you heard the one about the baldie, the Geordie and the black man?
- Post Magazine (1 July 2001)
They all went to China. inflicting stand-up comedy on an unsuspecting nation. And although their references were resolutely British, they packed out one house and their gags – mostly – had them rolling in the aisles. Western comedy, it seems, can go East without falling flat. Some mainlanders, lots of expatriates and Fionnuala McHugh get the joke. Boom Boom! Pictures by Greg Girard.
A fortnight ago, three British comedians and their promoter flew into Shanghai just in time for a spectacular thunderstorm. The newspapers the following day would describe this cataclysm as the first “plum rain” of the season – that is, the downpour that coincides with the maturing of fruit – and there was therefore a peculiar aptness about their arrival. You might say their comic timing was spot-on, because they had flown through the clouds to facilitate the blooming in China of the Punchline Comedy Club.
It was not the first time John Moorhead, founder of the club, had tried to harvest untapped hilarity on the mainland. In 1994, he accompanied a comedian called Tim Clark to Beijing for a two-night engagement at the Great Wall Sheraton hotel. Moorhead believes Clark was probably the first stand-up comedian to perform in post-revolutionary China, with a vast stage entirely to himself. He also realised, however, that his vision was premature, that China’s expatriates weren’t ready for British humour, and the venture quickly withered n the vine.
Moorhead, who is Australian, spent four years at South Island School in Hong Kong and now lives in Somerset, England. He was already known as a television presenter on the Star Plus channel here in the mid-1990s, and decided to spend the following years building up a base for the Punchline Comedy Club at The Viceroy restaurant in Wan Chai. He also set up Punchline clubs in Jakarta, Singapore and Bangkok, and two years ago he had another crack at China, this time in Shanghai. That didn’t bear satisfactory fruit either (Moorhead: “It was the wrong venue, there wasn’t enough promotion of the show, and it just didn’t work out”).
So for this, his third stab at the mainland market, he has again brought along Clark, a headline act at London’s Comedy Store (“A legend in his own bedsit”: Melody Market). He has also roped in Richard Morton, who is from the northeast of England (“Hilarious… Newcastle’s answer to Billy Connolly”: The Guardian), and Junior Simpson, who is black (“The new Lenny Henry”: The Times).
They are, to put it mildly, a visually distinctive trio to introduce into any country, never mind one as homogenous as the Middle Kingdom. As Morton, who describes himself as looking like the lovechild of Annie Lennox and Max Headroom, observes amid startled double-takes on that first afternoon in Shanghai: “You’ve got baldie, a Geordie and a black man, and they all go to China to do a show.” It sounds like the first line of a joke with potential – but will the punters get it?
One of the reasons Moorhead is able to contemplate Shanghai this time round is Virgin Atlantic has agreed to be a sponsor, which means comedians can be flown in free, jet-fresh, from London. Simpson and Clark have chosen this route but Morton, performing at The Viceroy the previous week, flies from Hong Kong with Moorhead the following morning. He has hardly slept; a passenger in front of him snored so loudly a nap was impossible – the stuff of hilarity in a comedy routine but not quite so amusing in real life.
Unfortunately, the Virgin flight is three hours late out of London, and what with the delayed arrival and the noise of the thunderstorm. Clark and Simpson don’t get much rest either when they eventually check into the Intercontinental hotel in Pudong. When Moorhead asks everyone to assemble in the lobby at 6pm., Simpson fails to appear; it transpires that after he dressed himself, he sat down “for five minutes” and promptly fell asleep.
Eventually, he arrives in the lobby and the three comics - in sharp suits and sunglasses and looking, as Morton observes, like half the cast of Reservoir Dogs – Stride into a couple of taxis and head for O’Malley’s pub. (Incidentally, many of the suits worn by British stand-up comics are now made by Mr Rocky of Tsim Sha Tsui, a regular stop for the Punchline circuit comedians. Moorhead claims that at a major comedy awards evening in London recently, at least five men appeared on stage in Rocky garb.) As they are driven through the fresh, rain-washed streets of Shanghai, Clark, who wants to mention in his introduction that he’s been to China before, is heard pondering a linguistic puzzle: is it Peking or Beijing?
Simpson, too, has various matters on his mind. Firstly,
it’s father’s Day and he’d like to ring his dad in Jamaica,
but he needs to work out the time difference (“Minus seven hours
for London, then minus another 12 hours, so what’s that?”)
Arriving at O’Malley’s, which has Irish road signs and an Irish flag planted in the garden, and a daunting Alsatian dog slavering in the back office (which is doubling as the stars’ dressing–room) is immediately a funny, in the sense of odd, experience. The audience is 95 percent expatriate, older than one might expect, and as contentedly rooted under the tarpaulin roof as if they’re never stirred further east than County Kildare.
