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互配合，遵循着永远不变的但是最有效果的模式，一个恼羞成怒的配角陪衬 出一个傻里傻气的说话没有逻辑的小丑。这让人想起了经典的美国滑稽演员们， 如 Dean Martin 和 Jerry Lewis, George Burns 和 Gracie Allen,还有 60 年代的电视节 目如 Rowan and Martin 和 the Smothers Brothers.中国艺术界将其称为“相声”（字 面意思是“脸和声音”），而在英语中被叫做“ crosstalk”。20 世纪以来，在中国 这种表演形式基本上就等同于幽默。 “相声”和“ 棟篤笑”除了表演形式相似，其他都有大不同。美国棟篤笑的表演 者更愿意单独表演，在中国，两人表演的形式是占大多数的（也许这点上也 能反应出文化趋势：中国的集体主义 vs 美国的个人主义崇拜）。 相较棟篤笑， 相声演员在表演过程中显得更加正式，甚至有些 “做作”。但最大的不同点在 于两者表演的整个结构。美国的棟篤笑模式更倾向于将多则笑话很随意的连接 起来，话题转换全由表演者自己把握，他们运用敷衍随意的连接词，仅仅用 一带而过的台词来转换话题。相反的是，相声是有连贯完备的套路，有着一个 固定的故事或者相关联的主前提。就此而言，典型的相声更像是一则写好脚本 的对话，与 Abbot 和 Costello 的“who’s on First?”的套路，或者 the Marx Brothers 的“why a Duck?”的表演场景类似。传统相声拥有很多保留节目，同时新的点子 也在陆续推出，每一次表演一个创新的节目时，整个的结构都是事先编排好 了的，到时候表演者根据特定的情况自由增加或者删减一些段落。相声的题材 包含中国文化的各个方面，从历史，地区方言和民间传说到当代时事，如独 生子女政策和经济现代化等。 相声一度风靡全中国。当时的茶馆和礼堂每晚都是高朋满座，每个演出班子 都有固定的相声演员。在每年的春节综艺节目里，相声都是压轴戏。在那些易 趣娱乐还没有出现之前，相声是老百姓最主要的娱乐方式，深受各行各业观 众的喜爱。 但是，现在的人们普遍认为，近些年这种艺术形式的质量远远不如以前。 收 音机里和电视上，相声的演出也在大数量的减少，在主流的各式各样的节目 中，相声早已经退居次位，成了可有可无的节目。观众同表演者都意识到了一 个危机：难道这种表演形式会完全消失呢？ 对于这种消退，解释有很多种。有人悲叹说随着录像带时代的到来，拜师学 艺那一套再也不吃香了，因此导致了相声演员表演水平的下降。另一些人说电 视节目严格的时间限制让相声演员连休息的时间都没有，导致他们没有足够 的精力来完成一次表演。 媒体分析家则怪罪于国外 DVD 和更加轻松随意的香港 娱乐产业的涌入。看起来每个人都能为相声留不住观众的无能找到一个借口。 这些借口都是虚假的。 相似的幽默表演形式在美国和其他一些国家依旧很流 行。棟篤笑以其易演出，快创作，具有亲密性和时事性的特点，在表演界独一 无二。 所有的人，包括中国人，都能在表演者的演出中得到情绪的发泄。 如果演
出得当，相声没有理由不能和它的外国同伴一样，给相同的人群带来欢乐。相 声真正衰退的原因是令人沉痛的也是显而易见的，可是没有人敢公开的承认 这个事实：共产党扼杀了相声。 通过删除传统段子，限制其自由发展和改进，缩小演出形式，中国政府系 统性的影响了相声的发展，使其成为了一个阿谀奉承、不能令人满意、没有乐 趣的东西，它仅仅是以前相声的影子。 现在年轻一点的观众在电视上看到的仅仅是相声的冒牌货，一些不温不火 的没有实质内容的东西，他们无法知道曾几何时，相声是一个轻松随意、生动 形象甚至有些吵闹的艺术形式。在清朝，相声出生卑微，作为一个街头表演开 始发展，到了 19 世纪 40 年代，它成了一种复杂的口头表演形式，它保持着反 独裁，甚至带有一丝危险的品质。 相声普遍不跟政治搭边，讽刺每一个人----傲 慢的社会精英、 腐败官员、 乡巴佬、 残疾人、 妓女、 没有活力的知识分子甚至当时 国民党当权领导们。如同本文这样的简短文章，很难将相声渗透着民族文化的 风格和内容传递给大家，但是可以说，与美国的滑稽通俗喜剧和棟篤笑相比， 相声绝对一样丰富和多彩。 接着到了 1949 年。在中国共产党接管政府以来，这些主管新中国文艺的共 产党官员们认为当时的相声形式太过于吵闹和粗俗。黄段子不言而喻当然得取 消，除此以外，权威人物禁止被提起，演员们也不能再拿农民开涮，因为他 们是这场革命的工人阶级英雄。相声和其他娱乐形式被鼓励去“歌颂”而不是 “讽刺”。几乎没有人敢指出这个严重的问题，那就是“歌颂”一点也不有趣。但 是这不重要，根据中国惯例，一个特殊的组织----相声改革委员会----成立了， 在它的领带下，为观众把好关，成千上万的传统相声段子被重新审查和清理。 许多段子经过小小的修改重见天日，而另一些则只有全部被扔掉。 《喝牛奶》被认为是不合格之一，以下是其对话： （介于是“有色”文字，不方便传播，请大家直接看英文原文吧） 以上这段文字再也没有在媒体发表过。 事实上，它已经从相声的保留节目中 消失了，尽管一些老演员仍然记得它，而且也在非正式的场合表演。现在的大 多数的观众肯定会感到惊讶，当今无害的相声拥有不一样的过去，甚至这种稍 微过火的东西。 但是如果他们觉得这个段子就已经很让人吃惊的话，那么他们觉得会对这 个限制级的段子大大的吃一惊，它的名字是 《一只不会叫的鸟》 这是两个男女 。 的一段双关的对话。（女性表演是很少的；相声，就像早期的美国的棟篤笑， 基本都是男性演员的天下。）男的对女的说他有一只特别的鸟，因为它不会叫。 从女人疑惑的提问中，我们可以得知这只鸟没有羽毛，在头顶上长有一只眼 睛，当在笼子里时，这只鸟在某些特定时间，能变大变小等等。随着这个对话 的进行，问题的答案非常的明显了，每个人都知道了除了这个无知的女人。这 只鸟就是男性的。 。 就在这时，女人建议让男人把他的鸟带到茶馆去，因为 。 。 这在北京是一个习俗，养鸟的人都这样做： （再次不好意思，介于是 “ 有色 ” 文字，不方便传 播，请 大家直接看英文原文 吧） 有点朦朦胧胧的幽默，当然-------有点像中国版花花公子派对上的笑话。不 过它却揭示了在解放前的中国，相声原来是如此坦诚大胆的谈到性的内容。相 声演员更倾向于将其叫做“荤口”，按字面解释就是“肉饭”。 在如今的媒体中， 没有任何一种形式与其接近。（对于学者来说，收集解放前的相声段子非常的
