Twenty years ago, live stand-up comedy was a rarity in Taiwan. Now, thanks to the efforts of a committed core of performers, things have taken off – though not necessarily in a direction everyone had anticipated.
When I met Brian Tseng more than five years ago at a comedy event in Taipei, he was a rather shy, slightly nervous 27-year-old trying to cut his teeth as a stand-up comedian. Slight and unassuming, he nonetheless had a boyish cheekiness and a twinkle in his eye that bespoke resolution. Not long back from Europe, where he had completed a master’s in neuroscience, he was working as a scriptwriter and producer for Taiwan Bar, an online animation channel focusing on Taiwanese history and culture.
There was a restlessness about him, as he admitted that his work was “not going in the direction I had anticipated.” Tseng had first tried his hand at stand-up in Mandarin during his undergraduate years at Taipei’s first comedy club – then known as Comedy Club Taipei.
“I tried out at their open mic night five or six times, and I was horrible,” he said. “My friends and even my girlfriend told me, ‘Just stop. You don’t have what it takes to be a comedian.’” Military service and postgrad studies in London and Paris ensued before his return to Taiwan and a decision to give things a go in English.
Trying out again at Republic of Comedy, a now-defunct comedy circuit, Tseng started to find his feet. “I’ve no idea what happened, but when I wrote in English, maybe because it’s not my first language, I could really see what the problem was and could write more succinct sentences,” Tseng said. “That’s something I never really did in Chinese.”
He then went back to Mandarin and soon found himself growing in confidence in both languages. Online footage of his sets had gained traction, with one Mandarin video gaining hundreds of thousands of views. Even so, the speed with which Tseng blew up was astonishing. Just a few months after our initial meeting, Tseng had launched The Night Night Show, an online, partially crowdfunded political satire program. As host, Tseng interviewed and bantered with guests such as President Tsai Ing-wen and opposition Kuomintang politician Han Kuo-yu.
Despite several controversies – including the revelation that STR Network, the production company that Tseng had cofounded, had received substantial sums for the appearances of both politicians – his popularity continued to soar. In May, he sold out the 13,000-seat Taipei Arena, a feat that would have been unimaginable for a stand-up comedian just a few years earlier. For many, it was a massive shot in the arm for live comedy in Taiwan.
“We needed some rising stars to build up the industry and culture,” says Sosio Chang, who ran Comedy Club Taipei, a mainly Mandarin-language venue, which has now evolved into Comedy Plus, a 200-seat venue in Zhongshan District.”
“Brian was the first major one, and it has helped build a small industry. Stand-up has now more or less become a part of everyday life in Taiwan and gets news coverage – though often for offending people!” says Chang, who other performers refer to as “the godfather of comedy in Taiwan.”
Sam Yarborough, who cofounded the performance center Two Three Comedy Club (23喜劇) with Tseng, agrees that his partner’s success was pivotal for the scene’s development. Having previously run their events from the 30-seat basement of the 23 Public bar in Taipei’s Da’an District, Yarborough could now think bigger.
“When Brian agreed to come on board, he was already hosting The Night Night Show,” says Yarborough. “His popularity was exploding, allowing us to set our sight on a much larger venue with the appropriate space to build what we envisioned as a comedy club.”
Yarborough – who performs as Sam Yarbs – is excited about how far the scene has come over the past few years. “If you’re a Chinese-language stand-up comic, and you want to perform six nights a week, it’s now possible,” he says. “There are that many open mic events. Even outside of the clubs, there are bars and cafes popping up with stand-up nights.”
Chang agrees though he stresses that producers, directors, and organizers cannot rest on their laurels. “The scene is basically now strong, but it still needs lots of effort to keep going,” he says. Performances at Comedy Plus are not limited to “Western-style” stand-up and include sketches, improvisation, and more traditional forms such as xiangsheng (相聲, crosstalk) and its Japanese counterpart manzai (漫才), both of which feature a pair of performers who indulge in puns and mutual misunderstandings. The larger selection inevitably makes for a wider audience base.
Division and disillusionment
Elsewhere, some performers have become slightly disillusioned with developments. Arthur Chou, who previously performed in Mandarin and English, has taken a step back over the past couple of years.
“I thought the scene was on the verge of a breakthrough, but I was wrong,” says Chou, a television screenwriter and director. “The culture went somewhere else. Young comedians didn’t go to the clubs because they like jokes. They went to get famous.”
Chou suggests the coincidence of the social media era with a stand-up scene that hadn’t fully coalesced played a role. While stand-up in Western countries had been established over a period of decades before social media arrived, he says the Taiwanese scene emerged “in the middle, or even, I would argue, at the height” of the social media age.
