Liaoning’s lord of laughter

Why Zhao Benshan’s tour comfortably beats the ballet in ticket sales

Liaoning’s lord of laughter

Zhao Benshan: First Emperor of the Er Ren Zhuan Dynasty, and probably China's funniest man

Humour, as it turns out, can be a lifesaver. A recent study published by the University of Maryland Medical Centre suggests that people less inclined to laugh in a variety of situations could be 40% more likely to contract heart disease later in life. In this particular study, laughter is indeed the best medicine.

In more trying times (global meltdowns included), laughter can be a rarer commodity. But to give the heart a good workout, audiences are ready to shell out hard-earnedcash for a few hours of distraction from more miserable realities. And according to Mao Pao Weekly, Liu Laogen, a live comedy show that explores the lives of ordinary Chinese, is selling out every night.

Zhao Benshan, a well-known mainland comedy actor, is the mastermind behind the hugely popular comedy show. Born in Tieling, Liaoning, Zhao started his career performing Er Ren Zhuan, a popular comic form of song-and-dance in Northeast China.

In 1987, Zhao was offered a spot on the CCTV Spring Festival New Year Gala, arguably the single most watched TV event in the world (almost everyone in China tunes in). His comedy sketch was so successful that he became an overnight sensation. Since then, he has become a fixture at the annual Gala, and his comedy performance is one of the most highly anticipated parts of the evening. Eager to expand his comedy empire, Zhao started the comedy show Liu Laogen in 2001, named eponymously after the character he played in a television sitcom.

The show was an instant success; it has since been franchised to a number of cities across the mainland. The demand for tickets is high and despite the exorbitant ticket prices (which range between Rmb150-460; average monthly income for an urbanite is only a little over Rmb1,000), the show continues to play to packed houses. Loosely based on Er Ren Zhuan, Zhao’s comedy sketches are darkly funny. Speaking with a thick Northeastern accent, Zhao often mixes village slang with modern-day colloquialisms. He doesn’t do politics (presumably most Chinese comedians make a similarly sensible decision) but prefers to find inspiration from the minutiae of everyday life. His success, in large part, is down to an ability to appeal to people from all ages and backgrounds.

Critics, however, are less appreciative, calling his shows shallow and trivial. In an interview with Liao Shen Evening News, Zhao is unapologetic: “Bringing joy to people is the most important thing. Our goal is not complicated, we strive to make ordinary people happy.”

Zhao can certainly afford to ignore the critics’ grumblings. In 2008 his show took the number one spot in ticket sales among Chinese cultural shows, raking in over Rmb100 million and outselling both the China National Symphony Orchestra and the National Ballet.

For those who can’t afford a ticket to Liu Laogen, there is always the option of a chuckle at the hair salon. Hairdressers from the Northeast region are now in high demand, thanks to Zhao and his fellow protégés like Xiao Shenyang (see Red Star in WiC3). According to China Daily, in addition to washing and cutting, hairstylists from the Northeast region are known to do impromptu comedy routines.

Wang Qing, a patron who frequents a barbershop where most of the hairdressers are from the Northeast says she’s a loyal customer because “getting a haircut is a happy time and I find it very enjoyable.”

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