难，因为在 50 年代和 60 年代政治的极端主义，大部分艺术的历史资料，包括 电影、 剧本和文献都被销毁或者不可避免的遗失了。 这个段子出现在 1953 年的 钢丝录音中，不知怎么在 1990 年再度出现，当一个社会科学家将脆弱的钢丝 录音转录到磁带中时，发现了它，并且将它交给了普林斯顿的一位教授。） （其二）
相声也很具有黑色幽默。 《卖棺材》 就颇有 Monty Python 的风格：棺材铺的老版 囤积了大量的棺材，于是他强行推销，将棺材卖给顾客。 A：（对顾客说）….您知道吗，小棺材除了用来埋死人，还有其他用处呢。 B:例如？ A:您家里有孩子吗？ B:有啊。 A:太棒了！您可以买一口小棺材给您孩子当婴儿车用啊。四面的把手可以防止 孩子掉下来，这多棒啊这。 B:一点也不好。车是有轮子的，这棺材可没有。没有轮子，叫我怎么推来推去 啊？ A:那把四个轮子按上去不就得了，您看这不是好了！而且这个还不贵呢。 B:但是……孩子在里面会给挤坏的。 A:哦，别那么老土了！在下面放一张小床垫不就得了嘛。 B:哇，什么事情你都能搞定啊。 A:那么，您就卖它了，啊？ B:恩，我….不，还是不妥啊。夏天没地方挂蚊帐啊。 A:您挂蚊帐干什么呢？ B:没有蚊帐，孩子会被蚊子咬的！ A:那就把棺材盖给拉上嘛。这样蚊子就进不去了啊。 B:可是盖子一关，孩子可能会窒息而死的。 A:那样不就更好啦。 B：为什么？！？ A:你可以直接推着棺材去墓地埋了他----还不需要雇抬棺材的咧。 至少从这些例子我们可以看出，相声的领域曾经可以是如此的自由和宽泛。观 众可以长期观看到这类相声。关键就在于，早期的相声，和其他任何土生土长 的民间艺术形式，都能够用丰富和真实的手法来反映老百姓的日常生活。演员 可以随意自由的探寻中国人民身上的优点和缺点，中国文化的光辉和黑暗的 一面，表演日常生活的那令人厌烦的荒谬，给观众带来欢乐。总之，相声曾经 1949 年后，当共产党将其严格的 能够讽刺中国的方方面面，包括黑暗的一面。 手伸向了这种艺术，他们迅速封住了相声讽刺的口，使其变成了政治的传声 筒。 在文化大革命黑暗时期，相声事实上暂时消失了。那时艺术仅仅是灌输的工具， 而相声在这个新环境下，显得尤为脆弱和不稳定。革命舞蹈尚能保持某些程度 的视觉冲击，宣传电影尚能保留些许纯粹的电影价值（截自 Leni Riefenstahl 的 纳粹宣传电影 Triumph of the Will）纯粹只靠嘴巴，相声没有了其他艺术元素来
应付这种变革，因此变得死气沉沉。 其实毛泽东自己就是一个相声的热心观众，有时周六晚上，会在中南山他的 住所里让人表演相声。有趣的是，他只要求看那些老段子，对于新的有关革命 的却不感兴趣。江青曾禁止看所有外国电影，却在自己私人住所里观看迪斯尼 的动画，和妻子一样，毛老爷子一边继续培养大量的革命艺术，一边私底下 欣赏那些不合格的经典老段子。 1989 年的时候，我采访了一位相声演员郝爱民（音译），一位青年艺术家， 他曾经在中南海的那些周末里表演过相声。在北京大学我的宿舍里，相对比较 放松的情况下，他提起了在毛主席面前表演相声的感受： “当我们在登场之前，我们从帘子后面偷偷往里看，毛主席面色红润，正和年 轻的女孩子们跳着华尔兹。毛主席身材高大，很结实，但是步伐却很高雅，是 一个跳舞高手。从这样来看----将他作为一个普通人，而不是一个领导-------让 我们能够轻松一点上场的时候没那么害怕了。但是站在毛主席面前说笑话可不 是一件轻松的事儿。你可以感觉到，表演大厅里所有人都不敢笑除非是他先笑 出来。在这方面，周恩来是一个更好的观众。他本身就比较随和，每次都笑在 笑点上。他也愿意跟着猜想那些妙语，可以跟着你一起说出来。这有可能会毁 了这个笑话，但是却让整个场面更加的轻松了。” 在 20 世纪 70 年代后期，随着文化大革命的结束，相声经历了重生。相声演员 多少有些自由的空间来施展他们的创作才华。这一次，这些讽刺家们有了一个 安全的且国家认可的目标：四人帮和过去十年里的极度狂热的追随者们。对于 能用喜剧来报复江青和其同伙们，相声演员都乐此不疲，表演很多带着“白骨 精”的题目的相声（白骨精是 《西游记》 里的妖精，同时也成了江青的别名）。 关于四人帮的笑话，在私底下流传多年后，终于能够重见天日。相声演员们甚 至可以自由的用他们高超的模仿技巧，来模仿江青单调的山东口音： “ A：(模仿江青)我从小时候学习就很努力了。五年来我每天坚持阅读马克思 列宁主义的书籍，而毛主席的著作我读了七年。同志们，我从头到尾的读了四 部作品：我能背诵列宁的资本论（马克思写）,和马克思的。。。。 B:别说废话了！饶了我们吧！ A:同志们，上级的斗争是复杂的，在政治圈里有些敌人想害我。 B:是的，因为他们都知道你是个阴谋家和机会主义者！ A:他们说我是试图公开推翻共产党。这些谴责是没有根据的！是的，我尝试推 翻共产党，但是那绝对不是公开的！” 你明白了吧，不是那么的令人捧腹大笑的幽默。大多数的段子不是结构很严密， 也许是那种“你必须经历过”才能明白的幽默形式。 但是这些笑声确实真正的感 情的宣泄，因为观众现在能够自由的嘲笑那些，几年前一直压迫着他们生活 的事。 在毛主席后期最有名的一段相声是《照相》，它很完美的再现了当时一连串的 政治极短事件。 A:在这家店的墙上有一张纸，在纸的最上面写着《致顾客》。 B:上面说什么了？ A:上面说呀：“所有走进这间革命照相馆的革命之门的革命的同志们，在您问 起任何革命问题之前，请背诵一条革命语录。任何一位革命朋友没有背出一条 革命语录，那么我店革命的店员将会采取革命的态度，拒绝给您革命的回复。
