Comedy cracks stereotypes
Appell’s trip to China made him a sensation on the web
Published: Monday, December 10, 2012
Updated: Monday, December 10, 2012 21:12
When Jesse Appell ’12 traveled to China on a Fulbright Scholarship last spring, he never expected to be dancing in public in front of hundreds of fascinated onlookers. But after a friend suggested that he make a parody of the wildly popular “Gangnam Style” by South Korean pop star Psy, that is exactly where he ended up.
The video he produced and starred in, “Laowai Style” (laowai means foreigner in Chinese), has collected more than 65,000 views on YouTube and a staggering 370,000 views on YouKu, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. Appell says that when you include pirated copies, it has been viewed well over a million times. When filming the video, Appell says, “We went around and were doing all this dancing in these silly places. Everywhere we went, immediately like 200 or 300 Chinese people would just start flooding in and watching us. I convinced some of them to dance with us.”
For his Fulbright, a program that sends recently graduated students to study abroad for one year, Appell is studying a traditional Chinese form of standup comedy called xiangsheng. Xiangsheng is performed in two-person dialogues or solo monologues and, according to Canadian performer Dashan, the closest Western equivalent to xiangsheng would be skits like Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”
“I’m apprenticing myself to a master performer, who is a really famous xiangsheng teacher here,” says Appell. He is also taking extensive Chinese lessons at Tsinghua University, one of the top schools in China, and while he definitely has a good grasp on the language, some challenges remain.
“I’m more than able to communicate—but slightly short of being able to convince people of stuff,” he says. Convincing people is an important part of being on stage and being funny, and according to Appell, he sometimes has trouble keeping up. “Xiangsheng is also difficult linguistically, so that’s also pushing me very hard as I’m trying to perform,” he says.
Appell has been interested in comedy since going to high school in Newton, Mass., where he was part of an improv comedy troupe. His love of comedy continued at Brandeis, when he wrote for the satirical newspaper The Blowfish and performed with the improv comedy group False Advertising, in addition to performing stand-up comedy at Cholmondeley’s and taking part in other improv events. He was also interested in China, majoring in East Asian Studies and International and Global Studies. But despite taking away a full academic and extracurricular experience, there was one thing he missed out on: “I applied for Boris’ Kitchen three times,” he says with a resigned sigh, “but they didn’t take me.”
Now studying in China, Appell is still trying to get laughs, but he is also addressing slightly more serious issues with his comedy. While “Laowai Style” certainly was “an excuse to go and be silly in public,” Appell also intended it as a kind of social commentary.
“I wanted to write lyrics for Chinese people to break down stereotypes they thought about laowai,” he says. “There’s a misconception of foreigners in China of going to bars, getting crazy drunk, harassing Chinese women and making more money than Chinese people would make in their life. I wanted to go in and do a video where I’d talk about not having a lot of money, having a crappy phone, studying Chinese culture at Tsinghua and trying to turn those stereotypes on their head.”
Appell said that he has been surprised by the success of his video given that he’s still working on understanding Chinese comedy. “It’s been funny having this success with a skillset that’s still very lacking when there’s so much room for improvement and so much chance for future projects,” he says.
In addition to giving him his 15 minutes (though by now, it has been more like a month) of fame, the video has created some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for Appell, such as when he performed the song live on Beijing Television, a government-owned TV network in China.
“That was a really interesting process because I basically was a TV producer for three weeks, and they didn’t pay me,” says Appell. The network made several tricky requests, like asking him to find 20 friends to perform a choreographed dance in the appearance—and then asking him to get passport photos from all those friends. He even had to negotiate with the producers about some lyrics that the network thought were inappropriate; luckily he was able to save two of the three lines in question.
“It taught me which hoops I can avoid and which hoops I need to jump through if I’m going to use TV as a medium for getting messages out,” he says. He plans to do exactly that when he’s done with his classes in January.
In addition to making more funny videos and continuing to hone his stage performance skills, he says, “I’m looking to put together a comedy team in China and maybe even try to develop a TV show and try to get it online or on TV. The idea of making this multicultural, multilingual show that shows Chinese people and foreigners having fun together and living like real people and doing funny stuff—that message would be really powerful.”
He also hopes to further master Chinese and learn more about the country that he’s grown to love.
“There’s no point at which you ever know Chinese or understand China. You learn a little more, you work a little harder, you can speak a little better, but it’s still a bottomless pit. There’s no way to ever be perfect, but that’s good because you can keep applying energy to it and keep getting a reward out of it,” he says.