Comedians spend much of their time learning jokes, rehearsing lines and practicing delivery. For Fulbright U.S. Student Jesse Appell, however, the first step isn’t about the lines – it’s about being proficient in Chinese.
By now you may have heard of Jesse. He created “Laowai Style,” a video parody of Korean rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (a “laowai” is one of several Chinese words for “foreigner”). To date, Jesse’s version has been viewed over 1 million times on Youku (China’s most popular video hosting website) and over 70,000 times on YouTube. The video, which was created while Jesse was living in Beijing and preparing for his Fulbright, depicts the daily life of a foreigner in China.
Jesse is studying 相声(XiangSheng) – “cross-talk” – a traditional form of Chinese stand-up comedy that is roughly 300 years old, and has roots in the 1,000-year-old style of the Beijing opera. The modern U.S. equivalent, according to Jesse, could be similar to an Abbott and Costello skit, with puns, long lists, fast speech, and wordplay. All XiangSheng is in Chinese – which makes Jesse’s proficiency in the language even more important. “There’s no B+ in comedy,” Jesse said. “You’re either funny or you’re not.”
To ensure that his Fulbright project is successful, Jesse arrived in September 2012 to begin intensive Chinese language studies at Tsinghua University. As a supplement to his Fulbright scholarship, Jesse was the recipient of a Critical Language Enhancement Award (CLEA), a feature of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program that supports intensive language study for three-to-six months prior to the Fulbright project. He says it’s great to study Chinese in a formal setting – four hours of class a day, with lots of homework. “I learned Chinese from talking to my Chinese friends,” he said. “But they’ll never be so picky as I need a language teacher to be to get my comedy right. The teachers help me find my funny.”
When Jesse completes his CLEA program in January, he will start his full grant at his host institution, Minzu University. In addition to auditing relevant classes at his host institution during the first semester of his grant, which will help him to develop his understanding of the cultural roots and social resonances of 相声, Jesse will be apprenticed to a local comedy master who specializes in training foreigners. “He trains students to become very fluent Chinese speakers, that way you can play along on stage.” Jesse said. “We have to hold ourselves to the highest standards to make Chinese people laugh.”
Through this training, Jesse hopes to focus on ways to deliver comedy that bridge cultural gaps between Chinese and American citizens. “I’m looking for a way to bring the United States and China closer through comedy,” he said. “[There] doesn’t need to be conflict. People can sit together and laugh together and make fun of each other.”
Which brings us back to Jesse’s recent claim to fame, “Laowai Style.” “Chinese people don’t think laowai can live life like Chinese people,” Jesse said. In the video, Jesse sang about how he, as an American in Beijing, has many things in common with Chinese people – his choice of food and drink, his knowledge of shopping and walking in the city, his money-saving choices in his cell phone and transportation purchases.
“I like the idea of trying to erase … preconception[s] by having some of my lyrics be about ‘I’m the kind of foreigner that doesn’t drive a BMW, but drives instead an electric bike.’ [I like] showing that foreigners live like Chinese people,” he said.
The video has attracted international attention since it first hit the internet. To date, Jesse has done interviews with several media outlets and bloggers, including the NPR News Hour Blog.
“I like the idea of creating these videos which are multicultural, multilingual, that show Chinese people and foreigners coexisting and being friends and being funny and having a good time,” Jesse said. “Which pathway is the best way to spread this message? How does it involve singing and dancing, television and government? That’s what I hope to learn.”
And yes, that means he’ll be making more videos – so stay tuned.