Zhou Libo's comic act is less about jokes and more about Shanghai culture.
If you want to see Zhou Libo's ongoing stand-up comedy "A Laughable Talk on Big Shanghai" at the Majestic Theater of Shanghai, you'll have to wait till the end of July. All tickets before then have sold out, although the highest price is 380 yuan for his one-man show.
At the same time, Zhou has become one of the hottest topics on all kinds of media, just like Xiaoshenyang three months ago and Guo Degang two years ago.
Talking about urban lives, economic and political issues in a mixture of Shanghai dialect, Putonghua and some English words, Zhou's performances have been acclaimed by Shanghai citizens, who long for a local star to speak to their culture.
"Perhaps at this time, this city needs a performer like me, and I'm willing to offer my joy and thinking to this time and city," he says modestly.
Although Zhou's genre, which he terms haipai qingkou or "Shanghai-style stand-up comedy", is different from Guo's xiangsheng (cross-talk) or Xiaoshenyang's errenzhuan (duet performing singing, dancing and talk), they are all parts of a flourishing scene of live comic talk shows, a cultural phenomenon that has drawn more and more attention in recent years in China.
Guo just had a performance at the Great Hall of the People to open his "Xiangsheng Is Coming" series that will last eight months and Xiaoshenyang is touring China. Although Zhou sticks to his hometown Shanghai, his schedule of this year is already full with 120 performances.
Behind these stars are still numerous grassroots performers who are trying to follow their path to success. They are performing at small venues in many Chinese cities, like the Qianxiangyi Teahouse in Tianjin, Kaixin Teahouse in Nanjing, Tianle Club in Wuhan and small errenzhuan theaters throughout Northeast China.
Compared to stereotyped TV variety shows and ideological programs presented by governmental troupes, these grassroots entertainers have been welcomed because of their relevant topics, earthy jokes and close interaction with the audiences.
In "A Laughable Talk on the Past 30 Years," a show that premiered last year which made Zhou widely known, he talked about the drastic changes in Shanghai since the "reform and opening-up" in a light-hearted and humorous way. The content of this show included the changes of clothing trends, ups and downs in the Chinese stock market, and the shoe-throwing incident during premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Cambridge University.
Although the "Shanghai-style stand-up comedy" is a new performing genre started by Zhou, it is actually based on the tradition of huajixi, or comic drama, which first appeared in the 1930s and became popular in Shanghai and its adjacent Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Zhou himself used to be a comic drama performer with the Shanghai Comic Drama Troupe.
"The difference between the traditional comic drama and 'Shanghai-style stand-up comedy' is that the latter is not only about joking, but pays more attention to the culture of Shanghai," says Zhou. "My works focus on current events. Though there is also memory of the past, I always try to relate to what is happening now in the society."
Guo Degang and Xiaoshenyang, who became famous first in North and Northeast China respectively, are doing the same work: to inherit their local comic traditions while incorporating new elements to cater to contemporary audiences.
Guo is known for carrying on traditional xiangsheng repertoire but he fills his work with faster-paced punchlines within the structure of xiangsheng. In Xiaoshenyang's performance, the singing and dancing of authentic errenzhuan have largely given way to imitation shows.
"Comic talk show performers are becoming more and more popular because they meet the aesthetic needs of the masses, who want relaxation to balance their tension-filled lives," says Bao Shengyong, dean of the Department of Sociology, Central University of Finance and Economics. "Though such demand has always existed, it has been made more apparent in our time."
China's comic shows date back to the Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC to 221 BC), when the aristocracy kept jesters in their houses. However, influenced by Confucian thoughts, comic shows and performers were looked down upon by society throughout the history of feudal China.
During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and Republic of China (1912-49) period, comic shows flourished in big cities and the genres of xiangsheng, errenzhuan and comic drama began to emerge.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, comic shows went into a low ebb, as all performing arts were heavily influenced by the ruling ideology and the formerly individual performers were collectively organized into State-owned troupes.
It was only in the 1980s that live comic shows like xiangsheng began to resume, but as TV gained more popularity in China, live shows soon declined again, and in the 1990s, comic performers were mostly doing other work to support themselves.
Since the late 1990s, private troupes like Guo's Deyun Xiangsheng Group began to gradually win people back into theaters with their lively performances that are close to everyday life. Different from their forerunners who lost the competition with TV, the new generation of comic performers is good at cooperating and making use of mass media such as TV and the Internet. Almost over night, the names of Guo, Xiaoshenyang and Zhou became known throughout the country.
"The media have played important roles in these comic stars' rising to fame," says Bao. "The media need topics. Whether praising or criticizing them, they are helping the performers to become widely known."
As comic stars become famous, live comic shows have also become a profitable industry. Deyun Xiangsheng Group has already four venues in Beijing, where xiangsheng shows are held almost every day. The group has also started their own garment brand and xiangsheng school.
Famous errenzhuan performer Zhao Benshan's Liu Laogen Big Stage, a chain theater of errenzhuan where Xiaoshenyang came from, has recently opened its Beijing branch, the 9th one of the chain, where ticket prices range from 180 to 680 yuan. Zhao says that he is planning to explore the market in the south and open branches in Shanghai, Chongqing and Shenzhen.
Both Guo and Zhao are involved in film and TV productions. Zhao is now cooperating with famous directors such as Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai in order to promote errenzhuan in a wider sphere.
With the increase of Chinese immigrants in other countries, there is also a bigger overseas market for Chinese comic shows. Guo Degang and Zhou Libo are both planning their tour to North America in late this year or early next year.
Zhou, who is 42, had a plan to stop performing at 50, and spend 10 years to travel around the world before coming back to perform till the end of his life. Now he has changed his mind.
"Now primary school students all like me. If I leave when I am 50, what shall they do?" he says.
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