革命的您们的革命的经理上。” B:真是太“革命了”，好吧。真是那个年代的作风啊。你一走进那家店里，他们 就可能说“为人民服务！”同志们，我有一个问题给大家。 A:“与自私主义斗争，批判修正主义！”请说。 B:（对观 众）恩，至少他没有不理我。（回到角色里）“打倒资 本主义 提倡无 产阶级！”我想照一张照片。 A:“抛弃自私建立共和！”多大的？ B:“革命永远是正确的！”3 寸的。 A:“反抗没有好结果！”好的，请交钱。 B:“政治是最重要的！”多少？ A:“为快速出产奋斗！”一块三毛钱。 B:“批判反动政权！”来，给你钱。 A:“推翻金钱统治！”来，给您收据。 B:“打倒任何反动敌人！”谢谢。 这段相声使得年轻的相声演员姜昆迅速走红，随后有更多的作品出现。 在那 一小段时期，相声有一个国家认可的目标，几乎是得到了批准去攻击它。 但是讽刺的开放时期并没有持续很长。一旦这种宣泄大家愤怒的方式在短时 期内消退，关于政治的主题又再次成为禁忌。当权者可不想让对最近推翻旧制 度的不满，涌向当前的新的这一个。发自内心的笑是自由的，有感染力的，对 于建立的政权具有本质的威胁。 不管怎样，相声至少能够回到它原来的初衷。没有人比相声界最伟大的开拓 者----侯宝林，更有资格领导相声走向这次新的重生了。 在文化大革命后，被打 成“右翼分子”的他，终于得到了正名，并且在当时可以自由的改编和发扬相 声的精华。靠着灵敏的耳朵和惊人的记忆力，他自学了相声。带着一张 Buster Keaton 般故作面无表情的的脸，和轻松明了的风格，他的演出拥有着一股其 他表演者没有的优雅。他表演的最大特点不是讽刺本身，而是这项艺术的最基 本的技巧，包括模仿方言和戏剧，用精湛的口技成功地描述了各种各样的中 文演讲。有这些技巧打基础，侯宝林重新审查和修改了大量的老相声段子，为 剧本注入了新的剧情和人物，成功的利用和展示了传统中国文学作品和神话 故事。他的成功使得他的表演被认为是大师级的。这些作品体现了老相声段子 的精髓。 1949 年后的几十年，凭借无可厚非的喜剧才能，和与政治无关的安 自 全的相声内容，侯宝林成为早期相声的代表，几乎可与相声这项艺术本身齐 名。 但即使是侯宝林这样一个伟人，他也不会涉及关于邓小平当权下的中国的话 题。 工作、 家庭关系、 消费状态、 社会态度；在这个混沌的年代，这所有的一切 都在改变。相声要想保持娱乐，就应该去反映这些新的发展。愈见复杂的观众 想要的是能够体现当下中国人生活的真实的喜剧材料，那些在新的市场经济 下迎面暴露出的新的甚至是痛苦的变化的笑料。在幽默这块上，这些坦率的题 材显然少的可怜。不然的话，20 世纪 80 年代可以算的上是中国相声界的全盛 时期。 (其三)
但是，它不是。出品有影响力的相声题材的任务几乎是不可能完成的，因为政 府在当时是不允许任何艺术与批判主义沾边的。讽刺要有一个对象，但是社会 上的什么事件可以成为相声的幽默的材料呢？直线攀升的下岗工人数量？长 期存在的单位制度的混乱与瘫痪？中国暴发户们奢华的消费？因为独生子女 政策而被宠坏的“小皇帝们”？这些所有的劲爆题材都是禁止的，很大程度的 组织了相声幽默成分的发展。更令人沮丧的是，很多的相声段子，打油诗和歌 曲都私底下在公众之间却流传着这些题材。出租车司机讲的笑话比电视上的专 业人士更加精彩。这些相声演员在干什么呢？他们再次改编旧的相声；他们模 仿广告；他们背诵绕口令；他们重新从事打闹剧。相声这种形式在日益衰退， 而观众们也开始对演员们无话可说而胡说八道感到无聊和厌倦。 不过，在 20 世纪 80 年代后期的一个很短的阶段，有一位演员-----姜昆，和 他的年轻的创作家梁左，能够为相声争一口气。他们采取了当时很多有才华的 艺术家所采用的计谋，那就是表面上与政治一致，在作品里偷偷注入一些颠 覆性的内容。 第一个成功的例子就是 《虎口遐想》 基本立意是如下：一个年轻的人不小心 。 掉进动物园的虎山里，发现自己与一只饥饿的老虎面对面。救他的措施都失败 了，突然他被迫反思自己的道德品质，慌乱地寻找一些生命最后的形而上学 的慰藉。但是哪里下手来解决这个生存危机呢？他想出一些跟社会主义和四个 现代化相关的口号，但是这些却都没能够给他带来逃生或精神上的安慰： A(朝着往虎山里看的观众们大喊道)诶~~我说！喊口号可没什么用啊，老虎又 听不明白！诶~~~我说！你们要真想模仿雷锋精神，一些人就该下来救我啊！ B:他们中有下来的吗？ A:“是共产党员的跟我走！” B:你是共产党员？ A:恩，不要问了，管它的，显然是我最先下到这个地方的嘛！…. B:弄了这么久，你到现在还没有想到办法逃啊！ A:放轻松啦！等我先跟这老虎商量商量。 B:哦？你要跟老虎商量这个？ A:我们可以思想上交流嘛。（跟老虎开始对话了）“老虎！老虎！睁开你的眼 睛，看看我。 我很瘦的---没有什么肉！….老虎，如果你可怜我今天能不吃我， 如果你让我走，我….我保证会好好过生活。 我不仅仅努力建设四个现代化，我 还建设八个现代化。我再也不在我们单位挣表现，晚上我也不早退。我会照领 导的话去做事。在家我要成为一个孝敬父母的典范，爱护兄弟姐妹。在街上， 我会遵守交通法规，不会随地吐痰！” 然后他又在各种各样的宗教信仰上寻找慰藉-----基督教、伊斯兰教、佛教----可 是悲哀的是他对这些宗教一点也不了解以至于他无法明白到底这些宗教怎么 帮助人。当他最后被救上来以后，他又再一次撇下这些形而上学的东西，转而 追求一位为救他出谋划策的迷人的小姐。 这则相声的高超就在于它有两层含义。在表面上，它仅仅是一个幽默短片，关 于一个无助的人疯狂的求得救助，而姜昆的表演如同 Jerry Lewis 一样竭斯底 里，使得这则相声大受欢迎。但是言下之意就只有那些能读懂字里行间的人能 明白了：那即是，中国共产党抛弃了中国历史遗产，用一个腐败空虚的思想
体系取而代之，他们没能够给普通人民的日常生活提供任何的道德伦理基础。 姜昆和梁左 创 作了这样 一个好剧 ，一个能真正引起观 众共鸣 的好剧----而且它 还通过了审查！ 而另一则相声叫做《自我选择》，梁左成功的演绎了关于性别认同的幽默相声， 甚至选择了同性恋和双性恋作为话题，这些议题不论是当时还是在现在都不 被电视娱乐所接受。主人翁去看医生，却被告知自己得了一个极度少见的性别 紊乱症：他现在是一半男一半女----可以说他既不算是男人也不算是女人。 不过 通过对脑袋里的一种腺手术就能治愈。如果医生将腺转到左边，那么这个病人 就能完全又变回男人；如果医生将腺转到右边，那么这个病人就会变成女人。 这就是一个极重大的决定，医生让他回家好好想想，跟朋友和家人讨论一下 选择。 以下是其中的一段，说的是在中国社会背景下，做男人和女人的好与坏。 在假 定和衡量选择的过程中，主人翁对于他的性别角色越来越迷惑了： A:做一个女人我还是得找个伴儿……嘿，如果我找个男人做老伴儿怎么样啊？ B:难道女人不应该都是找男人的吗？ A:…对哦，我必须要小心翼翼的做选择。“至死不渝”的大问题，我可不能随随 便便选一个。我会选……嘿，我们单位那个小猛子怎么样啊？他可是当官的。 B:你必须得自己做决定。 