2013-3-4 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Popular Chinese-American stand-up comedian Joe Wong (right) with Kung Fu Komedy members (from left) Andy Curtain, Drew Fralick, Joe Schaefer and Audrey Murray.
LUO Ye still remembers the first joke she performed on stage. "I love staring at my own reflection in car windows," she says flatly. "But I cannot afford a car, so I'm looking for a boyfriend who's shorter than me and wears sunglasses all the time."
Inspired by the deadpan absurdities of Steven Wright and Maria Bamford, Shanghai-native Luo, who works at an architecture firm, is one of the many flavors of comedy offered by the Shanghai-based stand-up comedy group, Kung Fu Komedy.
From Tammy Imig's "utterly honest" style to Damon Sumner's observational humor (sample - "I love being black in China because wherever I go, I always get a lot of attention."), the two-year-old group has developed a stable of comedians cutting its teeth on Shanghai's international audience.
Imig and Sumner are both English teachers from Atlanta, but they did not come to Shanghai together.
"It forces you to do smarter comedy," says the group's co-founder Turner Sparks, a northern Californian who is CEO of Mister Softee, the first American ice cream truck to operate in China. "You have to do stuff that can relate to everyone but isn't bland or dull."
While the crowds are predominantly expats, Sparks sees the power of word-of-mouth among its Chinese fans.
"At first, Chinese audiences were a little worried that they wouldn't understand but we've seen that they will come and they will always tell you the percentage of what they understood after the show," Sparks says with a laugh. "You see them come back a couple weeks later with five friends, though, which is great because we want to be as multicultural as we can be."
While the group currently has one Chinese comic, Luo, she does comedy solely in English.
"It's different," she says. "I've tried telling some of my English jokes to my friends in Chinese but they don't find it funny."
Group co-founder Andy Curtain confirms that some things are lost in translation.
"I've done comedy in Chinese but I feel like they like the more theatrical side to it," says the Australian from Melbourne who works for KFC. "We grew up watching stand-up, whereas they would like to compare it with something that they're used to seeing. The difference is less cultural and more what you've been exposed to as part of your culture."
Curtain also observes: "One of the biggest points (of difference) is that Chinese audiences don't really like dirty comedy, but a lot of people don't. That won't fly with a Scandinavian audience as well."
Regardless, stand-up comedy is becoming an increasingly popular art form across Asia. Comedy clubs are packed across India, Singapore and Hong Kong. With the opening of their club in Massé off Shaanxi Road S. Kung Fu Komedy has added Shanghai to that list.
The main Kung Fu Komedy troupe has eight members, and the new Faces of Komedy group has seven comedians who joined after open mic nights.
Kung Fu Komedy runs weekly Saturday shows and just brought in American comic Butch Bradley on the weekend for a sold-out appearance.
"We're building ourselves on the model of the Comedy Store in Los Angeles," explains Curtain. "We have headliner shows every Saturday and we eventually want to have those on Thursday and Friday as well. Our goal is to be in 20 cities in China and develop all the headliners that we have."
It's a remarkably ambitious goal to try to follow the famed comedy club that gave early opportunities to future legends like Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Russell Peters and Dave Chappelle.
However, in two years Kung Fu Komedy has gone from a group of people wanting to try stand-up to having member Drew Fralick perform on TV with popular Chinese-American comic Joe Wong and receiving requests from internationally renowned comics looking to perform in China.