Roasts on the menu

A new show that mocks stars proves a big hit online for Tencent


In the firing line: Li Xiaolu was one of the celebrities that got mocked

As part of an apology-strewn comeback in 2015, Canadian singer Justin Bieber went on the TV show Comedy Central Roast to be the subject of, you guessed it, a roast. For an hour, celebrities from Martha Stewart to Snoop Dogg traded insults about the pint-sized popstar as he squirmed in his seat, pretending to laugh along in good fun.

Some of the zingers were tough to swallow. Take one delivered by former basketball star Shaquille O’Neal: “Last year you were ranked the fifth most hated person of all time. Kim Jong-un didn’t even score that low, and he uses your music to torture people.”

Will the same format work in China? At first glance it would seem a hard sell in a culture that invests so much in saving face and when an initial series was made last year, producers struggled to convince A-list celebrities to appear. Later it was taken off the air by censors.

But a revised version of the same format is proving more successful. Roast, produced exclusively by Tencent Video, is one of the highest trending topics on weibo since its release in February. The first season, which has 10 episodes, has got 1.3 billion views online already.

The show, hosted by Zhang Xiaogang, works like this: every week a celebrity is the focal point of a roast as seven guests – some well-known artists, some professional comedians – fire jokes and trade barbs about their guest of ‘honour’.

Netizens say the show is entertaining and novel. The writing is so sharp there are virtually “no bathroom breaks,” one gushed. Another said the show is “funny without trying too hard”.

The series isn’t a direct rip-off of its American forerunner and Tencent says it took the producers a long time to perfect the tone for the Chinese market. Unlike the US series, the Chinese version has found that audiences start turning off when the roasting gets too blunt or when it sounds too much like an attack on the celebrity concerned.

Instead the participants focus more on joke material that pokes fun at the celebrities without coming off as malicious and offensive.

To that end, the producers often invite friends of the celebrities onto the programme to keep things light hearted. One episode featuring actress Li Xiaolu sees her best friend Liu Yun poking fun at her for going under the knife to get the perfectly sculpted face. Referencing Li’s breakout role in the TV drama All the Misfortunes Caused by the Angel (2001), in which she plays a nurse, Liu says that Li “is so addicted to hospital, because she keeps going back to retain her youth”. Another of Li’s friends, the actor-comedian Cao Yunjin, says the actress “gets so many Botox shots even Liu Xiang [the speedy former Olympic hurdling gold medallist] can’t keep up.”

Indeed, most of the jokes focus on the physical attributes of the stars. Take the episode that puts Hong Kong actor Wang Zulan into the hot seat. Wang is about five foot three tall. “Before Wang and his wife became lovers they were friends for four years. It wasn’t because she didn’t like him. She was just waiting for him to hit puberty,” was one of the jokes.

Another episode saw TV hostess Li Xiang roasted for her ballooning weight: “Li Xiang is the epitome of a modern woman today. She has high IQ; high EQ and even higher cholesterol.” Admittedly, there isn’t much spontaneity in the series. The producers have set a goal for the writers to land a punchline every 19 seconds and Chief Entertainment Officer, an entertainment industry blog, says each episode takes more than 20 drafts to script.

To make sure feelings aren’t too hurt, Li Yang, deputy director of Tencent Video, says that guests first go through a list of topics deemed acceptable for inclusion. They are also given the final draft of the script so they can anticipate what is coming next. “The point of the show is not to make the situation embarrassing for anyone,” he says.

Not everyone is a fan. Beijing Youth Daily says the show is essentially about a group of strangers saying nasty things about each other, all as part of a televised event.

“The original sin about Roast is that it uses ‘elegant roasting’ to disguise the fact that what it is doing is tearing down interpersonal relationships. While on the surface it seems like everything is fine, the truth is that it displays an utter lack of respect for public decorum,” it thunders.

Shanghai Morning Post agrees: “In the past we have complained about TV shows discriminating against ‘leftover women’ and people with handicaps. The only difference between Roast – which makes fun of people who are old, short and gay – and all the other TV shows is that it is packaged nicely and all of a sudden these cheap laughs have become socially acceptable.”

With critics like these, WiC wonders how long it will be before China’s censor – ever eager to promote public harmony – will be calling Tencent Video and giving it a roasting itself.

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