Stand-up Comedy in Taiwan: Jokes

Twenty years ago, live stand-up comedy was a rarity in Taiwan. Now, with the hard work of the core performers, things have progressed — though not necessarily in the direction everyone expected.

When I met Zeng Bryan five years ago at a comedy event in Taipei, he was a rather shy, nervous 27-year-old trying to get his first taste of being a stand-up comedian. He was small and unassuming, but still had a boyish cheekiness and a bespoke determination in his eyes. Not long after returning from Europe, he completed a master’s degree in neuroscience and worked as a writer and producer at Taiwan Bar, an online animation channel focused on Taiwanese history and culture.

He appeared disturbed when he admitted that his work “wasn’t going in the direction I expected”. Mr. Zeng first tried stand-up comedy in Mandarin during his undergraduate studies at Taipei’s first comedy club (then called Taipei Comedy Club).

“I tried five or six times at their open mic nights, and it sucked,” he said. “My friends and even my girlfriends told me, ‘Stop it. You don’t have what it takes to be a comedian.'” He then did military service and postgraduate studies in London and Paris before returning to Taiwan and deciding Try it in English.

Tried again with the now-defunct comedy circuit Comedy Republic, starting to find her footing. “I don’t know what’s going on, but when I write in English, maybe because it’s not my native language, I can really see the problem and I can write more concise sentences,” Zeng said. “It’s something I’ve never really done in Chinese.”

Two Three Comedy Co-Founder Brian Tseng

He then returned to Mandarin and soon found his confidence growing in both languages. His sets have garnered attention online, with a Mandarin-language video racking up hundreds of thousands of views. Even so, Zeng’s explosive speed was astonishing.Just a few months after our initial meeting, Tseng launched night show, a partially crowdfunded online political satire show. As a host, he interviewed and ridiculed President Tsai Ing-wen and the opposition Kuomintang politician Han Guoyu and other guests.

Despite some controversies — including the revelation that the production company he co-founded, STR Network, was paid a fortune for appearances by the two politicians — his popularity has soared. In May, he sold out the 13,000-seat Taipei Arena, a feat that would have been unthinkable for a stand-up comedian just a few years ago. For many, it’s a shot in the arm of Taiwanese live comedy.

“We need some up-and-comers to build the industry and the culture,” said Sosio Chang, who runs Taipei Comedy Club, a mostly Mandarin-speaking venue that has grown into a 200-seat Comedy Plus venue in Zhongshan.

“Bryan was the first major one, and it helped build a small industry. Now, stand-up comedy is more or less a part of everyday life in Taiwan and is covered in the news—albeit often to offend people!” Zhang Said that other performers called him “the godfather of Taiwanese comedy”.

Sam Yarborough, who co-founded performance center Two Three Comedy Club (23 Comedy) with Tseng, agrees that his partner’s success is critical to the scene’s growth. Yarborough, which previously hosted events in the 30-seat basement of the 23 Public bar in Taipei’s Da’an district, could now consider bigger goals.

Comedians and Two Three Comedy co-founders Sam Yarborough and Brian Zeng see potential for growth in Taiwanese comedy.

“When Bryan agreed to join, he was already hosting night show“His explosion in popularity allowed us to set our sights on a larger venue with the proper space to build the comedy club we envisioned. ”

Yarborough, who plays Sam Yarbs, is excited about how the scene has grown over the past few years. “If you’re a Chinese stand-up comedian and you want to perform six nights a week, you can do it now,” he said. “There’s a lot of open-mic activity. Even outside of clubs, there are quite a few bars and cafes popping up, hosting stand-up evenings.”

Zhang agrees, but stresses that producers, directors and organizers cannot rest on their laurels. “The scene is basically strong now, but it still takes a lot of work to continue,” he said. Comedy Plus’ performances are not limited to “Western” stand-up comedy, but also include skits, improv, and more traditional formats such as Xiangsheng (Crosstalk, crosstalk) and its Japanese counterpart manzai (Mancai), both works feature a pair of performers obsessed with puns and mutual misunderstandings. More choices necessarily lead to a wider audience base.

Split and Disillusionment

Elsewhere, some performers were somewhat disappointed by how things turned out. Zhou Arthur, who previously performed in Mandarin and English, has taken a step back in the past few years.

“I thought this scene was about to break through, but I was wrong,” said TV writer and director Zhou. “Culture goes elsewhere. Young comedians don’t go to clubs because they love the jokes. They go for the fame.”

Zhou believes that the coincidence of the age of social media and stand-up comedy, which has not yet fully merged, plays a role. While stand-up comics in Western countries had been established for decades before the arrival of social media, he said the Taiwan scene emerged in the “middle period, or even the heyday I think” of the social media age.

