Laughing out loud

2014-03-20 01:28:05 GMT2014-03-20 09:28:05(Beijing Time)  Global Times
Actors perform on the program Xiao'ao Jianghu on Dragon TV. Photo: CFPActors perform on the program Xiao'ao Jianghu on Dragon TV. Photo: CFP

After a plethora of singing talent shows and family programing swept Chinese TV screens last year, it now seems that it's time for comedic talent competitions to have their turn. Since February, comedy talent shows such as I'm Crazy for Comedy by Hubei TV, China Comedy Stars by Zhejiang TV, Who Can Make Comedy Stars Laugh by Jiangxi TV, and the recent Xiao'ao Jianghu (The Chinese name of wuxia novel Laughing in the Wind by Hong Kong author Jin Yong) by Shanghai based Dragon TV have all opened their stages for amateur comedians to come and tickle the funny bone of audiences.

Comedic scuffle

For audiences who used to complain about the seriousness of TV programing, they now have several brand new options from which to choose. From Monday to Sunday, audiences can now tune into several different comedic talent shows on various different channels. It's estimated that there are currently nearly 20 such programs being broadcast on different satellite television stations throughout the nation.

The sudden upsurge of this type of program has reached the point where different programs have run into trouble finding names for their programs that haven't been used yet. When programming schedules for this year were released at the end of last year, names for shows such as China Comedy Stars, China Comedy Kings, or The King of Comedy were used by several different shows.

Discovering the embarrassing collision, some decided the best course of action would be to change their names. For example, Dragon TV chose to change the name of its program from "The King of Comedy" to Xiao'ao Jianghu.

According to Wang Zhengyu, director of Zhejiang TV's publicity department, the sudden abundance of these programs is partly related to changing government policy. "Last year, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued restrictions on the over-production of various music talent shows," said Wang, "after that TV stations began to shift their focus to other types of programs that could also cover a wide audience base such as comedy or food."

"In the future, China will definitely have a diversified pattern of different programs, like the family program Where Are We Going, Dad? and showcase program The Strongest Brain," said Zhu Hui, director of the program Xiao'ao Jianghu, "now comedic talent shows are embracing prime time. This is a normal phenomenon backed by audience demand."

Scouting for talent

For any type of talent show, discovering and selecting the right contestants is an indispensable part of securing audience ratings. While this is usually not all that difficult for music talent shows, it is a huge headache for comedic talent programs. "The total number of comedic talents across the country is very limited," said Cao Yunjin, one of the four mentors on China Comedy Stars.

Kaixin Mahua (happy doughnut), a celebrated private comedy theater based in Beijing, which has established its fame by performing short sketches on the Spring Festival Gala broadcast on CCTV over several consecutive years, has been an important comedy resource for China Comedy Stars. Seven actors and actress from the theater have been selected to compete on the program, while six other actors, two directors and three playwrights from the theater have been helping contestants write material.

In order to find even more talented contestants, TV stations have even begun engaging in a "talent war" to steal talented individuals from each other. Methods include simply increasing salary for performers to sending "spies" to other programs to scout and negotiate with talented contestants located in "enemy territory."

"We've expanded our scout coverage not only to traditional comedy theaters, but other types of performing troupes to include those that hold magic shows, or perform stage dramas and traditional Chinese operas," said Li Xin, executive producer of Super Comedy Stars. "We were one of the earliest comedy talent programs to air, so we were lucky enough to find all the good ones. Many programs that came later had to resort to searching among students outside the Beijing Film Academy," said Li.

"To scout those really talented comedy hopefuls, we've combed our way through over 20 provinces and numerous cities," said Tian Fang, the general director of Xiao'ao Jianghu.

This shortage of comedic talent combined with the ever growing demand for this type of show has substantially increased the costs associated with these performers. "Performance fees for people whose only role has been hosting some minor evening shows have now reached 100,000 yuan ($15,000)," according to Xiaoguo (pseudonym), one of the directors for China Comedy Stars.

Expensive mentors

Many people assume that unlike music talent programs, comedic talent shows should be much cheaper to produce since they don't have to pay expensive licensing fees to their foreign counterparts, nor spend money on high-cost stage designs. For example, in order for the Voice of China to be broadcast on Zhejiang TV in 2012, it had to pay 3.5 million yuan ($560,000) to the Dutch original. Another simple misconception is that many people think that comedy talent shows don't need to pay as much to guest mentors, unlike music shows which try to invite big name stars.

The reality of the situation when it comes to mentor fees is quite the opposite. For example, Ying Da, who has been a mentor on three separate comedy talent programs this year including I'm Crazy for Comedy and China Comedy Stars, has raised his appearance fee from 3 million yuan ($480,000) to 8 million yuan ($1.3 million) per season.

As for the star-studded Xiao'ao Jianghu, the program revealed that it paid 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) to Feng Xiaogang, one of China's most renowned film directors and famous for his artistic comedic films such as If You Are the One, to come on the show as a mentor.

While singing talent shows have proven to be quite successful in China, these comedic talent shows are just getting their start. It is still up in the air whether these new competitive shows will be able to reach the same heights of success, or whether they will be able to continue at all considering the huge costs involved and the dearth of comedic talent. Now all they can do is wait to see if audiences continue to tune in.

Editor: Zhao Wei
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