Dan Chen

Stand-up comedy in China gets personal

November 13, 2023


To gain understanding of how the free-flowing expression of humor can exist in a controlling society, political science professor Dan Chen spent the summer studying stand-up comedy in China. Chen’s research, supported by a grant from the American Political Science Association, will provide the foundation for a book exploring how popular culture serves as a prism for understanding grassroots dynamics of authoritarian rule.

“There are definitely restrictions in terms of what you can say,” Chen said. “But a unique characteristic of Chinese comedy is that the comedians are interested mostly in personal experiences. They don’t have the intention to challenge the regime or criticize the government.”

Complaining about a demanding boss, working long hours for little pay, and handling demanding parents rank among the top punchlines — universal themes of intergenerational conflicts and workplace pressures. As long as comedians don’t cross political boundaries, the government allows a certain space for people to express themselves, she said.

Chinese routines are cleaner than what you would hear on American stages, Chen said, “because scripts have to be reviewed by local government officials. Vulgarity and profanity will not pass the review.”

Most of the comedy shows Chen attended were in Shanghai, China’s largest city. A typical show features four or five comedians who each perform 15 to 20 minutes. Some comedians perform “special shows” that last an hour.

Popular comedy clubs in China began emerging in the late 2000s, mostly in big cities. When the pandemic hit, the clubs suffered a setback as quarantines forced their closure. A second blow came this past May, when a comedian’s joke seen as an insult to the Chinese military went viral and prompted a government crackdown on clubs.

Chen’s research offers an unusual approach to capturing public opinion. Even though political restrictions exist, she said, “we see a lot of diversity in people’s opinions, and that diversity is captured through comedy.”