Officials in Beijing on Tuesday imposed a hefty fine on the producers of a stand-up comedy show deemed “offensive” for unspecified reasons.
It was the first case in which Beijing’s increasingly popular comedy scene was punished for content violations.
The state-run Global Times expected the fine, which works out to roughly $7,700 in U.S. funds, would “set a precedent for the emerging stand-up comedy genre in China” by demonstrating “zero tolerance for this behavior,” whatever the behavior actually was.
The case reportedly drew considerable interest on Chinese social media, since younger subjects of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been developing a taste for satire.
The authorities are determined to tolerate such performances as long as they do not “destroy or even slander the morality in society” with such misbehavior as telling “sexually charged jokes,” to quote some of the online feedback.
The Global Times recalled Chinese Communist comedy hitting a “bumpy road” over the past few years, with some popular live and Internet shows getting yanked off the air and subjected to “rectification” after delivering unacceptable content. For example, a female comedian named Yang Li came under “massive attack” from male audience members who “felt offended” by her “sharp language against males.”
China actually had something of a boom in sharp-tongued female stand-up comedians last year. Much of their supposedly offensive material was rather mild by Western standards. Here is Yang Li’s most famous joke, the inspiration for countless social media hashtags and memes: “Not only are men adorable, but also mysterious. They can look so mediocre, yet manage to be so confident.”
That’s the joke that got her branded a menace to civilization by outraged Chinese men.
“How much above average does a man need to be, in order to be confident in front of you? A man may be average, but you are likely ugly without makeup,” an unhappy male audience member shot back at Yang – a law professor.
“I’m only trying to be funny. In fact, in the same performance I also ridiculed women for being emotional, but I didn’t receive any hateful comments or threats from female netizens. Women have most likely become used to their stereotypical weakness being made fun of, while men have heard so few jokes like this before,” Yang said in response to such heated criticism.
Another female comic, Huang He, noted Chinese humor traditionally concerns “stereotypes around women” such as “poor driving skills, vanity, or being overly emotional” – not women making fun of men.
The Financial Times noted in early April that stand-up comedians of both sexes are learning the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has absolutely no sense of humor about itself. When one young Beijing comic tried telling jokes about censorship, the audience was conspicuously silent.
Comedian and former journalist Tony Chou said comedy was “a breath of fresh air for young people” in China, but audiences are growing increasingly nervous when he jokes about sensitive subjects, as censorship grows increasingly heavy-handed.
Not only are they worried about official scrutiny, but comedians never know when their audience might include “little pinks” or “wolf warriors,” slang terms for ardent nationalists with zero tolerance for jokes that insult China or the CCP. (“Little pinks” are mostly, but not exclusively, female – the name comes from a decade-old nationalist website. The term “wolf warrior” comes from a popular series of action movies).
In February, one of China’s cultural industry associations published a list of 94 rules for stand-up comedy, one of which prohibited “one-sided, extreme analysis of social issues.”
“Because of China’s national condition, the majority of stand-ups will avoid sex and politics [and] there are not many people who pay attention to racial issues,” Wong told the Financial Times.