A:算了，小猛子长的不行。他只有 1 米 65 高……非常难看的双眼皮----看起来 就像两个肚脐眼！又矮又胖，还喜欢穿牛仔裤，屁股的两堆肉都挤出来了。 …. 我就真不明白了为什么李小姐会选他。 B:啊？小猛子有未婚妻啦？ A:到现在订婚都一年了。 B:那为什么你还要插一脚？ A:不是这些天每个人都宣扬“第三者应该临门插一脚”吗？ B:谁在宣传那个？ A:那为什么报纸上杂志上的文章都在说呢？ B:那是他们都在反对“第三者”！ A:….哦，不管怎样，究竟谁是“第三者”啊？小猛子的未婚妻，不是我！自我 进厂子开始工作，我就小猛子上下铺了。她有跟小猛子在同屋共寝吗？另外， 如果我跟小猛子结婚，还少费好多事儿呢。我们用不着申请住房，我们就只要 把我的卧具从上床搬到下床就行了！现在住房问题多么紧张啊，这得给我们 单位领导省多少麻烦啊！ B：你就能自圆其说！ A: 那当然！住房竞争这么激烈，领导不得不想些解决方案。如果每个人都像 我提出的建议那么做，男人跟男人结婚，女人跟女人结婚…（停 顿 ）哦，我 想那是不是有点太疯狂啦，不是吗？ B:你终于明白了。 最后，主人翁发现两种性别都有各自的好处，于是选择不做手术了。“我就保 持现在这样---刚好在中间！”他说道。对于广大的观众，这则相声的关键就围 绕在主人翁明显的违反“常识”。但是为了拍部分观众的马屁---特别是同性恋和 双性恋----类似以上的相声的转变是发人深省的。 在中国这个厌恶同性恋的社会， 充斥着同性宿舍楼和集体生活，一些同性恋们很快就能明白，其言下之意：
作为唯一的方式，同性宿舍可以让同性恋者享受相对安全，和长期隐蔽的性 生活。进一步说，在幽默的内容里，仅仅玩味模棱两可的性别角色就能够导出 更深层次的问题以及对一些中国普遍存在的问题的认识，但这样的内容是绝 对不会作为一个公开和严肃的主题出现在其他地方。它作为讽刺社会现象的一 则相声，能够在相对严格的社会环境中出现，我们可以将它跟 50 年代的好莱 坞电影 Some Like it Hot 进行比较，电影里面穿异性服装和变换性别都只是为 了博观众一笑，但是一个更具有挑战----甚至更颠覆的-----副主题等待着那些 敏感的人儿来发现。 梁-江合作中最好的一部是《大新闻》。在发生天安门镇压事件之前是电视春晚 A 中最重要的一部分。 这则相声以惊人的速度流行开了。 简介如下。 告诉 B 他听 小道消息说政府将有一场大胆创新的改革：天安门将会成为一个露天自由市 场，允许成百的个体会商贩设立摊位，兜售从牛仔裤到录像机等各种东西。他 的搭档表示怀疑，具有历史意思的广场怎么可能变成如此粗俗的商业街呢： B:天安门是中国之窗。“哐哐”建一个露天市场在那里，这合适吗？ A: 中国之窗？对！外国人就是不知道中国是什么样子。 他们看一眼广场就知道 说“一个露天的市场？嘿！中国是商品经济呢！”再看一眼，他们就会说“嗯， 每样东西也都很便宜！好的，现在我们认识中国了！”那就是我们跨出的第一 步。 B:哦，那这样他们就明白了。 A:你说的嘛，一个窗户。 他们看一眼就知道大概了。 外国人看一眼，心想“还不 错！”……这样就让他们放松下来。“熙熙攘攘的，多么繁荣！中国肯定有能力 还债！” 讲笑话的人进一步遇到同伴的反对意见。你说市场会挡了人民大会堂的正门？ 对于这些领导可有好处的-----在开一个特别费精力的会议时，他们如果饿了， 只需要走到门外就能买一碗混沌！你说露天市场会影响重要的政府活动？正 相反，这个市场可以成为现成的教具；当讨论到工业监管质量低下时，所有 摊位的货物的堆放就可以提供一个很好的例子。等等。 当时这则相声引起了哄堂大笑。公开的主题是轻易听信小道消息的荒诞的谣言 的危害，但是精明的观众当然能够感觉出真正的言外之意，其中美妙的讽刺 意味，嘲讽了中国快速发展的经济体制与其持续落后的政府政策的矛盾。当然， 《大新闻》 不仅仅指出了这个截然二分的东西----在政府的跟前提起这些事。 观众 笑的是：在那 样 庄 严 的广 场 上 挤满 成百的 资 本主 义 小商 户 ，在他 们 露天的 摊 位跟一群买主讨价还价；这是如此不协调的画面。 1989 年的随后几个月，作 在 为贴近生活的模仿艺术，这则相声经常被人们表演和谈论：天安门广场确实 像一个喧嚣的露天市场，就是当学生运动开始的时候。这则笑话的成功就在于 它表达了真正的政治讽刺，一种从中国的媒体绝对不会见到的幽默形式。 （其四） 接着到了 7 月 4 日的夜晚。天安门广场事件（作者用的是 massacre）的内部骚 乱以后，文艺又遭受了新的冰封期。 《大新闻》 从公众记录消失了，梁左本人也 开始厌倦了相声这行当，转而投身于更赚钱的电视连续剧。 2001 年梁左死于心 脏病，年仅 44 岁。相声又进一步衰退了，表演形式越加敷衍和随意，并不能 给人们带来欢乐。一些更有才华的相声艺术家们更是放弃了相声，转行做电影
或者依靠他们的名气开起了自己的公司。而剩下的是一些老艺术家，他们的演 出确实是很有娱乐性，但是却也不能反映出当下时事，还有一些是没有经验 的新手，属于比较低级的表演者，他们仅仅只能重复老段子或者可怜的吟着 打油诗。 但今天也是如此。在电视和收音机上，相声的出镜率已经很大程度的减少了。 现场演出也并不乐观。北京，作为这项艺术的中心，如今已没有场馆提供，让 人们在夜晚欣赏相声了。更加传统的天津做的稍微好一些，还有少量一些传统 的表演茶馆（相当于中国的喜剧俱乐部）可以炫耀，在那里，忠实的粉丝们 花 5 元钱就能坐一个晚上，吃着瓜子，喝着茶，欣赏着相声表演。没有电视表 演那种时间限制，老演员们自由的说着传统段子（有些长达一个消失）这样 的感觉让他们些许自豪。很多段子都很好，有些都有 50 多年了。那就如同纽约 的观众涌进喜剧俱乐部观欣赏 Jack Benny 的复仇计划和 Marx 兄弟的表演一样。 保证是很经典的段子，但是幽默必须反映时代。 没有人能比相声表演艺术家他们自己更能意识到这些问题的存在。他们必须面 对观众们出现的厌烦和轻视，整晚都得忍受这种焦躁不安。下面是一位老相声 演员的话，很具有代表性: 事实上，我们都不得不承认相声就是不那么有趣了。现在是电脑时代，但是我 们还是一直表演京剧和小商小贩的打闹。可悲的是，有大量的材料就在眼前。 每个人都在抱怨北京的交通。我们能说关于那个的笑话吗？不能。那可能被理 解为对市交通部门的指责。人人都从网上下载黄色信息。我们能在笑话里提起 它吗？