Jesse Appell ’12, comedian in China, returns to Brandeis!

On Monday, February 12, IGS was delighted to welcome back one of its most distinguished alumni: Jesse Appell ’12, former Fulbright scholar in China and now one of a handful of “weiguoren” making a living as a comedian in Beijing.

Jesse had us all laughing at his adventures living in Shanghai and making a “knock-off Saturday Night Live for the Chinese internet giant iQiYi.  With just a week to write every episode of the show from scratch, Jesse and his team from Beijing would scour social media material on the celebrity host, try out stunts in their hotel rooms, type jokes madly and hope for success at the weekly table reads.  Jesse showed us a few clips from his appearances, including his recounting of losing two e-bikes to thieves.  He also detailed what it takes to get material on a major media platform in China once the show’s been taped — the layers of approval, with caution and boldness wrestling at every step.

All of which left me wondering: what surprised you most about Jesse’s stories?  In this incredible tale of a foreigner making his way in Chinese comedy, what impressed you the most?

20 Replies to “Jesse Appell ’12, comedian in China, returns to Brandeis!”

  1. What surprised me most about Jesse’s stories are the interesting hotels that he’s stayed at. They are unique and provide an experience that one will most likely not find in the United States.

    What impressed me the most was his efforts in making a living as a comedian in a foreign country where he did not speak a single word of its language. He is the example of someone doing interesting things at a young age that many cannot say that they have done.

  2. I really enjoyed Jesse’s speech on Monday. After hearing his extraordinary experience in working in Talk show in China, I was so impressed and I totally understand how difficult it is for a non-native speaker live in a foreign country. The story Jesse told that he could not have more than two lines in talk show even though his Chinese was able to recite all the lines. Indeed, foreigners cannot have the same capability of speaking the language as fluently as the native speakers, but being deprived of the right to speak on the stage is really depressing. Therefore, for the foreigners, they have to take more efforts to get the same result. But Jesse really did a great job in learning Chinese, that his talk show is really interesting, and also attributed to his foreign identity, he has many fresh materials and jokes to share with the audience. His success also encourages me that hardworking really pays back, and something that seems make you fall behind others, but if consider from another side, is actually a bonus for you.

  3. Jesse Appell is incredibly talented and I am really glad that he could dedicate himself that much into the comedy in China. The most impressive thing is that he could be actually involved in his career in China and even consider himself a Chinese in order to better fit in with the society. It would be undoubtedly hard to actually engage in a community that is from another dimension and Jesse remarkably makes this work. The more interesting thing is how he is able to joke about his encounter and create comedy derived from his life. He maintains the spirit to develop comedy and definitely has the potential to bring Chinese comedy out to the entire world.

  4. The strict censorship surprised me the most out of Jesse’s stories. I knew that the Chinese government obviously restricts free speech, but it seemed excessive on his comedy show. The fact that they cut out his brother’s brief anecdote on e-bikes seemed totally disproportionate; the comment was harmless and didn’t pertain to any criticism of the regime. However, besides the whitewashing, I was very impressed by Jesse’s ability to learn comedic timing in a language he didn’t even learn until adulthood. Achieving fluency in a foreign language is one thing while learning enough about Chinese culture and comedic diction to start your own club is another.

  5. Jesse’s story brings me closer to the comedy talk show industry in China, and I never realized there would be so untold stories behind the scene. He carefully observes anything funny in life that can be written as scripts, even knowing that many of his stories would be turned down. The audience imagines comedians as happily and proactive performers on stage, but they have to shut themselves in hotel room and scramble any materials to create something before the round 1 check.
    The thing surprised me the most is that Jesse’s talent and ideas are not recognized because he is a foreigner. I understand that the show makers only want a safe foreigner stereotype, who admired Chinese culture and makes awkward mistakes while learning Chinese. The image of foreigners is either evil imperialist or innocent fans who loves every aspect of China. As a result, Jesse’s role on the stage is very limited. His jokes are always “harmonized” because anything unfortunate happens to foreigners may damage China’s image. Also, given the harsh and suffocating the censorship, I am very sad to see that many really fun stories cannot be presented. It is a huge loss both to the performers and the audience, since the freedom of speech is a joke itself in China. Getting hits while circling around the inspection system is extremely challenging. And I am very glad that Jesse can share his story to us, that we are more prepared for the possible cultural difference experience.

