Their annual St. Paddy's Day show happens March 10-12, and ahead of that, I spoke with Punchline founder John Moorhead about the gig, the scene, and the future of comedy in China.
How did you guys get started?
John Moorhead: It started about I dunno, about 22 years maybe, in the early '90s. I started at Star TV (network based in HK). I was a presenter [around 1993], but I had this burning desire to start a comedy club. And yeah I just started flying over comedians from the states. But I just did it now and again for fun. And I think in 1996 to do it more regularly full time. I've been off and on in China for a good 10-15 years. So yeah... I was the first.
There's quite a few shows that have sprung up since. But Punchline was definitely the first. And we took the first comedian to China, a man called Tim Clark...
So when you say the first, you mean the first to bring stand-up comedy to China?
John: Right, obviously China has their comedy. But yeah I mean English-language stand-up, Punchline was the first comedy club to start staging shows in Mainland China, yeah for sure. There wasn't anyone, anyone doing it. Beijing was all bicycles. But now it's... [laughs] it's all cars.
Why did you do it in China?
John: Well, the people there were desperate for entertainment. I just got people contacting me at the time. Email was just coming out really. So I'd just get phone calls in Hong Kong or met someone in Hong Kong that knew someone in Beijing. So I just went over there, went to Beijing and Shanghai. And it was smaller too, and it was sort of easier to get the message out. Seems funny in this day and age with all the social media, because there's so many places. [Back then] If you're in the one paper in Hong Kong, you'll get an audience in the spot.
So what do you think of the Comedy scene here in Shanghai and where it's headed?
John: It's difficult to say. I think it's only going to go somewhere if local Chinese do it. You've always got that double talk thing obviously. That's traditional. But if it's that kind of new wave stand up, the Chinese people need to come along and see how it's done -- obviously in Mandarin -- and take an alternative stand up style in their own language, in their own way, then of course it will skyrocket. It's always limited if it's gonna be mainly expat crowds like we do.
Were you surprised that Russell Peters sold out in Shanghai?
John: No, not really. He used to do my shows in Hong Kong and he also did Shanghai actually, funny enough, with me, before he was famous. Now he sells out wherever he goes, no matter where he goes. He's just so well known.
Tell me about your upcoming show.
John: Yeah so our Shanghai show is on the 10th, 11th, and 12th. In March every year, we do an all Irish show. Because of St. Patrick's Day, everybody thinks they're Irish.
The guy Andrew Stanley, he's a really good MC, so he'll be hosting the whole night. And then Carl Spain, he's a really good comedian. He's [a] very laid-back, kind of cheeky guy. He's quite well-known in Ireland actually. He walks the street and people stop him. He's on TV quite a lot. He had his own show once, which was basically finding him a girlfriend because he was single. And that was the whole thing and they finally got him a girl and oddly [laughs] they got married. That's 10 years ago and they're [still] married. And John Lynn, he's really cool, really laid back kind of guy. All very different styles. Andrew is quite energetic and he'll be talking to the crowd, so no sitting at the front row if you're a bit shy. I'd stick to midway and the back. But it's a great show.
The St. Paddy's Day show happens at Zapata's on March 10, The Exchange on March 11, and the Kerry Hotel Pudong on March 12. Tickets are 290rmb on SmartTicket.