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China's comedy roast show is tame yet controversial

“If there is no freedom to criticize, praise is also meaningless,” one netizen commented (winning over 30,000 likes) under a Weibo post from the producers of stand-up comedy show Roast (《吐槽大会》) announcing they would postpone an episode originally scheduled for March 21 this year.

The program’s explanation, that a “lack of editing time” caused the delay, convinced no one. Audiences instead speculated that the show had gone a few jokes too far in the previous episode which took aim at the poor performances of basketball stars Zhou Qi and Guo Ailun. “Is it because of the sports community’s complaints after the last episode?” read one of the most-liked Weibo queries. “Has too much content been cut to leave enough for the new episode?” read another.

Roast, first broadcast in 2016, is a Chinese version of the American comedy series Comedy Central Roast, where celebrities take it in turns to mock each other. The show has rapidly become one of the most influential stand-up shows in China. The first season was viewed over 1.38 billion times by the time its final episode was aired in March 2017, and around 70 percent of reviewers gave it four out of five stars on Douban. Since then, topics related to the program have often appeared on social media trending lists.

Roast has been no stranger to public attention over the last five years and though the exact reasons for the postponed episode this year may never be known, the sudden delay has fueled ongoing controversies over the show, sparking debate about how to best develop comedy programs in China.

The episode that caused the furor may well have been the most popular of all 47 since Roast's debut, with the hashtag “best-ever Roast” winning over 200 million views on Weibo after it aired. Many were particularly impressed by former professional soccer player Fan Zhiyi’s roasts of the basketball stars.

Fan took aim at Zhou for a misplaced pass in the last seven seconds of a match at the 2019 Basketball World Cup which cost the Chinese basketball team their place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games: “I can pass the ball [successfully] to others [with my feet]; you can’t even do it using your hands!” Fan quipped. Guo's performance in scoring just one point in a match against Venezuela during that same tournament also became the butt of Fan's jokes: “It’s not easy to get only one point in a basketball game.”

Many lauded those barbs, but Fan also touched some nerves. Wang Shipeng, a basketball player-turned commentator, denounced the show for “adding salt to our wounds,” and (to the delight of basketball fans) questioned how Fan was qualified to judge basketball players when he and the national soccer team had only managed to qualify for the World Cup once, in 2002. The Chinese Football Association responded with a Weibo post of a rule from their disciplinary code, warning that players or officials who provoke hostility via media would be fined over 300,000 RMB or even suspended from matches for 18 months.

Roast, Chinese Comedy, Sport

Roast, now in its fifth season, remains hugely popular

Even state media giants Xinhua and CCTV weighed into the discussion: While Xinhua urged athletes to learn from past mistakes instead of laughing them off, CCTV suggested audiences distinguish the program's light-hearted banter from real hostility, and to not read into jokes designed solely to make people laugh.

While America's Comedy Central Roast has been infamous for its "no-limits" style, the much milder Roast is also no stranger to dispute. The show was shut down within three days after its first episode in July 2016, supposedly because of its use of dirty jokes, and only re-appeared half a year later.

“In the Chinese model, you must worry about the audience, the sponsor, as well as the government," Chinese comic Tony Chou told TWOC in 2019. "Producing something that all three can agree on is a nearly impossible task,” compared with the Western model, where audiences are the major stakeholder.

Roast saw its ratings fall on Douban from 7.9 to 6.2 points out of ten between seasons one and four, with only 30 percent of reviewers now giving it four or five stars. Many netizens have complained that instead of amusing audiences, the program simply provides celebrities a platform to "whitewash (洗白)" their reputation, acting as a public relations event for them to talk about and respond to criticism or controversy around, for example, poor acting, plastic surgery experience, or relationship scandals. But the main reason for declining ratings and ongoing contention is believed to be a shift in the show's strategy which puts whole groups of people (like basketball players) in the firing line rather than individuals, with the aim of attracting greater audience numbers.

This was done in the hope of striking a chord with more viewers. But as media analyst Zeng Rong concluded in an interview with Beijing Business Today this March, “The challenge of stand-up comedy lies in how to amuse audiences without corrsing their ‘bottom lines.’" Though a CCTV op-ed stated that all TV programs must comply with the law, be truthful, and follow “public order and public morals,” it’s not easy to please everybody (while being entertaining) within this vague framework.

In December 2020, 28-year-old stand-up comic Yang Li was reported to the National Radio and Television Administration (China’s broadcasting regulator) for “sexism, spreading hatred, [and] instigating social conflict” because of her jokes about men, which included comments such as “Do men have any bottom line?” and “Men are rubbish.” The backlash against her has persisted, with technology company Intel pulling down advertisements which featured Yang after fierce criticism online from some male netizens. Yang received more abusive online comments this March when she promoted a brand of sanitary pads via livestream.

This sparked more debate among industry professionals on what path comedy shows should take in China. Chizi, a comic who used to work for Roast, pointed out that stand-ups should avoid the Yang playbook as “she is provocative.” But Chinese-American comic Joe Wong disagreed: “It’s ok for Yang Li to ridicule domineering men; she is joking about men who have no bottom line…Her jokes probably don’t gain their approval because many men have blind spots [about their actions].”

As Wong went on to point out, in the past few people protested the common industry practice of making jokes about the disabled and women. Now, thousands of female viewers have shown their support for Yang, encouraging her to continue with her comedic style—after the Intel incident this March, a Weibo post by Yang thanking her supporters earned over 1.4 million “likes.”

While Roast remains popular, in part because of its controversial nature, both professionals and audiences are still exploring the best way to adapt what is a provocative American concept to Chinese society. The irreverent, and often brutal, style of roasting from the US is unlikely to make it onto Chinese screens, but the slow burn of Chinese comedy will continue—and perhaps eventually everyone will learn how to take a joke.

Cover image: Yang Li performing in Rock & Roast, another comedy show, in 2020

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Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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