  6. Jesse certainly has an extraordinary story. Just his ability to learn a language as difficult as Chinese and successfully work and live in that language every day is immensely impressive. Having the courage to chase your dream in you native language can be hard enough. In addition, comedy is a brutal business, it is hard to be funny when everyone has a different sense of humor, and the ideals of humor change depending on people’s upbringing and their cultural background. Therefore, not only is Jesse’s ability to work and live in a foreign language impressive, but his ability to navigate cultural barriers and succeed in something that is very culturally definitive and unique is the true success. One thing that surprised me about his journey was the amount of work that went into getting a sketch on TV. Obviously I understood that not every sketch makes the final cut and some writers never make it because of this. However, I was surprised to learn how quickly the process goes and how tiresome and gruesome it can be. Jesse’s story reflects not only courage and luck, but how hard work and drive can lead to success.

  7. To be honest, Jesse Appell’s spoken Chinese and his experience in China really surprised me a lot. Before meeting him, I have never imagined that one foreigner can speak Chinese so well, and one special thing is that he could not say a single Chinese word before he came to Brandeis. I have watched his music video which is named Mo Money Mo Fazhan on the Youtube website several times. In this video, he uses his own perspective to explain why and how Chinese economics can develop so quickly. His preoperative is so unique and help many foreigners get rid of their biased viewpoints towards Chinese people and its economic development. In addition, he has a good sense of humor because he often jokes about his experience in China. His jokes not only make us laugh a lot but also make us think of his words deeply. In fact, his comments on China and its people are pretty unbiased and can provide foreigners with a good and real picture of China and its people. I really want to say thank you to Jesse Appell and the things he has done. I can learn a lot of useful lessons from him.

  8. I was really amazed by Jesse’s story, to say the least. It was really interesting to hear about his story and how he has gone about making a name for himself in China. I can only imagine the amount of persistence and the countless headaches it took to move to another country and achieve all that he has done in such little time. I was most surprised to hear Jesse talk about how the West has influenced the comedy world in China. Hearing about how the western form of comedy is becoming more popular than traditional forms like that of Xiangsheng was interesting. I always think about big countries like China as not being influenced by those countries in the West because of the level of independence and sustainability they have developed. This part of Jesse’s story for me was a testament to the effects of globalization. As it concerns what impresses me the most, it would definitely have to be the ease with which he appears to have transitioned from one country to the next. I am pretty sure he had difficulties in doing so, but it was really impressive to hear about his experience. Learning a new language is one thing, but actually immersing oneself in a different culture in the way that Jesse did is definitely unique. He seems to be a prime example of a truly globalized citizen.

  9. Among the various stories presented, it surprised me in particular that Jesse Appell, a complete foreigner to China, could immerse himself so well into the culture of the country. For instance, he mentioned that a random middle-aged woman, upon witnessing the horrendous act of smashing bottles on heads, merely gave a quick glance and carried on with her own errands; regarding this, Jesse added a comment that this woman’s actions were in a very “old Shanghai” way. I myself only know of this cultural phenomenon because a significant part of my family is from Shanghai; not even all Chinese people are aware of such specific regional subcultures. It is truly incredible to believe that an American can be able to know China to such an intimate level, and even more so after learning that he studied and became fluent in the language only after attending university. His ability to make connections between American and Chinese culture also impressed me; it is apparent that Jesse can maneuver his way in the Chinese comedy scene and also stands out amongst fellow comedians by making full use of his international background (e.g. the joke that most Chinese, regardless of what situation they’re in, express astonishment at his ability to speak Chinese fluently). This makes him special; furthermore, his position in the country’s development of comedy is accentuated and of much significance as he introduces American (or Western) elements of humor into the life of the average Chinese (e.g. stand-up comedy, which are still quite unfamiliar to most Chinese, in lieu of the more common talk shows or xiangsheng).

  10. Jesse’s journey into the Chinese comedy world is truly unique. As Jesse noted, the word for “stand-up” didn’t even exist in Chinese, and rather the word that would have been used traditionally to describe an act such as his would have been “talk-show.” What struck me about some of his own jokes was that they were grounded in finding the comedy in people’s reactions to a meshing of cultures, specifically caused by an American embracing and entering Chinese culture. One of his jokes centered on the surprise, in any situation, of his ability to speak Chinese. What is special about Jesse’s comedy is its ability to make people laugh at, while being proud of, some of their own cultural specificities.

