Funny in Shanghai: Andy Curtain, Expat Comedian

Andy Curtain moved to Shanghai from Australia in the summer of 2009. Although he eventually landed an enviable 9-5 job in the fast paced world of international finance, his awesomeness couldn’t be contained. He started doing amateur comedy gigs with a local troupe, which last year led him to found his own comedy group, Kungfu Komedy. He answered my questions about living and laughing on the expat comedy circuit in Shanghai.
Andy on a recent holiday in Japan
  • How long have you been in Shanghai? Why did you move there?
My third China-versary is in July this year, which is truly hard to believe.
I graduated from law school when Australia was really starting to experience the panic of the global financial crisis and there was almost a hiring freeze at law firms. The disappointing job prospects forced me to admit I hated law and wasn’t prepared to suffer for it. I’d always wanted to learn another language (for an Australian, bilinguals are a thing of fantasy) and really delve into a culture. China was the obvious choice as I (thankfully correctly) figured you only needed to speak a little bit to get a job using it, unlike say French or German.
So twenty-four hours after my last exam of seven and a half years of uni, I woke up on a friend’s couch in Shanghai, looked out the window, and thought. . .shit, what have I just done?!
  • How did you get started doing stand-up?
My delightful friend Keili suggested I should try it, as I love having a laugh. I thought, this is something I should definitely try before I die. There was no stand up in Shanghai so I joined an open mic night and did  seven minutes. The guy before me was a blind-drunk Chinese man serenading his ex-classmates. I suspect he may have been tone deaf. Most of the room was Chinese and spoke loudly over my jokes, which may have been serendipitous, because I survived.
And then I was hooked.
I joined an American improv group called the People’s Republic of Comedy, and eventually persuaded a few of them to write ten minutes of jokes and convinced a bar owner to put us on. We were so nervous the first time that we didn’t invite an audience. After that we put on more and more shows at different venues and the rapid development of the talented comics has been overwhelming. And Kung Fu Komedy was born.
  • Is there a big following for English stand-up comedians in Shanghai? Do you go on tour anywhere else?
While we are really the only group doing English stand-up shows, I am amazed at the development of the audiences. At our last show we were literally turning people away at the door because they couldn’t get in the room, and people seem to keep coming back for more.
We’ve also done shows in Suzhou and we’re in negotiations with some bars in Nanjing to take the show to the old capital. We have a performance coming up in Jinqiao which is a part of Shanghai totally unconnected to the area in which we’re based.
I’ve also done a couple of sets in Chinese, I think there’s a huge potential for this.
  • What kind of venues do you perform at? Describe your ideal audience. 
The bars we perform at all identify themselves as expat bars. The shape of the room is really important for a good stand up show so an agreeable layout and committed management are all we really look for.
We also get called in for specific gigs, for example we put on a few comics for Nielsen’s Christmas party in China, we’ve done a number of shows for Chambers of Commerce in Shanghai, and we’re looking at upcoming events for some big multinationals. This is making our venue list blow out really quickly.
The ideal audience is a few drinks in and feelin’ giggly. Also, you need to have a few laughers in there. It’s amazing how much hilarity a good chuckler can add to a show. My housemate Mitch laughs like a hyena at the slightest change of breeze so I like him front and centre. It’s hard for the audience not to get their grin on when someone is splitting their sides in front of them. We had one show that went so well, Mitch needed stitches to put his waist back together.
  • Where do you get your material?
Being a foreigner in China is a gold mine for comedy. I also try and keep vigilant for new ideas and write them down as they appear. Funny stuff crops up all the time and a lot of it gets lost.
Sometimes I just walk around China ringing doorbells for inspiration. I’ve come up with some of best my knock-knock jokes this way.
  • Do you hope to reach a point where you’re doing comedy professionally, full-time?
Oh wow, yeah, that would be a dream. I’m definitely open to the possibility although we’ve got a long path ahead of us. A couple of the comics are already talking about making a career out of it.
I really want to keep the group growing and if we keep on this trajectory I think it could happen.
  • Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to make a name for yourself on the local circuit in Shanghai or back home?
You’re really talking about different beasts.
We’re dealing with a much more international crowd, so there are some barriers with culturally specific humour. There are surprisingly few Aussies out there as well. That said, there’s an obvious connection with the audience in joking about being a foreigner in China. There are so many bizarre happenings in China and people are very ready to relate.
There’s also a lot less competition for time and people’s attention. I imagine in LA you have to be better than every other comic and also any play or performance which might compete for their interest. When we started out there was a void for this kind of entertainment and that made gaining traction much easier.
Now we’re really moving it’s not as easy to grow, there are no scouts signing the stars and if we want bigger shows we have to go out there and make them happen ourselves. So we’re facing different challenges.
  • Can you define a difference between the sense of humor in the Shanghai expat world and what would make people laugh back home?
The expat community is a real ethnic cocktail, so you can get a lot more mileage poking fun at other cultures, such as the French. Some say that’s why god made the French, but I think that’s unlikely, as god doesn’t exist.
  • Do your co-workers know what you’re up to on the weekends?
They do but they’re not sure what to make of it. I’ve loosely invited them to a few shows but they’ve been really unsure about it. None of them speak English particularly well so I haven’t pushed them on it.
There’s also the issue they will recognize a lot of the stories!
  • How often do you perform? What’s your typical weekend like?
Right now we’re doing one or two shows a week, with the occasional three.
Show nights are pretty hectic because bar staff can have freak-outs and trying to coordinate a bunch of comics is like herding cats. Most of us get this paranoia that you haven’t done enough before the start, and this leads to some pretty erratic behaviour. So pre-show involves a bit of running around.
Once the ball’s rolling things calm down a bit and post-show everyone tends to calm down and we go have a drink somewhere. Shanghai has a pretty wild nightlife so there’s no shortage of fun to be had after a show.
  • Do you have any funny stories to tell?
Being China, the emoticons people use constitute an entire other language. One of the comics explored this in a PowerPoint presentation, culminating in some suggested new ones, such as ~|^|?, which of course means, “did your house get knocked over by a tsunami?”
Unfortunately, a Japanese girl in the audience was (understandably) offended and started hurling abuse at the comic. It’s always a fine line!
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