“Kids that didn’t grow up with any classic stand-up got exposed to comedy through TikTok and YouTube shorts,” says Chou. “It’s less about being funny than algorithms. Many go on stage thinking it’s a live version of a YouTuber narration video.”
Another issue frequently raised as a potential barrier to the success of Western-style stand-up in Taiwan is cultural differences in humor and joke-telling. For some, these discussions have become something of a cliché.
“Every single time I do a podcast or interview, I get asked: ‘What’s the Taiwanese sense of humor like? How is Taiwanese humor different from other people’s humor?’” says Yarborough. “I believe it’s such a mistake to treat Taiwanese comedy as a kind of monolithic, different style of humor.”
Instead, Yarborough believes generational differences play a much bigger role. “Among Taiwanese, some people love dark, edgy, and offensive-type humor. Others find that completely distasteful and prefer crosstalk shows, which are really based on wordplay.”
Chang supports this view, arguing that the divide between comedy in Taiwan and the West is minimal. “The material, the approach, and how you deliver the jokes might be a little different, but the essence is the same – it’s all about freedom and daring to make fun of things,” he says. “Most importantly, it just has to be good. You need to have the pacing and to manifest your confidence and convince the audience, and that’s the same everywhere.”
Tseng is not so sure and points to an over-reliance on physical, slapstick humor. He admits to finding some humor in Taiwan “immature.” He also notes that aspects of language make certain types of jokes tricky in Mandarin.
“Chinese doesn’t usually stick [relative] clauses at the end of the sentence, so that takes away the flexibility to twist the meaning of a sentence mid-way through,” he says.
For Chou, the difference comes down to one thing: space. Western humor, he says, leaves gaps that audiences have learned to fill in. “It’s all about directing the audience towards a certain logic, then subverting expectations and using perspective to draw surprises, as opposed to funny things per se,” he says. “For comedy to work, the audience needs to participate. But in Taiwan, it’s trickier because the audience expects to laugh without thinking.” This difference in expectations explains why sketches, impersonations, and slapstick remain popular. “These are the most primal and direct forms.”
Tseng agrees. “Good comedy misdirects people, so you shock them with something else,” he notes. “If you can’t build up that expectation, you can’t shock them.”
One unique perspective comes from Ed Hill, a Taiwanese-Canadian comedian with almost 15 years of professional stand-up experience. Hill, who moved to Canada at age 10, believes the “bicultural lens” through which he approaches his art allows him to flit between Mandarin and English comedy in a way that is not so accessible to others.
“Language, like it or not, is not exclusive from culture,” he says. “You need to be able to phrase your language in ways that encompass the culture. I have the advantage of knowing how both sides work so I can bridge it. The way I construct my language in English and Mandarin is the same.”
Hill also pushes back against the claim that Taiwanese are not big on irony – a commonly held belief among foreign nationals in Taiwan. “I’m ironic or sarcastic to my family here in Taiwan,” he says. “Again, I think it’s about how you phrase it and the construction of language.”
Tseng believes that because Taiwanese are less sarcastic in everyday speech, they don’t always appreciate this type of humor. “People often take things literally,” he says. “If they don’t know you’re not serious, it’s hard for them to loosen up.” For this reason, sarcasm during performances can sometimes offend, especially when directed at the audience.
Chou says that ironic joshing is generally reserved for close-knit groups where there is less room for misunderstanding. “It’s not as accepted because people often take things too seriously,” he says. “In order to avoid sounding impolite, people usually keep it between friends.”
While Taiwan’s comedy scene remains male-dominated, female comics have steadily made their mark. Janice Wu had been performing in Mandarin for almost five years before debuting in English earlier this year. While gender has not proved a barrier for her, she believes some people have the misconception that women get more opportunities because there is less competition for them.
“I think we have to work harder to prove we deserve it,” she says. “Besides [that], I think some people don’t know the boundaries when they talk to us. Sometimes they see a woman telling dirty jokes and assume they can talk to us like that.” The inability of some male audience members to separate public persona from private personality can sometimes make things “a bit uncomfortable,” she says. “But it doesn’t happen a lot.”
Like most people involved in Taiwan’s comedy scene, Wu thinks the future is bright. However, she echoes Chou and others who fear burgeoning attendance is premised on superficial considerations. “Most people come to a show for a particular person,” she says. “So, it’s still a long way to make stand-up comedy mainstream entertainment in Taiwan.”
Acknowledging that these things take time, Yarborough nonetheless believes the foundations are in place.
“Where it goes from here will be very interesting to see,” he says. “I’m on the optimistic side, where I don’t think it will grow exponentially, but what you’ll hopefully see is that we’ve created space, so people with five years’ experience are emerging the way a stand-up comic should – performing almost every night. This will give a new generation of stand-up stars a model to follow.”