"Society Shifts Based on What Comedians Say": Local Performers on the Importance of Diversity

Published in theBeijinger on July 31, 2019

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A quick browse through the Comedy section of Netflix reveals hundreds of specials and movies by a truly diverse group of performers. Women, people of color, minorities, and members of the LGBTQI community, once shunned from the stand-up scene, are now dominating it. With figures such as Ally Wong, Aziz Ansari, Hannah Gadsby, Tig Notaro, and Hasan Minhaj rapidly becoming household names, comedy appears to be a very woke game.

Yet this diversity on the global stage is not necessarily reflected on a local level. Drop by a stand-up comedy night here in Beijing and you'll probably see a lineup of straight, white men behind the microphone. But if one of those such men, David Jacobs of Comedy Club China, has anything to say about it, that's all about to change.

Jacobs is actively trying to bring more women, and people of different sexualities and ethnic identities into the mix, because "as with many things in entertainment, there's a gender imbalance in stand-up comedy. Society shifts based on what comedians say... [but] if you only have straight white male voices, it's not going to be a very good overall perspective of what people are thinking. It's important to have other people's opinions and voices heard." 

He wants to make Comedy Club China (CCC) – which has been hosting open mic's in Beijing since 2012 – an inclusive space, where comedy lovers can feel part of the community first before deciding whether they, in turn, want to perform live. In order to do so, the club will begin hosting a greater variety of workshops, events, and comedy screenings where people can gather to watch and discuss specials and famous sets.

The conscious push towards diversity has also been motivated by the mass exodus of some of the club's top performers, including two women: Eva Hart (pictured center in the lead image) a Chinese national, and Milly Naejer from the US, which has left the CCC lineup looking even maler and whiter than usual. 

Hart, who recently relocated to the US with her American husband, only got started doing comedy at the beginning of 2018, but then found it "absolutely addictive." Known for her dry, sarcastic wit ("My husband wanted to live in a hutong for the cultural experience. I was like, 'I'm your cultural experience!'"), Hart was sometimes the only female Chinese comic performing in English on any given night. While this may have been offputting for some, Hart never found it to be a problem. "Comedy is challenging and fun, [and] it is also empowering especially for women, to have your own voice being heard."

For Naejer, stand-up comedy was a way of navigating a difficult period of her life. "I started doing comedy when I was 15 years old ... as a way to talk about my cancer. It was in an embarrassing spot in my body, so the only way to talk about it was to be humorous." After getting started on the scene at such a young age, and literally living to tell the tale, Naejar transformed her comedic speeches into stand-up routines during college. Like Hart, also Naejer encourages anybody who is interested in doing comedy to give it a try. "You have to find your unique perspective, which is hard ... but do it, because everybody needs to get better at their storytelling."

Among those who are still in Beijing and active on the scene is Daniel Dan (third from left in the lead image), who is gay and from an ethnic Chinese minority, all of which he draws from for comic effect: "If you don't laugh at my jokes, you're really bigoted." Dan has been doing stand-up comedy for two years and says that overall, Beijing audiences have been quite supportive. "I definitely have offended people before, [but] that has little to do with my identity more with my material." Like Hart, Dan is not a native English speaker, and while he does not believe this should stop anybody from giving comedy a try, he does put in extra effort and time perfecting his enunciation and delivery so that it is as easy as possible for the audience to understand his jokes. As Hart puts it, "comedy takes time and practice. Once you get comfortable being on stage and telling your stories, it’s the best feeling."

If you've ever wondered what it feels like to take to the stage and get people to laugh, or watched comedy specials on the TV and thought "I can do that" then it would appear that now is the time to act. To get a taste for what the Comedy Club China can offer, follow their official WeChat account (ID: comedyclubchina), or catch one of their live shows this weekend at The Bookworm, both of which will feature warm-ups by local performers.

The microphone is waiting.