    I was surprised with the amount of work it took to move a sketch from its inception to its actual airing on the show Jesse worked on. Similar to other shows that are weekly, they have to prepare every element for the show in seven days, over and over again. In a show that operates this way, it has always seemed that this work is done within a tight time constraint, but that it is still manageable since they do have almost a week to prepare. Jesse commented, however, that the time is really much more limited than it seems; when considering the time needed to practice approved sketches, to get approval for the sketches, and to practice how to run a sketch in front of the people with the authority to approve it (the boss), the writers are really left with barely a full day to come up with multiple sketches. Ultimately, only a couple of the many sketches will be used. I enjoyed his tales from the unique hotel that he and all the writers for the show were put up in, with the close quarters allowing for a fostering of ideas – though after his descriptions I am not entirely sure I would want to stay at the hotel myself.

  11. I found Jesse’s story and presentation greatly entertaining as well as fascinating. It was really cool to get to see him in person and that he made a joke about being Brandeisian. I loved the message that his entrepreneurship and dedication show–that we can do absolutely anything we put our minds too. I will say that I was interested by the nature of his jokes in one of the first clips he showed us of his performing, as they were of the same tone a person of marginalized background in the U.S. (someone LGBT, or a person of color) would use: things like saying people would ask him if he knew other random Americans because he is a white American, or showing shock that he could speak Chinese well, or automatically assuming he spoke English. This caused me to think about how a person of privilege I’m the U.S. can go to another country and then have experiences vastly different from those in their own country. It also makes me think about how prejudices are used on SNL and other comedic venues such as the one Jesse is in. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening.

  12. Thank so much for Jesse’s talk.
    I enjoyed his talk a lot and also impressed deeply by him. As an international student who come from China, I could totally understand the difficulties to study or work in a country that speak different language and has different cultural background from his own country. However, Jesses’s perservence and optimism provide me with courage to keep working and pursuing my dream. He likes comedy and Chinese culture. Then, he went Beijing and find a famous “Xiangsheng” teacher in China. I am sure that there must be a lot of people who do not view favourably on Jesse at the first time. He prove himself through his hardworkness. I learned a lot from him and I will stick to my dream as he does.
    As a Chinese,I also want to appreciate him for bringing traditional Chinese culture into America and getting more Americans to know about China.

  13. I was really impressed by Jesse’s stories that he succeeded in becoming a comedy actor in China. This is not only because I am a Chinese and I could understand what his talk shows and his words mean, and how he made the audience laugh a lot through his humor, but also because of his great effort to start his “business” in a completely different country. As a local American, he was not afraid learning Chinese – a difficult language, absolutely differs from English. He not only learned the new language hard, but tried to become professional at it. He also worked hard to learn Chinese culture, history and local Chinese people’s daily life to get more connected to them and do a better talk shows and comedies. It is also interesting that he compared the difference between western talk show and Chinese talk show, which is not really emerged from traditional Chinese “Xiang Sheng”. Jesse learned from the new form of Chinese talk show and “Xiang Sheng” to absorb more knowledge of Chinese comedy and talk show development. He even became the student of the famous Chinese “Xiang Sheng” actor Guangquan Ding. Based on the knowledge he learned from his teachers, his Chinese friends and the Chinese society, he finally be professional at Chinese language and became a successful talk show actor in China. It was his enthusiasms and efforts that shaped Jesse into him today. I am really happy that he made his dream come true and successfully learn much from another culture in the progress of doing Chinese comedy.

  14. What surprised me the most is how Jessie managed to pursue his comedic passions in a country so unknown and foreign to him. I have always regarded Mandarin to be one of the most intimidating languages to learn, and Jessie not only did that but he furthered his studies by traveling to China, immersing himself in the culture, taking risks, and seeking diverse opportunities. It’s reassuring that he did that with an IGS major, it goes to show how applicable and unrestrictive IGS studies can be. I am thoroughly impressed with the way he faced adversity by inserting aspects of his personality and using his wit.