算了吧。 那相当于承认中国人民存在性方面的问题….而且绝对不要想对 政治领导开一些无伤大雅的玩笑。几百年内都不行。那么努力的尝试又有什么 用呢？ 实际上，中国人的日常生活的方方面面与政治息息相关，相声演员事实上在 表演时避免跟中国本土的事件相联系。例如在“马”年的 CCTV 春节晚会上，作 为他那年代的佼佼者，姜昆仅仅是从网上下载了一些国外的笑话，进行了改 编而已。有些人肯定会觉得有些笑话是跟文化相关的，土生土长的中国幽默在 这样一个重大的节日，本来就应该更加的恰如其分。也许这就根本不需要层层 的审查。 多年来墨守成规的电视审查，带来了持续的压力，让中国所有的娱乐媒体都拥 有普遍的语调：高度赞美，甜言蜜语，还有些过于乐观主义。这种风尚已经根 深蒂固，以至于凡是涉及到虔诚、异于传统习俗、讽刺或嘲笑的内容都被认为 是愚蠢的，也是不被社会认可的。这样一种庄严文明的气氛虽没有扩散到所有 的表演艺术中，但是对于纯粹靠语言幽默的相声，那无疑就是致命的打击。 如今的中国 观 众 们 更加智慧和国 际 化， 渴 望及 时 的 诚实 的 东 西，但是相声演 员们看来没有能力满足他们。一个很有名的相声演员（本人要求匿名）悲叹道 在中国，他的职业不能用其他形式上表演喜剧： 我出过国，看过美国喜剧家和观众的互动，如 Robin Williams,表演过程多半都 是即席演出的。 我的粉丝说“你好有趣啊，反应灵敏。 我想你也可以那样做。 为 什么不站上台，随机应变，和观众交流呢？大家会喜欢的。”但是我说，不， 那对我来说太迟了。如果就现在你给我足够的自由让我站在台上说任何我想说 的事，最后我还是只能说那些陈旧的东西，走回原来的老套路。我已经习惯了。 下一代人比较有希望这样做，但是对我来说不行了。以前的一切就是我现在所 有的。
可是，新一代从哪里来呢？相声界垂死的迹象显示在过去的十年没有相声新 秀出现了。很明显，这项艺术需要新点子，新段子和新面孔，不然它就有消失 的危险。但是新秀要做的是跳上一艘正在下沉的船上吗？ 我曾参加过一个晚会，一些相声演员也出席了。当夜晚快要结束，茅台酒开启， 他们中的一些人站起来，开始说起当时很流行的笑话，包括以下一个关于警 察腐败的： 一个新来的警察第一天上班了。在结束一天的工作后，他决定去看一场电影轻 松轻松。当他在那里排队的时候，他前面的一个人转过头，看到了他的警服， 说道“你是新来的，对吧？”这个警察很惊讶。 “恩，是的，你是怎么知道的呢？” “警察是不会排队的，他们直接就插队到最前面了。” 这个警察想了想，“真好！算是做警察的一个优势吧！”所以他直接插队到了 最前面，真的还没有人敢反对。他拿出钱包准备买票，售票员说“你是新来的， 对吧？” “为什么呢，是的，你是怎么知道的？” “警察从来也不买票。他们直接就进去了。”警察很满意这份工作的好处，走进 了戏院。 他在前排找座位。有人说“你是新来的，对吧？” “恩，是的，你是怎么知道的呢？” “警察都不跟老百姓坐。他们都到二楼阳台的预留位置坐的。”警察很高兴，走 去了预留座位。 当他一坐下，旁边一人说话了。“你是新来的，对吧？” “恩，是的，你是怎么知道的呢？” “警察都不会很有礼貌端端正正的坐。他们总是背靠着椅子，把脚放在前排的 椅子上。 所以他背靠着椅子，把脚抬了起来。 ” 他开始觉得这个工作真是太好了。 突然他接到一个电话。 我们听说在朝阳电影院有卖淫窝点，”警察调度员说道。 “ “去周边看看，找些证据，你就可以升职了。 好幸运啊！警察刚好就在这家电 ” 影院里。他拿出了他的电筒，打开门，寻找卖淫活动的蛛丝马迹。真的就在一 间房里，一个男人与三个妓女躺在床上。 他高兴的说道“所有人都起来。你们被逋了，包括你，伙计。” 其中一个妓女说“嘿，你是新来的吧？”现在这警察真正的吃了一惊。 “是的，但是你是怎么可能知道的呢？” 妓女指着在床上跟她们在一起的那个男人说道 “ 你不认识你们警察局的头 吗？” 这则笑话流传在大众间，也被发到了网上。虽然很温和，但是中国的电视节目 绝对不会播出。在这拨笑声刚结束，讲这笑话的人就抱怨跟我说： 你知道吗，现在对警察其实有很多怨恨。我很愿意在舞台上讲这个笑话。观众 会很疯狂的，真的。我老觉得这才是我们应该讲的幽默，观众可以自我辨识， 反应他们在现实生活遇到的问题。这么多年过去了，新闻来来去去，各种各样 的笑话在民间传开了，但是却从来没有在电视上播出过。一年一年，这么多的 精彩的幽默被创造又被遗忘，从来没有出现在公众记录里。几百年以后，人们 可能回首说道“从 1949 年以后，中国的幽默去哪里了呢？”嗯，它在这里，民
间。他们只是不让我们大声说出来而已。 讽刺的是，中国拥有世界上最多的人口，也比其他国家浪费了世界上最多的 人力资源。在文革期间，整整一代人的智慧都完全消失了。有人议论说，自 1949 年 以 来 ， 中 国 给 他 们 的 Lenny Bruces, Mort Sahls, Richard Pryors, Dick Gregorys, Eddie Murphys and Margaret Chos（美国有名的自由喜 剧讽 刺表演者 们）拷上了枷锁，封住了他们的嘴巴。当然，文化各不相同，如此的中国式潜 能的喜剧天赋会毫无疑问创作出具有“中国特色”的单口喜剧。遗憾的是，我们 永远也不知道这样的喜剧会是什么样子。 如果 说 相声正在消失，并不是因 为 无情的市 场 ，或者因 为 一些无法形容的文 化差异。那是中国共产党的错误，他们的偏执和高雅创造了一个这样的媒体环 境，在那里任何真正幽默的东西都不可能出现和讨人喜欢的。是共产党扼杀了 笑声。这可是真正一点也不好笑。
Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese Humor
Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn, November 16, 2004 12:00 AM
