Mainland China may have more than 1.3 billion people, but it only has one stand-up comedy club.
Melbourne-born comedian Andy Curtain started producing comedy shows in bars across China in 2010, and opened Shanghai venue Kung Fu Komedy in 2015.
Comedians such as Chizi, Dandan and Drew Fralick — familiar faces on Chinese television — cut their teeth at shows put on by Curtain and his colleagues.
There were two distinct stand-up scenes in China, Curtain told ABC Radio Melbourne‘s Jacinta Parsons and Sami Shah.
“There’s the English scene and the Chinese scene, and we kind of started both.”
Expats give Chinese outsider perspective
Curtain said that when he and his expat friends started doing comedy shows they “had training wheels on”.
“In comedy the outside perspective is always very interesting,” he said.
“You can come in and point at things that people don’t realise are weird, that they see every day.”
He said the expat community in China “is probably the most multicultural community on Earth”.
“It’s not uncommon to go to a dinner with expats and 10 people are all from different countries.
“There’s this huge shared experience of being a foreigner in China and having no idea what’s going on.
“That’s also interesting to Chinese people because you’re looking at their world through a different lens.”
Podcasts kickstarted stand-up globally
Curtain went to Shanghai in 2009 having finished his law degree at the University of Melbourne 24 hours earlier.
“I just wanted to live overseas and I thought if I don’t move now, when am I going to move?” he said.
Curtain said his arrival coincided with a time when stand-up comedy scenes “started appearing all across the globe”.
“My theory is it’s when comedy podcasting got to a level that people could listen to guys like Bill Burr and Jo Rogan,” he said.
“They were telling the stories of how they started and did terrible shows in bars across Boston.”
He said these podcasts made the idea of trying stand-up more accessible to aspiring comics worldwide.
Financial crisis sparked comic opportunity
Initially, Curtain said, audiences at the shows were mostly expats as they were already familiar with the concept of stand-up.
“There was a slower burn with the Chinese,” he said.
He credits the global financial crisis with bolstering the Chinese audience at his shows.
“People who were getting educated in the US … were finally realising that they had better job opportunities back in China,” he said.
“There was this huge migration of western-educated Chinese people coming back to China.”
This was an audience that had become familiar with stand-up comedy during their time overseas.
“They’d all watched shows in New York and London, so they were able to start filling up our shows.”
By Simon Leo Brown