For intercultural comedian Jesse Appell, stumbling upon the Chinese language—and by extension Chinese comedy—was a turning point in his life. “As I understand Chinese more and more, other things about Chinese culture have opened up to me,” he says. “I started by learning characters, but as I learned them, I found I could start reading and writing about interesting things like comedy…it’s a cool process to discover things I don’t yet understand.”
Since graduating college in 2012, Appell has lived in Beijing for over two years. Commissioned as a Fulbright Research Fellow, he has studied and performed traditional Chinese xiangsheng comedy under the tutelage of master comedian Ding Guangquan. “Ding Laoshi had super high standards and he was the only master in China who taught Xiangsheng to foreigners,” Appell says, “I came to realize how performers see the art forms in addition to learning the forms themselves.”
This rare formal schooling in xiangsheng has helped Appell stand out as a unique comedian when touring the US. His original content, which also includes stand-up and improvisational comedy, has been broadcast on BBC and PBS, in addition to receiving millions of views on Chinese television and Youtube. He is currently traveling through the US and Canada for his tour: “The Great LOL of China”.
Appell is a big proponent of producing original content, despite obstacles in China’s entertainment industry. According to him, because many Chinese studios lack faith in creating original content, they prefer to localize other country’s works, leaving little room for creativity. Combined with being a foreigner in China, where the situation is “like what Chinese-Americans faced in Hollywood in the 1950s,” Appell tells us that even though opportunities can be limited, this doesn’t bother him. “It’s fun because I’m one of the few that gets to create content on foreigners that’s not tied to it being foreigner-specific,” he says “It’s just funny [for everyone].”
For Appell, the value of original comedic content thus lies not only in changing the landscape of Chinese entertainment, but because it’s what he loves. “The question I always ask myself is how to be unique…I want my material to be very specifically me.”
As for his future hopes, Appell dreams of growing both his Chinese and US audiences. After all, he remarks, “Building a world where China and America live together will take more than creating business and political relationships. What better way is there to connect with someone than to laugh with them?”