The Golden Age of Kungfu Komedy … Is Coming to an End?

Some surprising news went around last week – Kungfu Komedy veteran Turner Sparks was doing his last stand-up show in Shanghai. And then a few days later came some more surprising news – Kungfu Komedy veteran Joe Schaefer was doing his last stand-up show in Shanghai. And that was followed by some more surprising news – Kungfu Komedy veteran Paul Johnson was – you guessed it – also doing his last stand-up show in Shanghai. These shows all went down a within a week of each other. So what the heck is going on with Shanghai’s best stand-up outfit? Are the comedians just tired of risking their lives in the Kartel elevator?

It’s been a peripatetic existence for KFK. Just in the last two years they’ve bounced from the Masse backroom to the Camel Bar backroom to a cramped upstairs room above a Noah’s Ark themed bar to finally getting their own venue – the current incarnation on Xiangyang Lu, a floor below Kartel. It’s a proper comedy club – intimate, ceiling-to-floor curtains covering three walls, decent booze at good prices, and an unpredictable, possibly sentient, probably malevolent, elevator. On the remaining wall are black and white photos of KFK comedians framed and signed. It’s the Laugh Factory in Hollywood without the boob jobs and the three-drink minimum.

Even as they bounced around, they still brought in top notch international talent – dudes featured on U.S. comedy staples like Comedy Central and Jimmy Fallon. These were guys more cutting edge than the wheezing old Who’s Line Is It Anyway? nyuck-nyucks that get trotted out on the regular at tired expat venues like the now-defunct O’Malley’s. But I was always more interested in the local scene they have been steadily building via their twice-weekly open mic nights and regular weekend showcases.

I didn’t get into Shanghai’s local comedy scene until two years ago and then it was through the People’s Republic of Comedy improv show which also went down at Masse. It was a low point in my life. I was stuck in a rut, taking everything too seriously, unable to shake out of it. One day I randomly saw an advert for the 7th anniversary of the PRC happening that night. I called up a friend and went. Turned out all I needed was adults talking about elephant turds and a solid belly laugh.

Joe Schaefer was in that show. I knew him because he was one half of the team writing the City Weekend relationships column and I was running CW at that time. He told me I should come check out the next international headliner, Ari Shaffir. So I did. I was impressed. They packed out the entire bar. Shaffir delivered the goods, but it was the opening acts – including Joe – that really struck me. The local guys were genuinely funny, doing that classic thing that makes stand-up such an incomparable art form – getting people to laugh at their own absurdity.

I didn’t see much more local comedy, though, until New Year’s Eve, 2014. You know that chaotic decision making process that goes on every New Year’s – where are we going? what are we going to do? who’s in? who’s out? did anyone make reservations? where are my pants? I realized with absolute clarity that there was simply no better way to kick off a new year than with some laughs. So me and my lady hit up the KFK New Year’s Eve showcase. I think it was like 50 RMB. I didn’t know any of the comedians in the lineup except Joe Schaefer. That night was my first time to see Andy Curtain, Drew Fralick and Paul Johnson in action. They all killed it. If you’ve never seen a Fralick set, you really must. He is one of Shanghai’s most talented entertainers.

Drew Fralick set (Youtube)

Another Drew Fralick set (Youtube)

Joe Schaefer set (Youku)

It was also at that NYE showcase where I made my new year’s resolution to try stand-up for myself. It took me 5 or so months – and a stand-up workshop from Turner Sparks – to get me up on stage at my first open mic, but I did it. I have pictures to prove it. It was only five minutes, but it was nerve-shattering. There’s probably nothing more daunting in life than being handed a microphone on stage in front of people. But that’s also maybe why stand-up workshops are now de rigeur in places like Silicon Valley. After you face a darkened room full of blank faces expecting to laugh, facing an angel investor is a piece of cake.

I went up a total of four times over the span of a couple of months. It’s cathartic. If you ever need to get unstuck from a place in your life, go do open mic stand-up. That resets your compass real quick. I stopped doing it because, well, I wasn’t very good at it. Stand-up is a skill. There are tricks and tips and gimmicks. It takes months and months of constant practice to get anywhere near good. It was eating up a fair amount of time.

Another comic coming up around the same time was Mohammed Megdi. He told me after one show that to get good at it you just had to keep doing it every week. Every week face that audience. Every week hone your delivery. Every week road test new jokes. You’re not necessarily born funny, you become funny. I’ve seen Mohammed run versions of the same set for a year and a half now. At KFK’s first big International Comedy Festival – a real deal competition which went down this past March – he placed second. He’s gotten good. When you see him effortlessly toss insults at the audience, know that it came after months and months of practice. If you went up there and tried that, it would fall flat. Trust me, I know.

Even though I wasn’t doing the comedy anymore, I still dropped in to catch a headline set from one of the main guys. Pro tip – as a fan it’s better not to go too often because you’ll end up hearing the same jokes over and over. The comics usually renovate their set every couple of months. Better to make fairly wide parabolic swings into the scene. But really there’s no better way to spend 70 RMB on a Friday night. I mean seriously – 70 kuai to see a guy on stage who makes you laugh and makes you think? You can’t even buy drugs that cheap. It’s hands-down the best value in town.