  15. I enjoyed Jesse’s story a lot! Thank Jesse for showing his life in China for us. I am very surprised that he came to Brandeis knowing nothing about Chinese culture and language; yet , when he graduated, he went to China and started his career as a talk show comedian. After a few years of living in China, his Chinese is good enough to impress every Chinese he meets, even under the condition of a small car accident. He also shared some funny stories, such as people would always ask him if he knows their only friend in Beijing/America providing a mere last name that is share by millions of people. He tells us little tricks of how to make jokes in Chinese and English: to think about what the audience know and don’t know. Such skill requires him to know about both Chinese and American culture. The years he spend in Brandeis gave him the ability to be bold and go abroad to another side of the world and be successful. There are few foreigners like him in China, and he one of the first ones to open the field. I like how he is able to embrace diversity and become part of it. It would not be easy to work and learn a foreign language at the same time in a foreign country. He was capable of doing it because he majored IGS in Brandeis and learned how to deal with it.

  16. Since there are not that many foreigners writing jokes for comedy talk shows in China, it is easy for Jesse just to do some cliche jokes about foreigners. It was amazing to me how Jesse did not choose to do that. Instead, he thrived to write jokes that he really likes and can be proud of, like his e-bike story.

    As a native Chinese, what surprised me the most would be information of Chinese television shows and internet shows from Jesse’s perspective. For example, I never knew that trivia game shows have fake prizes like Jesse mentioned. I always thought that fake prizes may exist very rarely in some low-budget shows that nobody watches. I never thought it could be true for many shows I have been watching for years.

    Also, as a loyal fan of iQiYi shows, I found it surprising that jokes needed to be acted out in front of producers for three rounds before they can go on television. It is even more surprising that most of the jokes the writers came up with never got to be on the show. I guess as an audience, I usually enjoy the jokes in such comedy talk shows but ignore the competitiveness behind the shows.

  17. I was really impressed by Jesse’s stories that he succeeded in becoming a comedy actor in China. This is not only because I am a Chinese and I could understand what his talk shows and his words mean, and how he made the audience laugh a lot through his humor, but also because of his great effort to start his “business” in a completely different country. As a local American, he was not afraid learning Chinese – a difficult language, absolutely differs from English. He not only learned the new language hard but tried to become professional at it. He also worked hard to learn Chinese culture, history, and local Chinese people’s daily life to get more connected to them and do a better talk shows and comedies. It is also interesting that he compared the difference between western talk show and Chinese talk show, which is not really emerged from traditional Chinese “Xiang Sheng”. Jesse learned from the new form of Chinese talk show and “Xiang Sheng” to absorb more knowledge of Chinese comedy and talk show development. He even became the student of the famous Chinese “Xiang Sheng” actor Guangquan Ding. Based on the knowledge he learned from his teachers, his Chinese friends and the Chinese society, he finally be professional at Chinese language and became a successful talk show actor in China. It was his enthusiasms and efforts that shaped Jesse into him today. I am really happy that he made his dream come true and successfully learn much from another culture in the progress of doing Chinese comedy.

    Lingke Ying

  18. I enjoyed Jesse’s talk, and have learned a lot form his talk. I am surprised about Jesse’s Chinese level. I have never meet a American that can speak English so well. The story of how he pursuing his dream and find a “Xiangsheng” teacher in Beijing to learn more Chinese culture and comedy surprised me the most. As an international student who is studying abroad in U.S, I could totally understand how hard it is to learn a second language. It is also difficult to adjust yourself into a totally new culture and environment, but Jesse did it and he is doing great in his comedy show career. I am impressed of his courage and his learning ability.

  19. I, a student from China, have never found these interesting and funny details before in my hometown probably because I’m the native there. I agree that once Chinese people, especially the older, see a foreigner, they will view them differently like aliens. That is super funny. The story that impresses most is the one about stolen e-bikes. It won’t be a great story if it happened on a Chinese guy.

  20. I am surprised by his decision to study in and work in Chinese comedy in general. I believe this isn’t a foreigner friendly field, and his courage and talents just surprise me so much. I cannot image myself working in the field of English literature or something like that. In this incredible tale of a foreigner making his way in Chinese comedy, what impressed you the most is the tension between the notion of self-regulation he brought up. I haven’t heard directly from someone who actually worked in the field to talk about the harsh regulation on entertainment industry.

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