Stand Up Comedy

While home my sister took me to see some stand up comedy here in Tampa. Two of the comedians were John Heffron and Tracy Ashley. We had a good time. The next day I was talking to my girlfriend on the phone, telling her what I’d been doing, and I wanted to tell her that I went to see stand up comedy. But I completely did not know how to say “stand up comedy!” I went into a long-winded description of the event which left me completely convinced: I need to know how to say stand up comedy in Chinese!

Shortly thereafter, I was chatting with Brendan online, and I asked him if he knew. Big xiangsheng fan that he is, his response was “单口相声” (one-man xiangsheng). That was a clever way of putting it, and probably pretty easily understood by the Chinese.

I later did a proper Google search and turned up 现场喜剧 (live comedy), which often had 表演 (performance) tacked onto the end. You can find such a usage on the Chinese version of the Wikipedia entry for David Letterman. (That source strikes me as a particularly good example of the surreal beauty of the internet.) I have my doubts as to whether 现场喜剧 can be readily understood by most Chinese as “stand up” without further elaboration, though.

I was actually reminded of China a bit as I listened to Tracy Ashley’s act. She was talking about her experience being black in Minnesota. (Apparently there are not many black people there.) Her description of the awkwardly enthusiastic greetings between black people in Minnesota that don’t even know each other made me think of foreigners in small-town China. (OK, the parallel doesn’t go too far, and then there’s also Marco Polo Syndrome, whose likelihood is directly proportional to the size of the Chinese city….)

All this entry illustrates–if anything–is that when you bring stand up comedy together with Chinese culture, it’s a little awkward.

This is dedicated to my commenters that hate my professor because he discusses his quirky off-topic theories in class.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. great!looking forward to John Heffron’s stand up comedy in Irvine.I just looked it up and it will be in Nov. Hope I could understand a little bit. Apprarently, the funny elements of the two are different and I guess John’s would be more active. I always found chinese stand up comedies really have some problematic topics. Check out Spring Festival Ceremony(the one played on TV while we are eating dumplings) and you probably are able to find they always go with topics about people living coutrysides. I am not sure if it is all about entertainment or there are indeed some needs to reveal controverial topics like the enlarging gap between the poors of coutrysides and the riches in big cities. Anyway, other than that, I would think chinese ones are really enjoyable. Hopefully, american stand up comedy goes the similar way.

  2. regarding the offensive hello in small chinese cities, you have to stand it and just think that you are contributing to the diversity and social development of chinese society. Some of them are really not able to see foreigners like you.Imaging you have been living in an relatively isolated world without any info flowing in. You could act like that. Just the way it is. That would take time. 🙂

  3. John, I don’t hate your professor! I make it a habit not to hate people I’ve never met.

    Describing stand-up as “one-man crosstalk” seems a bit contradictory at first glance, but a quick google search shows that the term seems to be quite widely used. Alternatively, surely the simplest way to explain stand-up comedy is just somebody telling jokes? Or even 单口笑话 “one-man joke-telling” if you want to be completely unambiguous! Didn’t your girlfriend suggest a succinct description after you had explained it all to her?

  4. I’m guessing there’s a lot more white people in Shanghai than Black people in Minnesota – there’s tens of thousands, from all around the world. The idea that we should all be buddy-buddy and introduce ourselves to each other on the subway strikes me as more odd than anything.

  5. Lantian Says: May 4, 2006 at 11:55 am

    Hi Jeff. Howareyou?HowlonghaveyoubeeninShanghai?Ijustgothere,do you think thissubwayisgreatorwhat.There arelikeso manypeoplehereyou know. Yougot aphone,itissocheaphere. Wanttohavesomecoffee? Man,nobodyunderstands a wordIsay, it’slikeIgottatalkslower orsomething.So whereyoufrom?

  6. Lantian Says: May 4, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    This is one of the few comedians that makes my stitches hurt I laugh so much. He can do accents in about 18 languages. His insight into the cross-cultural psyche is laser-like. Amazing. AND he’s Canadian…I guess they are funny.

    Russell Peters

  7. Greg Pasden Says: May 4, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    John, this also illustrates that you didn’t know that their aint no Bro’s in the Minny Hood. Ya know what I sayin’ cuz.
    Ay, ya back in ya crib yet chillin’ wit’ ya squeeze? I guess I can ax you ’bout that late-ah
    Peace out

  8. Me, a xiangsheng fan? For this you will pay, Pasden.

    I don’t think that 单口相声 is the same as “stand-up” — stand-up is funny, for one thing — but rather than get into a whole explanation of the fundamentals of stand-up comedy, followed by a long explanation of why it’s not the same at all as 单口相声, I now just bite the bullet and refer to George Carlin as a famous American xiangsheng performer. Every time I do this, I die a little inside; on the other hand, it saves me ever so much time.

  9. Todd,

    Nope, my girlfriend doesn’t suggest succinct descriptions. She never teaches me. She just talks to me.

  10. Brendan,

    What, now you’re not a xiangsheng fan? I thought that’s what you were telling me…

  11. John, I’m also a bit sensitive about the language learning vs friendship issue, but I thought that when she finally caught your meaning she might have said “Oh, you mean xyzzy”. I would have thought that comes under the category of talking, not teaching. After all, this is more a cultural issue than a language issue — just like you could be perfectly fluent in English but not know that “slash” is a genre of writing.

  12. I can verify that small towns in the midwestern US are very white, but that may be true of small towns in general. You don’t find too many gay folks in small towns, either. It’s only a certain kind of mainstream person that is comfortable living in such places.

    St Paul’s public schools are remarkably diverse–nearly a third each of white, black, and asian. We have one of the largest Hmong and Somali populations in the country. You can’t say there aren’t black people in Minneapolis–drive through the Phillips or North neighborhoods and any other race would be the minority.

  13. hi, I found you blog by searching google…I am confused by its Chinese translation too…:(

    also I am quite confused on the equlivant Chinese words to other comedy genre such as “prop comedy”, “redneck”, “clean”(?!$%@#$%), do you happen to know them?

    my MSN:

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