“Everything I do in China, whether it’s buying vegetables or telling jokes, is a form of cultural exchange,” Jesse Appell told Avenues students during his visit last November. Based in Beijing for the past four years, Jesse has forged a career as a cultural intermediary between China and America. He is equally familiar with the perspectives of ordinary Chinese people (known colloquially in Chinese as the “old 100 surnames”), including a burgeoning class of urbane millennials, and those of their equivalents in the United States. He speaks both English and Chinese fluently and was a Fulbright Scholar. From that description, you might have guessed that Jesse is a diplomat, journalist or maybe an academic. But you would be wrong. Jesse is a comedian.
Jesse is no ordinary American comedian in the vein of his heroes Louis C.K. and Mitch Hedberg, but a self-described “intercultural comedian.” As such, he performs stand-up and improv comedy in both English and disarmingly fluent, Beijing-accented Chinese. He tours regularly in both countries, riffing on the stereotypes each culture holds about the other. He tells stories and jokes that allow American audiences to see themselves refracted through the eyes of Chinese people – and vice versa.
Jesse studied Chinese in high school and college in Massachusetts while pursuing an extracurricular interest in comedy. He began to experiment with bringing the two activities together while on a summer language program in Beijing (where I first encountered Jesse as a fellow student). After graduating from Brandeis University in 2012, Jesse successfully applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to study the traditional art of xiangsheng (“crosstalk”) comedy in China. As part of his research, he became a disciple of one of China’s foremost xiangsheng comedy masters, Master Ding Guangquan. Since then, Jesse has performed live all over China and America and has appeared on Chinese television numerous times. In 2013, his parody video of Psy’s Gangnam Style, named “Laowai Style” (laowai is Chinese slang for “foreigner”), went viral on Youtube and its Chinese equivalent, Youku. Jesse also runs the website laughbeijing.com and has blogged for the South China Morning Post.
In 2016, he established the US-China Comedy Center in a traditional courtyard near Beijing’s Drum Tower, an ancient landmark north of the Forbidden City. The historic neighborhood is comprised of a network of lanes and alleys (hutong in Chinese) lined with dumpling shops, dilapidated residences and increasingly, trendy foreign-run boutiques, coffee houses and cocktail bars. (The threat of demolition and modernization has been mitigated, in recent years, by the presence of hip young foreigners in search of authentic Chinese culture.) Jesse describes the center, which he has dreamed of opening since arriving in Beijing, as “part comedy club, part cultural exchange space.” There, he and his collaborators host performances of English, Chinese and bilingual stand-up comedy, as well as bilingual improv and traditional Chinese xiangsheng. The center also offers free workshops for aspiring comedians, from complete beginners to seasoned performers.
Jesse visited Avenues in 2014 to give a performance and lecture for upper grades students about his experience in China. In November last year, on his second visit, Jesse held a series of Chinese-language improv workshops for middle grades students. For Jesse, the primary purpose of these workshops was not to improve students’ Chinese skills, but to break down their inhibitions and encourage them to be creative. “The reason many children are shy is that they’re afraid of saying something wrong,” Jesse said during an interview. “But in improv, there’s no wrong or right answer, so students can relax and be creative.”
In improv comedy workshops, Jesse led students through a series of games and activities designed to improve eye contact, hone concentration and encourage spontaneity
During the workshops, Jesse and his collaborator Anete, also based in Beijing, led the students through a series of games, from whole-body warm-ups to more complicated scene-building exercises. Channeling his madcap energy into rigorously focused, rule-based sequences, Jesse led by example, making it clear to students that within the structure of any given exercise, they were free – and encouraged – to play. And while as a general rule middle grades students are reluctant to lose their cool, by the end of each session almost all the students had located and exercised their inner child.
“The basic mantra of improv is ‘yes, and’,” Jesse explained, meaning that when improv comedians work together, each performer should first affirm the world that his or her partner is creating, and then help to build it by adding elements of their own. What results is “a thing that neither of you planned, but that belongs to both of you” – the essence of improv. The idea of bringing people with different cultural backgrounds together in a shared imaginative space is at the heart of Jesse’s vision for the US-China Comedy Center.
In the workshops, Avenues students got a chance to “yes, and” each other – in Chinese. After warming up with activities designed to loosen limbs and improve eye contact, Jesse introduced a game called “I Am a Tree” (or in Chinese, wo shi yi ke shu). In this game, groups of four or five performers create a tableau of characters, adding characters one-by-one. The first student gets into character as a tree; the second then thinks of acts out another character related to the tree – maybe an apple or a bird – and then the third, fourth and so on. During this game, the students got a rare taste of performing a true improv skit with the added challenge of introducing their characters in Chinese. Several times, Jesse had to remind students that planning ahead – or attempting to direct other students – was against the rules. While for many students embracing spontaneity was counterintuitive at first, after a few rounds they were producing weird and wonderful scenes in which people, animals and even inanimate objects interacted.
Later in the day, Jesse gave a lecture – this time, in English – to a class of upper grades students who had been studying stand-up comedy as part of the World Course. He began by performing a brief skit of his own: an anecdote about leaving Beijing to visit a Chinese friend’s rural home for the Lunar New Year holiday. “He’s from the middle of nowhere,” Jesse told the students, “coal country Shanxi – it’s like the West Virginia of China.” He went on to explain with nerdy glee that the village’s name in Chinese, Goudicun, translates into English as “trench bottom village,” which made a fascinating point about the challenge of translating between the two languages. There was laughter, but also learning: in no more than a few sentences, he had explained aspects of life in China that students would be hard-pressed to find in even the most up-to-date textbooks, novels or films. It was a story that only someone with a truly intercultural vantage point could tell. For Avenues students, encountering Jesse Appell was an inspiring reminder that being at ease beyond their borders and truly proficient in a second language is only the beginning of the adventure.