“Kids who didn’t grow up with any classic stand-up comedy were exposed to comedy through TikTok and YouTube clips,” Chou said. “It’s not so much fun as it is algorithmic. A lot of people walked on stage thinking it was a live version of a YouTuber’s narration video.”

Another oft-cited potential barrier to the success of Western-style stand-up comedy in Taiwan is cultural differences in humor and joke-telling. For some, these discussions have become clichés.

“Every time I do a podcast or do an interview, I get asked: ‘What is a Taiwanese sense of humor like? How is Taiwanese humor different from other people’s humor?'” Yarbrough said. “I think it’s a mistake to think of Taiwanese comedy as a single, different style of humor.”

Instead, Yarborough argues that generational differences play a larger role. “Among Taiwanese, some like dark, edgy and aggressive humor. Others find it downright offensive and prefer cross talk shows, which are actually based on wordplay.”

Zhang supports this view, arguing that the gap between Taiwanese comedy and Western comedy is small. “The material, the approach, the way the jokes are told might be a little bit different, but the essence is the same — it’s all about freedom and daring to make fun of things,” he said. “Above all, it has to be good. You need to set the pace, show your confidence and convince the audience, and that’s the same everywhere.”

Zeng is less sure, pointing to an overreliance on physical, slapstick humor. He admitted that he found some of Taiwan’s humor “immature”. He also pointed out that certain aspects of the language make certain types of jokes tricky in Mandarin.

“Chinese don’t usually add (relative) clauses at the end of sentences, so this loses the flexibility to distort the meaning of the sentence halfway through,” he said.

For Zhou, the difference comes down to one thing: space. Western humor leaves a void that audiences learn to fill, he said. “It’s all about leading the audience to follow a certain logic, and then subvert expectations and use perspective to create surprises, not something that’s inherently interesting,” he said. “For comedy to work, the audience needs to be involved. But in Taiwan, it’s trickier because audiences want to laugh without thinking.” This difference in expectations explains why skits, parodies and slapstick are still popular. “These are the rawest, most direct forms.”

had agreed. “Good comedy misleads people, so you have to shock them with something else,” he points out. “If you can’t build that expectation, you can’t shock them.”

Ed Hill has a unique perspective, a Taiwanese-Canadian comedian with nearly 15 years of professional stand-up experience. Hill, who immigrated to Canada at the age of 10, believes the “bicultural perspective” in his art allows him to move between Mandarin and English-language comedy in a way that others struggle with.

Taipei 23 Comedy Club.

“Language is not exclusive to culture, whether you like it or not,” he said. “You need to be able to express your language in a way that embraces the culture. My strength is understanding how both sides work so I can bridge it. I construct language in English and Mandarin the same way.”

Hill also pushed back on the notion that Taiwanese are bad at sarcasm — a view commonly held by foreigners in Taiwan. “I’m sarcastic about my family in Taiwan,” he said. “Again, I think it depends on how you express it and how the language is constructed.”

It was thought that since Taiwanese are less sarcastic in everyday speech, they don’t always appreciate this kind of humor. “People often take things literally,” he said. “If they don’t know you’re not serious, it’s hard for them to relax.” As a result, sarcasm in performances can sometimes be offensive, especially if it’s aimed at the audience.

Sarcastic banter is usually reserved for close groups, where there is less room for misunderstanding, Zhou said. “It’s not accepted because people often take things too seriously,” he said. “To avoid sounding impolite, people usually only say it among friends.”

Although Taiwan’s comedy scene is still dominated by men, female comedies have gradually emerged. Jenny Wu had been performing in Mandarin for nearly five years before debuting in English earlier this year. While gender has not been a barrier for her, she thinks there is a misconception among some that women get more opportunities because there is less competition.

“I think we have to work harder to show we deserve it,” she said. “Beyond that, I think some people don’t know the boundaries when they’re talking to us. Sometimes they see a woman tell dirty jokes and think they can talk to us that way.” Private personality, which can make things “a little uncomfortable” at times. “But that doesn’t happen very often.”

Like most involved in Taiwan’s comedy scene, Wu sees the future as bright. Yet she, like Zhou and others, worries that the burgeoning attendance is based on superficial considerations. “Most people come to a show to see someone in particular,” she said. “So, there is still a long way to go before stand-up comedy can become mainstream entertainment in Taiwan.”

Yarborough acknowledges that these things will take time, but still believes the foundations are in place.

“Where it goes from here will be very interesting,” he said. “I’m optimistic, I don’t think it’s going to grow exponentially, but what you want to see is we’ve created space so guys with five years of experience are coming out in the way stand-up comedy should — almost every night. Both have performances. This will provide a role model for a new generation of stand-up stars to follow.”

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