2013 was a banner year for Shanghai comedy: existing groups expanded, new regular nights started and the city played host to a number of big names. As the scene continues to thrive,
Time Out profiles the best regular slots guaranteed to give you the giggles
When Every Thursday, 9pm
The standard PRC show is divided into halves. The first is a rapid fire series of short-form sketches where the audience contributes ideas and sets the scene, leaving the actors to take the ball and run. Suggestions tend not to be terribly profound – on one of the nights we attended breasts, constipation and a squat toilet were all voiced in response to various requests for objects, explanations and locations. However, the PRC players almost always manage to spin something amusing out of the material, even if it’s unsophisticated humour. For certain ‘games’ the PRC request that audience members get on stage, which often leads to (no doubt intentionally) hilariously bad results.
The second half utilises further suggestions from the crowd and is devoted to longer-form improv. The jokes are still there but only become more frequent once the foundations of character and setting have been established, such as in one sketch we witnessed which after a number of transitions evolved into an amusing series of mock dates through networking site OkCupid. While the long-form scenes are impressive in the theatrical sense, the frequency of jokes is lower and the second act is usually less gut-busting than the first.
The switch from short to long-form improv thus makes the PRC shows feel a little uneven, but the frequently riotous first halves are worth the price of admission alone. The group’s leader Joe Schaefer is clear where the audience appeal of improv lies: ‘In stand-up, good jokes are repeated a lot of time. They get repeated and tweaked week after week. Improv is new every time; there’s more energy, it’s more wacky, it’s more unpredictable and the audience gets to be involved.’
When Every Friday, 8.30pm
Having featured on both HBO and Comedy Central and with shows in Vegas and the UK lined up for 2014, Butch Bradley has a resumé that would make other Shanghai-based comedians weep with envy (if they weren’t busy laughing at his material).
An accomplished performer, Bradley has over 15 years worth of experience as a stand-up comedian. He emigrated to Shanghai late last year and now performs two shows every week at the Kung Fu Komedy Club. On Saturdays he hosts The Gathering
, interviewing a range of interesting personalities from across Shanghai society – everyone from musicians to Chinese film critics to parkour stars – but his Friday night headline show is straight-up comedy.
Nights often start out with a plan that Bradley is happy to abandon once the opportunity arises. One set last month began with much black humour regarding Shanghai’s severe pollution and trips to a Chinese hospital, only to segue into a lengthy, amusing exchange between Bradley and a member of the audience from Xian about the Terracotta Warriors. Scenes like this explain why the comedian describes his shows as ‘fresh, like we’re hanging out at a bar’, and the unscripted dialogue that results from his banter with the audience means Bradley’s show is a rare instance of a stand-up gig that doesn’t become repetitive with regular attendance. The man is clearly the standout performer within Shanghai, his years of experience and wealth of material elevating him above the other bantams of the scene. The only caveat is if you’re shy, stay out of the front row.
What Open-mic night
Who Shanghai Tickler
Where 390 Bar
When Every Tuesday, 8.30pm
Every Tuesday the upstairs section of Bloc is full of comedians eager to test their material and audience members keen to hear it. With open-mic nights being unpredictable by their very nature, the material performed is different from other comedy sets in the city and the standards vary. Sometimes the hosts will perform skits, often there’s music (usually in the form of cheesy rap) and there’s more dirty humour than at shows elsewhere. The organisers are happy with this: expanding the types of comedy on show in Shanghai is one of their aims.
There are usually between eight and 12 performers every week and anyone is welcome to reserve their five minute slot and get onstage, no matter their level of experience. This sometimes leads to a line-up that’s uneven in its quality and certain weeks the night is better attended than others; occasionally someone will take the mic with an axe to grind and will deliver some vaguely sexist or racist lines, but the audience is smart and gives such individuals the reactions they deserve. Nights can be erratic, but even if there’s the occasional dud act they’re balanced by the seasoned performers from Kung Fu Komedy who regularly attend to test new jokes.
Not that newcomers wanting to give comedy a try should be deterred by the presence of some established names in the crowd. ‘It’s very laid back’, organiser Mike Corayer tells us. ‘[The open-mic night at] Massé feels more “real” – there’s a stage and a curtain, the location is much more dedicated to comedy than Bloc is. Here there’s no pressure; I think it’s much more welcoming for a first-timer to try out their material, it’s a much more forgiving audience.’
Where Locations vary
When Saturday 18 January (differs every month)
Zmack! is Shanghai’s largest improv group (with its own Chinese and French language subgroups) and an organisation that aside from a monthly show is involved with corporate training and workshop classes.
Like the PRC, Zmack!’s shows are based around audience participation and the structure of improv games. A different theme runs through every Zmack! show, further helping to keep the act fresh every time. Recent subjects have included universal topics such as relationships and personal secrets (for this performance company members agreed to reveal secrets related to topics suggested by the audience – cue embarrassed Zmack! grimaces when words like ‘infidelity’ were yelled out).
These shows are big, popular events with performers who spread their infectious love of comedy, though the wit is a little less sharp than that demonstrated by the PRC. On stage Zmack!’s inclusivity means the troupe feels slightly less professional when compared to their improv rivals, who all perform week in week out.
Yet the company’s regular act is only one aspect of its operations. Since October the group has been running weekly workshops outside Eco City mall’s Caliburger
every Thursday (though an unconfirmed change of venue is on the cards) as well as one-off workshops on specific topics or featuring guest comedians. Their full-on comedy courses are held three times a year (usually March, June and October) and quips provide a rigorous but fun introduction to improv for budding jokers who would like to learn the theory underpinning the comedy.
When Every Saturday, 10pm
Kung Fu Komedy (KFK) has come a long way from its founding back when the original members performed among themselves in a corner at Beedees, too embarrassed to invite a real audience. Now there’s rarely a night on which they don’t have something amusing organised. As well as hosting Butch Bradley twice a week, they organise an open-mic night every Wednesday, a weekly mishmash of talent on Saturdays and host many of the big names that pass through Shanghai on their travels (2013 saw the likes of Tom Rhodes, Des Bishop and Joe Klocek perform under their aegis).
The group’s Saturday night showcase, which kicks off late at 10pm, is the best value professional comedy night in town (costing 50RMB) and features veterans of the Shanghai scene such as Drew Fralick and Audrey Murray, alongside newer talent. The strong roster of comedians means that material is varied: we saw sets that jumped from a subversive take on single life and booty calls to a surreal performance that focused on a mythical Metro Fairy and ended in a song (in what was the best act all night), by way of other sets about how bad it can be to meet old friends when you return home and what it’s like to be Latino in China.
Despite the varied line-up the quality of gags is consistent. No one here is on Butch Bradley’s level, but there are still standout moments of mirth. If you find yourself with a free Saturday or just want to check out the best names in Shanghai’s comedy scene, this is the place to go.
Bloc open-mic night
‘It seems like Shanghai is attracting more celebrities these days. Anyone checked out the air quality? It’s hay-z and beyond-safe.’
Kung Fu Komedy Showcase
‘Mandarin has four tones. Russian has one facial expression; to speak it all you have to do is sound like you’ve killed a man.’
‘We’re not brave. When you’re lying in bed at night with your wife, or whatever, and you hear a noise, the last thing you want to do – as a man – is to have to get up and investigate. You hear a thud and all you can think is, “Take whatever you want, just don’t wake her up.”’