No laughing matter: a hilarious investigation into the destruction of modern Chinese humor by David Moser Americans seeing it on Chinese TV for the first time usually have the same reaction: “Chinese stand-up comedy!” And indeed, the surface similarity is striking: two performers stand up on a stage in front of a live audience and engage in rapid-fire humorous repartee, with their interaction following the tried-and-true formula of a “straight-man” acting as an exasperated foil to the muddle-headedness of an illogical clowner. One is reminded of the classic American comedy duos like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, George Burns and Gracie Allen, or 60s TV acts like Rowan and Martin and the Smothers Brothers. The Chinese art is called xiangsheng (literally, “face and voice”), which is usually translated into English as “crosstalk”, and for most of the twentieth century this performance form was virtually synonymous with humor in China. Beyond the surface resemblance there are differences. While American stand-up comedians tend to work solo, in China the two-person format is the dominant one (perhaps reflecting the cultural tendency toward collectivism vs. the American cult of the individual). Crosstalk performers tend to be somewhat more formal and “stagey” in their delivery than their American counterparts. But the major difference lies in the overall structure of the performance. An American stand-up comedy routine tends to consist of a string of jokes loosely strung together, with the performer flitting from topic to topic with throwaway lines as perfunctory segues from one subject to the next. In contrast, a crosstalk piece is always a coherent, self-contained routine with a fixed narrative or unifying main premise. In this sense, a typical crosstalk piece more resembles a scripted dialogue such as Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine, or the Marx Brothers’ “Why a Duck?” scene. There is a repertoire of hundreds of traditional crosstalk pieces, as well as new pieces being written all the time, and each time a piece is performed the original premise and overall structure is preserved, with the performers free to add material or edit sections according to the needs of a specific performance. The subject matter of crosstalk draws upon every aspect of Chinese culture, from history, regional dialects and folk tales to contemporary issues like the one-child policy or economic modernization. Crosstalk used to be phenomenally popular in China. Teahouses and auditoriums were packed each night with enthusiastic audiences, every theatrical troupe had a stable of crosstalk performers, and crosstalk was an essential part of every Chinese New Year variety show. In a culture not yet glutted with mindless entertainment, crosstalk was the major populist form of humor, and it was genuinely loved by audiences from every walk of life.
