BEIJING — Jesse Appell launches his Chinese comedy routines with a nod to — what else — Boston accents.
“As a kid I wondered where all the ‘r’s go,” he tells camera-snapping audiences in fluent Mandarin. “Then I moved to Beijing, and I discovered they were here the whole time.”
Get it? Probably not. But in a city whose residents are known for the “r” sounds in their speech, he earns an appreciative laugh. The joke also demonstrates who this skinny foreigner is and what he aims to do: underscore the human element in a fraught relationship between the world’s two most influential powers.
The 25-year-old from Newton has created a successful niche here performing stand-up, improv, and traditional Chinese comedy. His work is all the more unusual because American-style stand-up is a new phenomenon in China — where nationalist sensitivities are strong, scripts often require government approval, and parodies of the powerful can lead to punishment. Appell, along with a select group of largely Chinese comedians, is trying to teach the country how to laugh in a way it historically hasn’t known it could.
“If I can figure a way to have that empathetic connection, then I can do something that really hasn’t been done here,” Appell said as he poured tea in the central Beijing apartment he shares with several roommates. “And that is foreign performer not as curiosity, but as another relevant voice in an increasingly complicated world.”
Appell arrived in Beijing five years ago as a bewildered Brandeis University student studying abroad. Before American universities hosted his performances and Chinese producers remembered his name, Appell gathered data on dust storms.
Then he discovered something that brought him back to his days at Newton North High School — a bilingual improv troupe.
“I got really interested in how American comedians did jokes and how Chinese comedians did jokes,” he said, a curiosity that would lead to a 2012 Fulbright scholarship studying traditional Chinese comedy.
Appell’s notoriety began with a video. He and a few friends shot a takeoff on “Gangnam Style” called “Laowai Style,” a Chinese slang word used to describe foreigners. He poked fun at himself but also sought to unravel misconceptions about Beijing expatriates.
The video went viral on China’s social media and topped 2 million views. TV shows started calling.
Appell’s father, Michael, who teaches corporate social responsibility at Brandeis, still sounds shocked.
“To understand the culture well enough, and to be able translate that into something people would accept as funny coming from a young Caucasian, that’s pretty hard to get my head around.”
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On a damp Saturday morning, Appell walked past a giant Mao Zedong statue and into the Beijing University of Chemical Technology. For the past three years, he has come here for weekly lessons in xiangsheng, a Chinese performance art from the Qing Dynasty also known as “crosstalk.”
The discipline resembles Abbott and Costello, with elaborate word plays, puns, songs, and literary references.
These classes, taught by an energetic septuagenarian in a sparse classroom, have framed Appell’s understanding of comedy in China.
Appell’s voice grew deeper and his eyebrows flared as he embellished a routine. Ding Guangquan, the instructor and an admired performer, smiled and compared Appell’s antics to a meatball stuffed with unnecessary filling.
“If it’s only meat,” he told the class, “it will be firm and not fall apart.”
Appell is not the first foreigner to study xiangsheng. Nor has he brought stand-up comedy to China. A confluence of factors, including the 2012 premiere of a stand-up comedy television program, helped spur what Chinese label “talk show.” Joe Wong, a successful Chinese comedian who got his start in Cambridge, also influenced its popularity.
Appell is a rarity who interacts in both worlds, pairing his academic interest with his passion for comedy.
Half of his income last year came from Chinese-language performances at colleges in the United States. He oversaw a comedy workshop this month at the World Economic Forum’s summit in Dalian, China, and just began a fellowship studying comedy writing at Tsinghua University, one of the nation’s most prestigious schools.
“He’s just exactly what I was hoping he would be, which is a bridge,” said David Moser, a Chinese studies scholar and former xiangsheng performer.
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At the back of a stuffy event space one night, Appell paced the floor and mumbled to himself.
The audience leaned forward as the stand-up show began, eager to laugh but not quite sure when. Almost no one drank.
An awkward silence fell over the crowd when Appell tried a joke about his two gay fathers. He kept going. His US “gaydar” malfunctions here, he said, because he’s used to looking for pink shirts, fancy hair, and flirtatious speech. That “doesn’t work in China because all the Taiwanese are like that.”
The room erupted in his largest laugh of the night.
These shows operate in one of China’s gray areas. The government technically requires approvals for paying performances, but not small events labeled as activities. Bars and cafes usually don’t generate enough attention for authorities to care. And most comedians are careful not to veer close to a line they can’t see.
Appell dances between acknowledging his foreignness and convincing people to forget it. He embraces the universal — the dead cellphone, awkward date — and avoids direct commentaries about the country’s leadership. That’s as much for his own safety as his search for applause.
“Most of the topics that are so sensitive they would get me in trouble, the audience is not ready to laugh at,” he said. While Americans may want you to hit a controversial topic directly, “in the Chinese show, they want you to go around the side because it makes them more comfortable.”
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Officials encouraged the shutdown of only one of Appell’s shows, a stand-up gig he was involved in last year close to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising.
“We’re changing people’s views,” said Tony Chou, a reporter for state-run China Central Television who moonlights as co-host of a roving stand-up club. “It’s young, but it has potential.”
Some say the same about Appell, whose ultimate challenge is simply making people laugh.
A joke about the Ferguson, Mo., riots and race relations bombed. Another riff on interracial dating met silence.
“Sometimes the connection isn’t quite there” for Appell, said Mark Rowswell, China’s most famous foreign xiangsheng star and a Canadian embarking on stand-up. “Everyone is starting out.”
The post-show adrenaline rush that courses through Appell is almost palpable. He bounces. He reassesses which jokes produced the loudest response and which ones tanked. He doesn’t think about how little money he’s made, if any.
“There is so much that we could laugh about . . . whatever this new world is that America and China are going to be living [in] together,” he said.Jessica Meyers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.