Even though China was late to embrace American-style stand-up comedy, thanks to reality competition series like Rock and Roast, which concluded its third season last year and racked up hundreds of millions of views on Tencent Video, stand-up is now getting mainstream attention.
A new wave of female comedians are trying to make their mark. The last season of Rock and Roast saw a few breakout stars like Li Xueqin, who made her way to the finals with her rural appeal and self-deprecating humour (see WiC514). Another contestant – Yang Li – dominated social media chatter with her biting jokes about men.
Mango TV, the online streaming platform of Hunan Satellite TV, now wants to turn 18 female celebrities into stand-up comedians.
Called Listen to Me, the women are asked to perform stand-up in front of a live audience and each week contestants are eliminated based on a popular vote. Danliren (which translates as ‘stand-up comedian’ in Chinese), a Beijing-based studio that specialises in producing comedy, was lined up as the show’s chief screenwriter.
The goal of the show, according to its slogan, is for “women to express their attitudes around hot topics in society”. But Mango TV clearly wants to capitalise on the phenomenal success of Sisters Who Make Waves, the most talked-about reality TV show in recent years (see WiC500). Indeed, the new show’s title means “Listen to Sisters” in Chinese and the series takes a similar format in featuring female celebrities over the age of 30.
Before the show aired, expectations were high. The all-woman cast features famous actresses (Wang Ziwen, 34; Rayzha Alimjan, 34; Zhang Kaili, 58), singers (Wang Ju, 28; Ling Hua, 40) and TV host (Shen Mengchen, 31).
As promising as that sounds, the response has been overwhelmingly negative after the first two episodes came out in late March, with many complaining that the show is “not funny” and is “cringing” to watch.
Some of the women fumbled their lines while others – like Ling Hua – even blanked out on stage. “It’s just an insult to stand-up comedy,” one viewer wrote on Douban, a popular TV series and film review site.
There was no real discussion of hot social issues as the producers had promised. Instead, the majority of women poked fun at themselves. There were plenty of jokes about height and weight. Others took the opportunity to address tabloid speculation about their personal lives.
“The show uses the women as disguise to talk about petty, boring topics. I thought that there would be messages about female empowerment but there was none of that at all. It felt empty and awkward,” one netizen complained.
“Listen to Me is no different from the average celebrity reality show. It did not broaden the boundaries on gender discussions. The only thing it was successful in was fanning the public’s interest in celebrity gossip,” another critic lambasted.
Tencent Entertainment reckons that the problem is with Danliren. How the show works is that female celebrities work with screenwriters assigned to them by Hunan Satellite TV. Some of the writers are well-known within comedy circles – for instance, Xiao Lu, a contestant on the talk show U Can U Bibi, is one of the masterminds behind Listen to Me. But the women then become merely actors, delivering lines to the camera.
“This is not a show about stand-up comedy but more about being a toastmaster,” a netizen quipped.
“Given the quality of the screenplay of Listen to Me, even if you have professional stand-up comedians, they would have a hard time making audiences laugh,” Tencent Entertainment complains. “If the quality of Listen to Me doesn’t improve, no matter how strong the cast is, it’s inevitable the show will fall flat.”
But do audiences in China really welcome controversial commentary from women? Yang, the aforementioned comedian whose repartee rubbished men, became a target for netizens after her appearance on Rock and Roast. The vitriol was so severe that US computer giant Intel, which tapped Yang to promote its laptops, had to pull the ad after just two days because of the landslide of abuse, mostly from men. Yang was boycotted again during a livestream on JD.com in late March. The negative commentary was so overwhelming that Yang had to suspend the online sales broadcast for a brief period.
“What female comedians are doing is like high wire-walking – they have to obey society’s expectations for a woman while needing to meet the expectation from the audiences for a comic performer,” Feng Yuen, a co-founder of Beijing Equality, told the South China Morning Post. “But for male comedians, there is no contradiction between these two expectations.”
Despite the less than impressive debut of Listen to Me, Hunan Satellite TV has once again cemented its lead position amongst satellite networks in attracting large female audiences. A recent research report from TF Securities shows that over 70% of the viewers on Mango TV are women, 90% of whom are over the age of 35.
“In terms of content, Mango TV has already successfully targeted women across all ages between its large portfolio of variety shows. These shows that cater primarily to women are also hugely attractive for advertisers. Companies like Pinduoduo, Vivo and Vipshop are excellent case studies, having worked closely with Mango TV. Even if you don’t recognise the brand, you must have heard of it from the constant bombardment throughout the show. This is why so many brands are eager to advertise on Hunan Satellite TV,” says Entertainment Industry.
Not only is reality TV an advertiser favourite, it is also cheap to produce. Last year Mango TV reported a net profit of Rmb1.9 billion ($290 million), a 70% increase year-on-year. In comparison, online streaming platform iQiyi reported a net loss of Rmb1.5 billion and Bilibili also had a net loss of Rmb2.6 billion during the same period.
That’s not to say Hunan Satellite TV has no challenges. “Compared with variety shows, scripted dramas with exciting plots are more likely to turn audiences into paying subscribers. Just like iQiyi’s Mist Theatre series, which converted 68 million people into subscribers. It suggests that people are willing to pay for quality film and TV content,” says Hua Yu, a showbiz blog. “But judging from the lukewarm reception to Sisters 2 (see WiC532), how to replicate successful shows is going to be a difficult problem for Mango TV to crack.”
Meanwhile the scriptwriters from Danliren on Listen to Me are going to have to improve their jokes, or Hunan Satellite TV will have something else on their hands that is commonly ‘roasted’: a turkey.
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