Global business: What's behind the boom in stand-up comedy in China?
By LYNN LIU
Global Business Journalism reporter
Stand-up comedy has become a booming industry in China.
The valuation of the leading comedy club, Xiaoguo Co., roared to 3 billion yuan ($470 million) in 2019 before it completed six rounds of funding from CMC Capital, Tiantu Capital and others.
Altogether 14 sub-brands extended from Xiaoguo between 2016 and 2021. Comedians under Xiaoguo grow and thrive via open mic nights held in Xiaoguo cafés and comedy shows produced for online audience.
One of its most successful online series, Rock & Roast, entered its fourth season this year. It was viewed 2.6 billion times on Tencent and pushed to Weibo trending topics over and over again. Cast members – the comedians – earned big names and big money through comedy tours, celebrity endorsements, and regular payments from Xiaoguo.
One reason the comics can earn so much: It's not a cheap date to watch a comedy show. A ticket for a stand-up gala cost 80 yuan on average in 2019 and now it’s over 200 yuan (about $30) – if you are fast enough to grab it once released.
What’s behind the promising market is a wide and enthusiastic audience. Those in their twenties and thirties living in top-tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are willing to pay to laugh, given their higher salaries and the pressure they face in daily life. They need stand-up comedy as s shelter to retreat from sometimes harsh realities. The comedy industry builds on them, on their aspirations, complaints, joy, and tears.
To find out why and how jokes and humor matters more and more over the years, I collected 5,000+ posts under #Standupcomedy on Jike (即刻), the social media app where young adults gather. And here’s what I found:
Bittersweetness. Punchlines and jokes on stage come out of embarrassment, troubles, and heartbreaks in real lives. My word clouds show all the emotion-related terms from the social media posts. Laughter appears 1,433 times, joy, 186, and laugh out loud, 288. They are the dominant feelings audiences have when watching stand-up comedy shows.
Quite expected, huh?
But what’s in-between the light yellow blocks sticks out: bitterness, crying, tears, burnout and distress. Loneliness, pressure and misery.
Comedians joke around problems, setbacks and awkward experiences that most have. It offers comfort for the wound and turn lemon into lemonade.
“Pause for a second, chill out at the comedy gala tonight, take a break from the deadlines, KPI, and clients; and I'll be, again, facing them tomorrow,” one of the posts says.
Is comedy a safe space for social debate?
Jokes and humor are safer spaces for controversial issues. LGBTQ+ rights, sexism, authoritarianism, and stereotypes stigmatizing Asians become less sensitive when wrapped in jokes.
Young adults come to stand-up comedy for a place to talk about “taboos” without offending any group or breaching social norms. They feel prickly at cases of prejudices, discrimination, and inequality, and see comedy a vent for “the unexpressed.” These perspectives are valued beyond humor. The wind diagram below displays topics of social debates in the posts.
Among social controversies, gender-related ones trigger the most heated discussion. Yang Li, the only female comedian who survived the Rock & Roast competition this year, became a legend and #Metoo icon for her feminist humor. She brought up discussions over pregnancy, child raising, marriage, divorce, freedom of dress for women, among other gender-related topics.
Yang Li's frank humor has earned her a large following. Her name appears 389 times in the posts. And her famous line – “why men can be so plain, boring, and confident at the same time” – appears in 53 posts. But her discussion of gender issues has stirred a harsh backlash from some males on social media. Guess they can't take a joke.