However, there is now widespread consensus that the art form has drastically declined in quality over the last few decades. Performances on radio and TV have dwindled considerably, and crosstalk is barely given a perfunctory place in the major variety shows. Audiences and performers alike perceive a crisis; is the form in danger of dying out completely? There are various explanations for this decline. Some lament that, with the advent of tape recorders, the master-apprentice system of transmission has fallen by the wayside, resulting in a lowering of performer standards. Others maintain that the severe time constraints of TV deny performers the breathing space they need to deliver an adequate performance. Media analysts put the blame on competition from the influx of foreign DVDs and more freewheeling Hong Kong entertainment products. Everyone seems to have an excuse for crosstalk’s increasing inability to hold an audience. The excuses all ring hollow. Similar humor forms remain wildly popular in the States and in other countries. Stand-up humor is easily staged, quickly produced, and has an immediacy and topicality that no other form of humor can have. All people, including Chinese people, crave the cathartic release that laughter provides. If done right, there is no reason to think crosstalk would not enjoy the same popularity as its foreign counterparts. The real cause of crosstalk’s decline is painfully obvious, though no one dares to publicly acknowledge the truth: the Communist Party killed it. The Chinese government has systematically stifled crosstalk by bowdlerizing its tradition, restricting its natural growth and evolution, and reducing the form to a sycophantic, unsatisfying — and unfunny — shadow of its former self. Younger audiences exposed to only the lukewarm pap that now passes for crosstalk on Chinese TV have no way of knowing that it was at one time a freewheeling, vibrant, and even rambunctious art form. Developing from humble origins as a type of street theater in the Qing Dynasty, by the 1940’s it had become a complex oral performance form that maintained an anti-authoritarian and even slightly subversive quality. It was wildly politically incorrect, lampooning everyone — pompous social elites, corrupt officials, country bumpkins, the handicapped, prostitutes, the effete intelligentsia, and even the KMT leaders in power at the time. It is difficult to convey the culturally-embedded style and content of crosstalk humor in a brief article such as this, but suffice to say, the form was every bit as rich and varied as the traditions of American Vaudeville and stand-up comedy. Then came 1949. After the communist takeover, Party officials in charge of entertainment for the new China agreed that the crosstalk genre was too rowdy and impertinent to be allowed in its present form. It went without saying that the sexual humor had to be cleaned up, but authority figures were also now off-limits, and performers could no longer ridicule the peasantry, who were now the class heroes of the revolution. Crosstalk and other entertainment forms were now called upon to “praise” (gesong) rather than to “satirize” (fengci). Few dissenting voices dared point out the obvious problem, namely that “praise” is not very funny. But no matter. In typical Chinese fashion, a special task force was formed,
the “Committee for Crosstalk Reform”, under whose guidance hundreds of traditional pieces were revised and cleaned up for public consumption. Many pieces could be salvaged with minor cosmetic surgery, while others could only be discarded completely. Typical of pieces that were deemed unacceptable was “Drinking Milk”, a one-person piece which goes as follows (drastically truncated here for space reasons): An old man takes sick with a rare disease. The doctor tells him “This is a serious illness, my friend, but we can cure it for you. There’s a special Chinese herbal medicine that will fix you right up. But there is one problem: the prescription requires that you drink milk with it.” “Why, that’s no problem.” the old man says. “HUMAN milk,” clarifies the doctor. “Well, that’s no problem either. It just so happens my daughter-in-law just gave birth to a baby. I can just get some milk from her.” “Sorry, but there’s one more requirement,” says the doctor. “The milk has to be drunk directly from the breast, otherwise it loses its effectiveness.” Whew. This might be a little tricky. What can he do? The old man has no choice but to directly approach the daughter-inlaw with his problem. He explains his predicament to her, and she is quite understanding. “It’s a matter of life-and-death,” she says. “Of course I’ll help you.” So she timidly opens up her blouse and lets the old man suck the milk. But he has barely had one mouthful than the son — who had heard that his father was ill — returns home from work early. Opening the door and seeing his young wife there with his very own father in this rather compromising situation, he is understandably pretty pissed off. “Dad!” the son cries in shock. “What the hell are you doing?” The father, seeing his son’s displeasure, stands up indignantly and says, “So! I drink one mouthful of your wife’s milk and you get this upset? Have you forgotten how much of MY wife’s milk YOU drank when you were a baby?” This piece is no longer printed or performed in the media. It has for all intents and purposes disappeared from the crosstalk repertoire, though older performers remember it and can perform it in informal settings. The average Chinese audience member would be amazed that crosstalk in its current innocuous form had anything even this mildly risqué in its past. But if they found this piece surprising, they would be absolutely flabbergasted by the X-rated premise of piece called “The Birdie that Doesn’t Chirp”. The piece is a double entendre-filled conversation between a man and a lady friend. (Female performers were rare; crosstalk, like early American stand-up comedy, was almost exclusively a male domain). The man mentions to the woman that he owns a special kind of bird that doesn’t chirp. Under puzzled questioning from the woman, it turns out the curious bird in question has no feathers, has
only one eye on the top of its head, stays inside its “cage” most of the time, can grow or shrink in size at certain times, and so on. As the dialogue proceeds it becomes increasingly obvious to everyone but the innocent woman that the “bird” in question is actually the man’s penis. At one point the woman suggests that he take his bird out to a teahouse, as is the custom of Beijingers who raise birds as a hobby: Man: A teahouse? Forget it! Last time I went to a teahouse at Wangfujing, as soon as I took off his cover, the waiter came running over. “Cover it up! Cover it up!” he said. “If you don’t cover that up, I’m gonna scald it to death with boiling water!” Woman: Oh. Man: Better cover him up, right? So I covered him up. Woman: It seems to me you don’t know the first thing about birds. You can’t put his cage on the table if you go to a teahouse. All that dirty bird poop. While you’re drinking your tea, you hang your birdie up. Man: Hang it up? No way! Woman: Why? Man: Dizzy from the height. Woman: Nonsense. Birds don’t get dizzy. Man: No, I mean I would get dizzy. Woman: What’s it got to do with you? Man: It’s my bird, after all. Very sophomoric humor, of course — sort of the Chinese equivalent of a Playboy party joke. But it is revealing to see how far this kind of frankly sexual content could be taken in pre1949 China. Crosstalk performers referred to this sort of piece as hunkou, which could be loosely translated as a “meat [as opposed to vegetarian] dish”. There is absolutely nothing remotely approaching it in the broadcast media today. (It is difficult for scholars to reconstruct pre-Liberation crosstalk because in the political extremism of 50s and 60s most of the historical record of the art form, including films, scripts, and recordings, were destroyed or irrevocably lost. A wire recording of this piece was made in 1953, and somehow resurfaced in 1990, whereupon the fragile steel wire technology was transferred to audiocassette tape by a member of the Academy of Social Sciences and passed on to a Princeton professor.)
