‘The shows must go on,’ says Beijing comic after furore over army joke

“House”, whose off-stage name is Li Haoshi, has become persona non grata for putatively comparing the People’s Liberation Army to his dogs.

Aw Cheng Wei

Aw Cheng Wei

The Straits Times


A number of shows in China have been cancelled in the wake of a leak that doomed the career of a comic whose stage name is House, but live events have been slowly returning. ST PHOTO: AW CHENG WEI

June 14, 2023

BEIJING – The 300-seat theatre at Beijing’s Laugh Stand-up Comedy Club is fully packed at 7.30pm on a Monday, the audience eagerly waiting for the night’s line-up of comedians to take the stage.

The emcee, dressed in a beige T-shirt and green cargo pants, walks up the stage and urges the audience to keep their spirits high throughout the 1.5-hour show. He asks the crowd: “Tell me, who is your favourite comic?”

Someone in the back cheekily shouts, “House!”, and scattered laughs follow.

“Come on, don’t stir up trouble. We have been told not to bring this up. Don’t make life difficult for us,” the emcee says.

After all, “House”, whose off-stage name is Li Haoshi, has become persona non grata in the mainstream public opinion for putatively comparing the People’s Liberation Army to his dogs in a comedy routine in May.

Li had said in a show at Beijing’s Century Theatre on May 13 that he was reminded of one of the army’s motto, “Good working style, capable of winning battles”, when he saw his pet dogs chasing a squirrel.

The motto originated from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also the military chairman, when he set out in 2013 a list of qualities he expected of the army. The motto has since been repeated at various official occasions.

An audio recording of the show which was shared on microblogging platform Weibo – and a related hashtag – became one of Weibo’s hottest search topics, hitting more than 700 million views.

Li, who has 136,000 followers on Weibo, and his agency, Xiaoguo Culture Media, have since apologised for the wisecrack.

Xiaoguo was fined 14.7 million yuan (S$2.8 million) for breaking a law that bans slander and insults against military personnel and “causing negative social impact”, according to a notice by Beijing’s Municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau. China passed the law in 2021.

The bureau also said Li and the agency did not stick to the script that was pre-approved by the authorities. All of Xiaoguo’s shows have been cancelled indefinitely.

One of China’s top comedy show companies, Xiaoguo had staged about 60 performances in 11 cities, drawing some 30,000 people during the week-long Labour Day holiday in May alone.

A number of shows around the country – from stand-up comedy to jazz and choral performances – have also been cancelled without explanation in the wake of the audio leak, but live events have been slowly returning.

The Straits Times visited three comedy clubs in Beijing last week but most comedians declined to be interviewed.

Two said that Li and Xiaoguo should have known better than to make a joke related to the army.

“We all know where the red lines are – the party, the army and, for a while, China’s pandemic controls – so there’s no reason why a company as big as Xiaoguo would have let this happened,” said a comedian who declined to be named, to protect himself and his agency.

“We all have to be more careful… (but) the shows must go on. We owe it to the audiences,” he added.

“I’m really grateful that we got such a good turnout today, considering it’s a weekday. It shows that stand-up comedy shows are still in demand, and we hope that the government will not punish all of us for one person or one company’s mistake.”

At the start of the shows last week, the emcees made their usual reminders to the audience not to live-stream or record the shows in either video or audio format to protect the comedians’ original content. They added that it is also easy for netizens to misinterpret the comedians without a proper context should the videos go viral, with one emcee referencing Li’s audio leak as a recent example.

All live performances in China are vetted by the authorities. But comedians say such shows have more chi du or a broader scope than those recorded for television or online, as comedians improvise as they banter with the audience.

“I’ll be surprised if House’s career survives this leak,” said another comedian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He noted how former China Central Television (CCTV) host Bi Fujian was “cancelled” in April 2015 after a video of him talking sarcastically about former paramount leader Mao Zedong went viral.

Bi had said at a dinner with friends that Mao had “made life difficult for the Chinese”, and used an expletive to describe the late Chairman. CCTV suspended Bi and his shows following the leak.

Both comedians who spoke to ST said that a tough part of doing stand-up in China is that it is never clear where the boundaries are for some sensitive topics.

“Sure, we know some topics, particularly those about the government, are off-limits, but we also have to be mindful of any particular sensitivities of the date or trend of the day,” one said.

He gave the example of how it is acceptable to talk about how society should accept sexual minorities during offline shows, but that might change if and when there is a clampdown.

China bans the portrayal of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) characters on television shows and has acted to curb activism in these areas.

But it appears that poking fun at Li’s faux pas has not been banned, despite China’s tendency of scrubbing problematic content from both online and offline channels.

At a show in Beijing on the night of June 7, a comedian told the audience that his mother had been lowering her expectations for him after Li’s gaffe.

“My mother used to ask me to try my hardest to make it big when I first started out as a comedian, then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, she would be satisfied if I could make enough to survive,” he said.

“But (after Li’s arrest) she is just happy that I am not being investigated, and I still have my freedom,” he added, drawing a few weak laughs from the audience of some 20 people.

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