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[Undercurrents]: Kung Fu Komedy

Flying spin kick to the funny bone -- chatting with Kung Fu Komedians, Joe Schaefer and Morten Fausboll about stand-up comedy in Shanghai.
By Feb 15, 2012 Nightlife


Undercurrents is an ongoing column on SmartShanghai in which we profile Shanghai-based promoters and music makers living and putting on events in this city, specifically within the context of the larger cultural, economic, and arts landscape in Shanghai. These are your manufacturers of cultural capital, Shanghai. This is the business of art and music.


Taking a break from local superstar DJs this week for some funny business. Kung Fu Komedy is a group of locally-based expat comedians, banging around around town and putting on stand-up comedy nights, totally in it for the LOLs. This Friday, they're celebrating their one-year anniversary with a show at Malone's. It's gonna be a good time.

SmartShanghai caught up with two the of the organizers and performers of Kung Fu Komedy -- American transplant, Joe Schaefer and delightful Danish strudel, Morten Fausboll -- to talk about seriously, what's the deal with being funny in Shanghai?

Seriously, who ARE these people?

Joe on the left; Morten on the right -- hot make out sesh or something...


SmSh: So what’s this Kung Fu Komedy then? For someone who hasn’t seen it before, what is it, who’s involved, what goes on, where for, how do, why, what, when, where, how much is it…

Joe Schaefer: Kung Fu Komedy is a locally based stand-up comedy collective organized by Andy Curtain. It’s basically a bunch of expats who have joined forces to get a comedy scene going in Shanghai. We charge 50rmb for entrance, which is just enough to keep us drunk for free.

Morten Fausboll: We’re a group of Shanghai based expats that puts on stand-up shows at local venues around twice a month or so. Our jokes usually draw on our everyday lives in Shanghai as foreigners, which make our performances quite targeted at westerners in China.

We’re not focused on earning money so we keep entrance fee low (50rmb). However, we have learned that having an entrance fee is crucial to ensure that the audience has come to watch us and not to stand in the bar and do shots loudly.

Together with the stand-up comedy group Stand Up China, that we basically have melded together with, we are the first and only stand-up comedy group in China.

SmSh: Are you working with a core group of regulars?

JS: Yeah, we have a pretty consistent talent pool thus far.

MF: Yes, however even this group is constantly changing. New talents are added and old ones will disappear because of work or because they’re leaving the city. The very core consists of four comedians: myself and Joe, along with Andrew Curtain and Audrey Murray. We’ve been a group since the first show.

SmSh: If you could generalize the material, how raunchy does it get? On a scale of Jay Leno to Andrew Dice Clay, how dirty does a typical Kung Fu Komedy get? Do you guys work blue?

JS: It depends on the comedian, but our shows will usually hit Dice-ian levels of raunch, minus the misogyny. I don’t count the night a success unless I hear a few groans.

MF: It can get pretty dirty but for some reason it's always the girls in the group that throws jokes that make people go awww…

SmSh: Have you or any of the other comedians gone too far? Do people get offended and walk out?

JS: I think we’ve only had one single incident of a walk out, after a certain natural disaster joke. But for the most part, our audiences are game to hear the nasty stuff. And we’re well aware of where the line lays…

MF: As an expat in Shanghai you’re basically a guest and you need to treat your host with respect. You can poke it ironically but never bad-mouth it. Our audience is mainly foreigners but many Chinese locals find their way to shows too, and they need to laugh too. You can, at any point, make yourself look bad on stage through a joke and have the audience laugh, but if you ridicule the audience or the country you’re in, you’re not funny in my eyes.

At our shows we’ll never disrespectful or anything like that… however, we don’t control who goes up at our Open Mic at Beedee’s every other Wednesday. We’ve seen some very unfortunate attempts from locals to be funny. Some we have had to drag off stage...

SmSh: What’s the audience like for it? I hear the attendance is really good. Lots of people coming out? And what’s the general reception been like? Are you getting big laughs?

JS: No problems on that front. Our last show was so packed the comedians couldn’t even reach the stage. I would rate the general reception as very good/excellent. We utilize our regular open mics as litmus tests for new material, so when we hit the big shows, our routines have maximum potency.

MF: So far we have filled all the shows we have done and we have actually never had a bad show in the sense that people from the audience have given us bad feedback afterwards.

I think the main reason the audience likes our shows is the fact that many of the jokes revolve around being an expat in Shanghai and they can all relate to that. It is nice to have frustrations or excitements condensed into jokes and feel that you’re not alone with them but part of a community.

SmSh: Have either of you guys ever bombed?

JS: I personally have never bombed, but I’ve seen it happen. It’s a physically painful event to witness. We have all learned lessons of the craft in the year since we started -- some the hard way.

MF: At our second show I was the first comedian getting up. However, because no one had done mic check beforehand, no one could hear me clearly. People started to drink and talk and I dragged myself through 10 minutes of awkwardness.

I have been immune to bombing ever since as in I’m not affected at all when I don’t get the laughs I’m expecting.

SmSh: You ever yanked anyone off the stage for bombing?

