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“A joke is a serious thing,” declared one Beijing-based American comedian while sipping a pint in one of Beijing’s many foreigner-friendly watering holes. When pressed on the fact that he was quoting Winston Churchill, he retorted, “Seriously? Was he joking? Was he talking about bomb jokes at the airport?”
The comedian is just one of several foreign funnymen who have found a new outlet for sharing laughs while living in China. Since the first show of Comedy Club China (CCC), a new group devoted to performing stand-up comedy in China’s capital, residents have been warming up to the idea of live English-speaking comedians performing throughout the city.
“When people are laughing, for that brief moment, absolutely nothing else matters,” remarked founder Carlos Ottery. “It sounds a bit pompous, but I think it’s important. Everybody loves to laugh.”
After graduating from university in England, Ottery spent years working a variety of jobs ranging from trash collector to journalist to sales, until he finally found himself on a plane to Guangdong in 2008. He spent a year and a half there teaching, until relocating to Beijing, where he found a home teaching English and journalism at Communications University of China.
He met Efi Smits roughly two years ago through a mutual friend, and was immediately drawn to the Latvian’s brooding, existential demeanor. The pair founded CCC together late last year. Not surprisingly, they were drinking in a Beijing bar when Ottery revealed to Smits that he had always wanted to do something involving comedy. “Efi started giving me the old ‘just do it then’ line, but I was pretty coy about the whole thing,” Ottery recalled. “Efi then got off his bar stool and asked the manager if we could do a stand-up show in his bar. He said ‘yes’ and we started looking for comedians the next day.”
At any given time, Beijing’s resident foreign population exceeds 100,000, so with the city’s increasing diversity, it’s only fitting that the capital is taking on characteristics of other global cultural hubs. “Every major cultural city has a comedy club - London, New York, Hong Kong, wherever,” continued Ottery. “I didn’t see any reason Beijing shouldn’t have one too.”
Although Beijing’s foreign residents previously founded English-speaking comedy-minded groups practicing disciplines such as improvisation and theater, CCC is the first devoted solely to stand-up. “I suppose we are a bit purist,” explained Ottery. “We just have a man or woman with a mic - no games, gimmicks or props - and from there it is all up to the (often twisted) imaginations of our stand-ups.”
Their first few shows, all free, have bounced between several bars, but Ottery insists that the name of the group was chosen as such because he one day hopes to move in to a permanent home. “I think we will open a venue dedicated to comedy, though perhaps not seven nights of a stand-up comedy a week,” he illustrates. “Perhaps a few nights of comedy and then a few other fun cultural things: movie screenings, burlesque, dance. The key would be to keep it fun. We would look to book international touring comedians of course, but I wouldn’t want us to lose our roots, so we will still maintain the open-mics and search out new talent in and around China.” Ottery managed to round up seven comedians from a variety of backgrounds for the first show, and he regularly hosts and attends open mic nights throughout the city so he doesn’t miss China’s next up-and-coming comedian.