This is ideal fodder for the Punchline trio; in fact, Clark, in his role as compere, picks on Brendan from Carlow in the first five minutes (“Do you know, Brendan, that shirt is the finest contraceptive I’ve ever seen?”), and the domesticity of his subsequent references – Luton Airport, the Daz soap-power challenge, Marks & Spencer, DIY store B&O, DJ Chris Evans – Underlines the sensation that everyone has been briefly zapped back into a pleasant pub in the British Isles for an evening, at a cost of RMB 300 (whatever that might be), including two drinks.
Simpson, introduced by Clark, is alert to the surreal quality: “I’m a black man in an Irish pub in China and it don’t get no better than this!” In an effort to locate himself, perhaps, he moves on to the Hainan Island scenario: “Do y’all know the name of the pilot who was tragically lost? Wang Wei I blame the parents – would you fly with a pilot called one way? One way? Would you?” which surely wins the prize as the least rib-tickling moment of the entire trip. It’s not that the audience is overtly scandalised, or even close to storming the stage, but there is a frisson, a slight intake of breath, which signals the crossing of an invisible line.
Simpson is undeterred and moves into a raunchy routine, complete with hand gestures, about female orgasm. People laugh but in a faintly mystified, shifty way, as if they can’t quite believe (or grasp) some of the references. “Too much sex for the Chinese,” observes a Shanghainese woman, and maybe that goes for the older Westerners too. (Simpson, who obviously adores his parents, is later asked what his mother thinks of his act; he replies she’s proud of him because he doesn’t use profanities. He adds he was going to run through his female sanitary-protection routine in Shanghai but because he wasn’t sure what products were available in China, he thought better of it, which is probably just as well.)
Morton, who has been pacing the garden in twilight, comes on after the interval. Like Clark, his references are resolutely British: Walker’s crisps, Posh Spice and Beckham, Fergie, the general election. “Any thoughts about the Teletubbies. Hong Kong – er, Shanghai? Do I look exhausted? I haven’t had any sleep…” He finishes with a couple of clever songs; Morton was a musician before he became a comic, and one of the reasons Moorhead chose him for Punchline’s rebirth was that he offers an individual musical spin that audiences (and Shanghai is no exception) are hugely trickled by. It’s a variety show with wit.
Afterwards, the lads analyse the evening over burgers and chips (with a brief, cheery interruption, courtesy of Brendan from Carlow who says, “I’m never wearing this shirt again”). The night is judged a success: they like the venue and the audience and, vitally, no one has died on stage. One of the many conclusions that can be drawn from spending time with stand-up comics is that they are obsessed by their public mortality. “Nobody talks about it if you do well,” explains Simpson. “But if I’d died tonight and rung my sister, she’d have said, first thing, ‘I hear you died in Shanghai.’ Everyone hears about it if you die.”
“I don’t try to be Mr International Comedy,” says Morton of his routine. “People like it if you says ‘Ta ta’ or talk about ‘tea-time’, it’s things that they remember from home that they want to hear.” On the way back to the hotel in a taxi, Clark, who is deeply sardonic and so consistently droll that other comedians refer to him as “funny in the green room” – that is, funny even when he’s not performing – begins to amuse himself by pronouncing a series of disparate words (“telephone”, “exit”, “Chrysler Building”) in a Welsh accent. It may not seem witty on the printed page but, at midnight on the streets of Pudong, it’s the sort of surreal juxtaposition that can make grown men crease into folds of laughter.
DAY TWO IN CHINA begins unhumorously for Clark at about 4am, which is when his jetlag kicks in. At the same time, several doors away, Morton is dining on prawn mee soup and a chicken sandwich, courtesy of room service. Simpson sleeps peacefully on, has breakfast at roam then goes in search of DVDs. There is a market just down the road from the intercontinental where, marvelling at his luck, he purchases 29 discs for the equivalent of £30 (HK$330). He spends the rest of the morning watching Unbreakable in his room, and is prised out to have his photograph taken for this magazine on the Bund at 2pm. This time, it’s Clark who has fallen asleep again and has to be woken up, via the lobby house phone.
The Bund, inevitably, is compared to Liverpool. It’s hot, and full of mainland tourists who stand around staring at the three men, and Moorhead, with admirably restrained curiosity. (To Chinese out-of-towners, the Bund itself is such a marvel that perhaps a baldie, a Geordie and a black guy are accepted as part of its varied attractions.) Simpson soons heads back to the hotel and his DVDs, while Morton and Clark go to the antique market at Dongtai Lu and buy 1920s cigarette posters.
On the way, they discuss comedians who steal each other’s jokes. The world of British comedy is a tiny one and everyone knows everyone else, so overlaps are inevitable and they know who’s poaching whose lines; when they get together, it’s like listening to a gathering of actors and playwrights, all ready to copyright a punchline and claim a gag. In fact, it’s abundantly clear comics can spend hours gossiping about each other, endlessly comparing stage deaths and hecklers.