JS: Not in a show, but a few times during Open Mic, it has been necessary. It’s an open format in which anyone can get up, which is great for the most part, but when someone is over the 10 minute mark on their conceptual hip-hop/stand-up/public therapy session, you just gotta pull the plug.

SmSh: How hard is the crowd in Shanghai? Any hecklers?

JS: They crowds in this city have been too good to be true. Everyone seems to just be thrilled they get to see a comedy show. Little to no hecklers.

MF: The crowd is very thankful. I think that the sense of being in the same living situation as the audience gives us their support. That and of course because the community still is quite small here. There is a big chance that you’ll run into a potential heckler later at Shelter or something.

SmSh: What’s your worst audience experience been? Anyone particularly drunk / loud / savage?

JS: We had a terrible experience at one of the venues we tried out. There was a group of shit-faced dudes at one of the tables who were having an impossibly loud conversation. Eventually one of the comedians asked them where they worked.

Turns out they were managers at the bar…

SmSh: It must be difficult communicating an act to both English native speakers who grew up immersed in their own pop culture and Chinese who have their own, specific comedy culture and background. How conscious are you to cultural and language differences in your audience? Do you have jokes that work on Americans or whoever and no one else? Is it something you are constantly tying to get on top of when planning your act?

JS: While the majority of our audience is western, I think we are all aware that the audiences in Shanghai are a cultural grab-bag, and as such, no one leans on too many country specific references. Our comedic perspective tends to be from an expat point of view.

That being said, what culture doesn’t want to know what’s up with airplane food?

MF: As a Dane I know that no one in the audience will get ANY sort of reference to my specific culture, celebrities, or politicians. That, I think, has actually been a help for me. When you have an audience in front of you that consists of many, many different nationalities, you have to aim at what they have in common and that is often only the experience of living in Shanghai.

Often, I don’t get Joe’s jokes ‘cause I have never heard of the objects or people in them. That then gives Joe a good idea about whether or not the joke will work with a multinational crowd...

SmSh: Can you elaborate on the differences between what cultures find funny from what you’ve experienced playing to audiences comprised of many different nationalities? Like, if you happen to perform to an overly American room, do you go pedal to the metal with dick and fart jokes?

JS: I was under the impression everyone liked dick and fart jokes. For the majority of our shows, it’s way too diverse of a crowd to cater to any one nationality. Instead, we have the universal expat experience to draw on, and that is easily what gets the biggest laughs. If you can nail down one of the frustrations or amusing aspects of this culture, you are guaranteed a thunderous laugh.

SmSh: Over the past 10 years or so in the States, much has been written about “Alternative Comedians”, out of Upright Citizens Brigade, who incorporate conceptual stuff, character-based stuff, and performance art into their routines -- Aziz Ansari, Zach Galifianakis being two examples -- is anyone doing that sort of thing in China, or it is still straight stand-up routines that are going on?

JS: We have some experimental stuff going on in our shows: visual media, music, comedic poetry, but for the most part we are doing straight-forward observational stand-up.

SmSh: Although you guys are a local phenomenon there’s a few other comedy promotions out there -- Chopschticks, Punchline… Do you guys go to those? What’s your opinion of foreign comedians coming to China?

JS: We try to go to as many of those shows as possible. There’s so much to learn from pros who have thousands of hours of stage time under their belts. But they don’t joke about the expat experience, so we definitely have our niche.

MF: It’s great. I have been to a couple of those shows and have learned a lot from seeing the shows and talking to the comedians. I don’t feel that we have to compete with them because they would never be able to crack a joke about a crowded Shanghai metro.

SmSh: What’s the comedy scene like in greater China? Are there similar things going on in different cities? Have you had the chance to perform in other cities?

JS: There are comedy scenes in Suzhou and Hong Kong, as far as I know. In fact Turner Sparks who runs the Stand-Up China in Suzhou is emceeing our next show.

MF: We haven’t heard of other stand-up groups in greater China apart from our buddies in Suzhou. So far we have only done Suzhou apart from Shanghai.

SmSh: In the end, how serious are you taking it? Are you trying to build careers in comedy or is it more of a hobby?

JS: At this point, those of us who are still doing this are pretty serious about it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I defiantly would be interested in a comedy career…

SmSh: Is staying in China something that is part of that plan? Or is this sort of trying to gain experience now to move back to pursue it in the States or wherever?

JS: I think this is a great place to start out and gain experience. The comedy scene here is ripe for growth. But I think in order to make it a serious career in China, you would need to incorporate the native language.

SmSh: You guys are both fluent in Mandarin. What has been your experience with Chinese-language comedy?

JS: Well, I know that if you are an expat that can act goofy in Chinese, the locals will laugh very loudly at you.

MF: Whenever you incorporate Chinese into a joke, the response is good. Chinese people appreciate the effort and expats laugh because they’re afraid they’ll seem like they don’t know Chinese…


Kung Fu Komedy celebrates their one-year anniversary this Friday night at Malone’s. Head on up to the 3rd floor. 50rmb entry fee. Starts 9pm. More info at their webpage right here.



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