KFK was rolling from strength to strength – the new venue, their first comedy festival, a growing pool of amateurs clamoring for open mic slots, coverage by international media. These days they turn down more requests from international headliners than they accept. And then, suddenly, three of their top guys disappear at the same time. It alarmed me. I thought it might represent the natural limit of the platform – as performers get better, they demand a bigger cut of the pie. The KFK model is brilliant because of the inexhaustible source of free and/or low-priced content.

Turns out I’m wrong.

Turner and Joe are moving to New York City to pursue comedy. KFK founder Audrey Murray already splits her time between SH and NYC, also doing comedy. KFK main man Andy Curtain is in New York for the summer on what he calls a “fact finding mission”, no doubt also something related to comedy. It’s not hard to see something big in the works. And that’s great for KFK.

But all that is mere prelude. What I really want to talk about is whether this means we are at the end of a comedy golden age in Shanghai. I base this on one simple observation – the comics coming up through the system now don’t seem to me to be quite on the same level as the founding generation. They seem much more expat-y. They seem like dudes with jobs who write jokes while riding the metro on the way to those jobs. They are less comics than guys who moonlight as comics. There’s a difference.

I mentioned to Paul Johnson how bummed I was that he was leaving. “When one white American male comic falls from the stage, 10,000 more rise up to take his place” was his typically self-deprecating reply. I don’t think it’s true. Dudes like Schaefer and PJ were in the right place at the right time and more importantly they brought the right talent to the mix. Now they are really trying to make careers out of it. And you know what? They are succeeding. Paul Johnson has a month this August doing a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Drew Fralick just wrapped a week-long run of a stage piece he wrote, directed and performed with his wife. Things are happening for these guys. I won’t be surprised to see them turn up on Comedy Central in the near future. I would be surprised if at least one of them didn’t.

Which brings me back to the last few years of KFK – what I’m calling the Golden Age – when they were honing their craft on small stages in front of audiences who had no idea they were seeing a unique bit of comedy history take shape. Back then they were just dudes making jokes about Family Mart and fu’erdai. Even as I am genuinely sad to see them go, I feel privileged to have been there for it.

The future of local comedy in Shanghai is not particularly dim, nor is it particularly bright either. Even if the Chinese side of things really takes off, talent depletion is still talent depletion and maybe you can only make so many Family Mart jokes. Comedy found new avenues in America when it turned political. It’s doubtful the same could happen here.

Local comedy is more than just ethnic jokes. It’s people gathering and laughing at those ethnic jokes. Out of that grows a community – a culture, a history, shared values and an economics – an imperfectly organized perpetually updating reflection of itself monetized in transparent ways that people judge to be fair. Otherwise it’s just marketing crap. And with communities – real and imagined – fracturing across the globe, I guess we all sense how important our institutions are to us.

Community is not something we necessarily lack in Shanghai, but ours seems to consist primarily of Yongkang Lu, Shanghai Mamas and something happening on the Wechat. These are nice and practical and necessary, but they don’t amount to culture. And lest I be misunderstood, while this particular culture may be rooted in expatriatism, it’s already far beyond that, even in a highly siloed place like Shanghai. There is to be sure a linguistic element (speak passable English?), but it’s more an ethos. But for this ethos to become a society or even historically significant or even sustainable it needs a creative component.

Up to now there has not been not enough organized creative reflection of what we are and what is happening to us. There are bands, there are DJs – and once upon a time I thought this was enough, but not anymore. It’s party music, not a revolution. There are restaurants, but it’s just comfort food anymore. There are artists, but they are mainly businesspeople now. There are writers, but they are either Peter Hessler or random blogger guy like White Confucius. The in-between doesn’t seem economically viable. Once upon a time it was the role of the expat rags – TimeOut, City Weekend, that’s – to provide the sense of identity. Now only SmartShanghai tries to – mainly by giving Morgan Short a platform. The rest of them are just business models. Not irrelevant, just boring. And even SmSh manages to offend as much as it does anything else.

KFK is the live action version of SmartShanghai. It’s real people – Chinese and foreign – reflecting you back at you – Chinese and foreign. Even better, they put a smile on your face as they do it, whereas most others who try it – like me – end up just making you feel vaguely bad. KFK and SmartShanghai are part of a flickering constellation of local media which are doing the job of identity building. There’s stuff like the Stuck in the Middle podcast, the TMD series and the Floating City OTV series. Not all of it is great, but then again Andy Curtain once said that when KFK got started at Beedees on Dagu Lu they were too embarrassed to invite people.

There’s lots more stuff going on in Shanghai, stuff that I don’t know about, stuff that doesn’t involve guest lists, infidelity or being awake past midnight – although that does sound like a decent punchline to my next stand-up set, whenever that is.

This isn’t a call to support local arts, just a call to participate in making them.


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