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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alum brings Chinese comedy to campus

Published: November 22, 2013
Section: News

After graduating from Brandeis with an IGS degree, Jesse Appell ’12 spent a year in China on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying and performing the unique form of Chinese comedy known as Xiangsheng. On Nov. 12, Appell returned to his alma mater to share his talents and experiences at the Brandeis Chinese Cultural Connection’s (BC3) annual Chinese-English Comedy Show.

Appell chose to study comedy to dispel the commonly held myth that “jokes don’t translate across cultures.” Instead, comedy can be a force that unites two different cultures and helps people understand the interpersonal differences between cultural attitudes.

“Studying comedy is living, meeting people, learning the culture and hoping somehow it will all coalesce into a joke,” Appell said.

Appell discovered Improv Beijing, a bilingual improv comedy workshop, near the end of his semester abroad in China. He started taking classes there when he returned to Beijing the following summer for an internship.

In his presentation, Appell explained that like other types of performing arts, Xiangsheng has evolved with the changing times. What originated as a form of street performance has expanded to include shows in large venues, television programs and even a Xiangsheng web series.

Dui Kou Xiangsheng, the type that Appell performs, is an especially interactive form of Chinese improv because it requires two performers to play two roles. Appell mastered this technique, known as “crosstalk,” by studying with a famous performer, Ding Guangquan.

Xiangsheng is challenging because it requires both performers to “speak, imitate, joke and sing,” all at once.

Now, Appell is best known for the two music videos he produced while abroad, which both use comedy to tackle cultural issues. “Laowai Style,” a parody of the hit single “Gangnam Style,” overturns the stereotypes that are associated with foreigners in China. Another music video turns a critical eye to China’s economic policy today.