Morton says the most sinister remark he’s ever heard from an audience was a muttered observation in Belfast – “We don’t need to heckle you, we’ve got Semtex” – while the most bizarre came from his mother who, amid the usual exhortations not to give up the day job, could be heard yelling, “Don’t slouch!” Clark recounts the memory of a woman silently mouthing obscenities at him: unnerving and impossible to tackle without alienating the rest of the audience. Women hecklers are the most difficult of the lot, in his opinion. Perhaps this is why Clark likes winding up female journalists. “Birds just aren’t funny,” he says meaningfully on the topic of female comics. “And anyway, they’ve got all that ironing to do.”
Another sleepless night in the hotel follows before the group assembles at 8am for the flight to Beijing. Over a group breakfast at Shanghai airport (cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, Coca-Cola and a glass of Chinese tea so layered with floating vegetation Morton likens it to a fish pond), Simpson settles down to watch a Sylvester Stallone film – “It only cost 92p! – on his portable DVD players. He is keen on mobile technology and is pained to discover, several hours later, that his telephone isn’t working in Beijing. “It’s ‘cos I’s black,” he explains to the others (sensitive readers should understand this sentiment, frequently trotted out on the trip, is an ironic homage to British comedian Ali G, who is white but pretends to be black). In a cost-cutting exercise at Beijing airport, Moorhead agrees to hire a van offered by a tout. Regular travellers in China will recognise the type of vehicle – rear-light held on by Sellotape, ancient stripey towels draped across the seats, the ubiquitous jar of tea leaves rolling on the floor, Mrs Tout sitting up front – but the three comics, squashed into a lumpy back row together, look pop-eyed with alarm.
“We’ve arriving in a nicked Dormobile,” moans Clark, as it trundles unsteadily to the front entrance of the Harbour Plaza hotel where Henry, an effusive bellboy, goes into hand-clasping raptures over Morton’s guitar and cries, “You are a band! Like Marilyn Manson!”
“You mean Charles Manson.” Replies Clark, and retires to bed for the afternoon.
Moorhead, meanwhile, goes to check out the evening‘s venue, which is the Island Club – formerly the Poacher’s Inn – in Chao Yang district. Accompanying him is Teodora, the helpful Bulgarian girlfriend of Ian Burns, Moorhead’s Beijing contact; Teodora is learning Putonghua in Auhui province and is curious to know what British stand-up comedy is like, never having encountered it before in Beijing or, indeed, Sofla. Her language skills will be vital to the evening’s success: it is Teodora who explains to Moorhead that the sound-and-lighting engineer (who has been plucked from behind the bar, cigarette in hand) insists on varying the selection of stage lights every 20 minutes.
“You can’t do that, it’s comedy,” cries Moorhead, aghast. May Chen, the club’s director, is summoned, and after a lengthy consultation says, “This kind of lightbulb is not good quality, it’s made in China and it will burn after 20 minutes,” As a result, Moorhead will later find himself confined to the tiny control room explaining what a punchline is to a Bulgarian woman, who will relay it to a Chinese man, so the lights aren’t switched over at a crucial moment.
There are other cross-cultural issues too. For instance, the concept of the happy hour is not one which has hitherto been experienced by the Island Club. The management deduces that happiness means higher-priced drinks, and accordingly charges more for the beers (which are also warm, until Moorhead sorts out the essential chill factor by having them put on ice). Irate punters can later be heard outside the hall complaining about this inversion of the financial norm, but by then Moorhead has other problems: so many people have turned up there aren’t enough chairs. He has to borrow what he can from every corner of the club and by 9pm, when the show eventually starts, half an hour late, there is a higgledy-piggledy assortment crammed into a space that looks like a chaotic school hall.
As it is, many punters have to stand. There hundred people
(expected crowed 150) have turned up to be entertained, and at least 30
are turned away. Beijing, seven years after the last Moorhead foray, is
obviously ripe – one might even say desperate – for amusement.
It’s a younger, more ethnically diverse crowd than in Shanghai,
already on a high of anticipation before Moorhead introduces the acts.
The room is hot, smoky and packed; Clark and Morton agree later that it’s
a harder show than shanghai because that volatile atmosphere has to be
kept under control. “It’s like surfing,” explains Morton.
“The audience moves you along.”
In the morning, over breakfast, Moorhead is already planning the next Chinese trip for the end of the summer. “it’s a strange career, “ he muses. “I look at all these people and think. ‘They’re here because of me.’ It’s like a paid holiday. Tim used to be a social worker before he became a comedian and, as he kept on saying, there he was walking around Shanghai.’
in the lobby of the Beijing Harbour Plaza hotel, Morton is waiting for
a taxi to take him to Tiananmen Square and pondering life’s strange
geographical – and alliterative – jokes. “On Saturday
night, I’ll be doing a show in Basildon,” he says. “After
that, it’s Bradford.”