the misdirection and fun from it. I tried it a few different ways in my head and then decided against it.
In general, as I looked through my English jokes, I found that there was at least one issue with them after translation. Sometimes the beats didn’t match up; sometimes Chinese grammar required that I put the punchline in a different place; sometimes the jokes just made reference to aspects of Western culture that a Taiwanese audience might not relate to.
So I gave up. I would have to write all my jokes from scratch.
One week later I sat in the front row at the Siris show. “Next up, we have a friend from New York!” Said the host. “Please welcome Li Rui,” he said, calling me by my Chinese name. I walked up and grasped the microphone. I had about 6 minutes of entirely fresh jokes. I had rehearsed and edited them with some Chinese friends, who had laughed at them—out of politeness, I figured—and made sure they were comprehensible.
I expected to be nervous. I had been speaking Chinese for a long time, but performing would be a different experience. Somehow, though, as I put the mic in my hand, I felt cool and composed. I think, in retrospect, it was probably because I had such low expectations. I think some part of me expected that I would fail, and therefore didn’t mind that possibility so much. And I suppose part of me also knew that the audience would be forgiving—however badly I did, I would still be the first foreigner who got up at that club and did a full set in Chinese.
My jokes were all pretty crude or silly, because I had written them in a week and in Chinese, but I still got a decent reaction. It had been an especially quiet night, but I had managed to win the audience’s attention. Once again, I think this largely had to do with being white and speaking Chinese. I command people’s focus simply by the unnatural pairing of my very European lips producing a very non-European tongue. And six minutes after getting on stage, I sat back down, to an honest round of applause. It felt good.
Lying awake in bed that night, I brimmed with excitement, reliving some of the jokes and the audience’s reaction. I was reminded of that night in Montreal, months ago, when I first did a stand up set in English. That night, and this night, I was itching to get back up there, to see if I could tweak jokes and improve my set, to see if I could relate to people and make them laugh, even in a foreign culture. I had a few months to do it. And just then I thought of a joke in Chinese. I pulled out a notebook, turned to a blank page, and eagerly jotted down some notes.
The next morning I had no idea what it meant. But still, looking at characters I scribbled on the page, trying to decipher my shitty handwriting, I couldn’t help but smile. The night before, the jokes, the new country, the tiny room I shared with three other people—it all felt like the start of something.