Crosstalk also had an abundance of black humor. The premise of the piece “Selling Coffins” is almost Monty Python-esque: A coffin seller burdened with a surplus of merchandise desperately tries to unload more coffins on his customers using hard-sell techniques: A: [to the customer]...The smaller coffins also can be put to other uses besides burying people, you know. B: Like what? A: Do you have a child in your family? B: Yes. A: Swell! You can buy one of these small coffins and use it as a baby stroller. It’ll be perfect: the handles on all four sides will keep the baby from falling out. B: No good. A stroller has wheels, a coffin doesn’t. Without wheels, how can you rock it back and forth? A: Just put four wheels on it and there you go! It shouldn’t cost much money. B: But... the baby will be terrified jostling about inside! A: Oh, don’t be such a fuddy-duddy! Stick a little mattress in there and it’ll be just fine. B: Boy, you’ve got a solution for everything. A: So you’ll buy one, eh? B: Well, I... no, it won’t work. There’s no place to hang mosquito netting in the summer. A: What do you need mosquito netting for? B: Without it, the baby will get bitten by mosquitoes! A: So just shut the lid. The mosquitoes won’t be able to get in. B: But with the lid shut, the baby will suffocate! A: So much the better. B: What?!? A: You can just wheel the coffin to the cemetery to bury the kid — no need to hire pallbearers.
These examples at least illustrate the range of freedom that this performance domain once had, and the kinds of salty content that pre-Liberation audiences were routinely exposed to. The point is that early crosstalk, like any indigenous folk art form, was able to reflect daily life in a rich, genuine way. Performers were free to explore both the virtues and the foibles of the Chinese people, both the glories and the excesses of Chinese culture, and the pleasures along with the annoying absurdities of everyday life. In short, crosstalk was able to laugh at the full range of things Chinese, including the darker side. When the Party got their puritanical hands on the form after 1949, they immediately began to it pull out its satirical teeth, turning it into an bland mouthpiece for political policy. During the dark days of the Cultural Revolution the form virtually ceased to exist. The arts had become merely a tool of indoctrination, and crosstalk proved to be particularly fragile and unsustainable in this new environment. While a revolutionary ballet can still retain some degree of compelling visual power, or a propaganda movie can still hold some purely cinematic value (note Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will), the purely verbal form of crosstalk had no other artistic elements to fall back on, and thus became effectively dead. Mao Zedong himself was an avid fan of crosstalk, and would hold performances in his residences at Zhongnanhai on Saturday nights. Interestingly, he requested only the traditional repertoire, having no use for the newly produced, revolutionary pieces. Like his wife Jiang Qing, who banned all foreign films but viewed Disney movies in the privacy of her living quarters, Mao continued to foist revolutionary art on the masses, while privately enjoying the unexpurgated classics. In 1989 I interviewed crosstalk star Hao Aimin, who was one of the younger artists who performed in these weekly performances at Zhongnanhai. In the relaxed setting of my dorm room at Peking University, he related what it was like to perform “stand-up” in front of Chairman Mao: We would peek out from behind the curtain backstage while we were waiting to go on, and there would be Chairman Mao, all red-faced, dancing waltzes with the young women. Chairman Mao was a large man, very robust, but actually quite graceful on his feet, and a good dancer. Seeing him in this context -- as a human being rather than a world leader -enabled us to relax a bit and not be so terrified when it was time to go on. Still, standing up in front of Chairman Mao telling jokes could be intimidating. You had the feeling the people in the audience were afraid to laugh unless he did. Zhou Enlai was a better audience in this respect. He himself was more easy-going and laughed readily at all the jokes. He also had a tendency to anticipate the punchlines, and would say them along with you. This would spoil the joke somewhat, but it made for a more relaxed atmosphere. In the late 1970’s, following the end of the Cultural Revolution, crosstalk experienced a rebirth as performers were again given more or less free rein to exercise their creative powers. This time the satirists had a safe and officially-sanctioned target: the Gang of Four
and the excessive zealotry of the decade that had just ended. Performers took gleeful pleasure in getting comedic revenge on Jiang Qing and her cohorts, and dozens of pieces appeared with titles like “The White-Boned Demon” (the name of an evil spirit in the novel Journey to the West, which became a nickname for Jiang Qing). Jokes about the Gang of Four that had been circulating underground for years could now be put to use in these routines, and crosstalk performers were even free to show off their much-vaunted imitation skills to viciously parody Jiang Qing’s sing-song Shandong accent: A:[imitating Jiang Qing] I’ve always studied diligently since I was young. I persisted in reading Marxist-Leninist literature five hours every day, and Chairman Mao’s works for seven hours every day. Comrades, I read four works from cover to cover: I can recite from memory Lenin’s Das Kapital, and Marx’s The Collected Works of Lenin... B: Come off it! Give us a break! A: Comrades, the struggles at the top are complex, and there are those in political circles who oppose me. B: Yeah, they can see you’re a schemer and an opportunist! A: They say that I have openly tried to subvert the Party. These accusations are totally groundless! Sure, I tried to subvert the Party, but it was never openly!” You get the idea. Not exactly side-splitting humor. Most of these pieces don’t hold up well, of course, being perhaps prime examples of the type of humor for which “you had to be there”. But the laughter was truly cathartic, as audiences were now free to laugh at what just a few years earlier had been an oppressive aspect of everyday life. One of the more successful pieces of the post-Mao period was “How to Take a Photograph”, which did a wonderful job of skewering the absurd politically excesses of the time: A: On the wall of the shop was a piece of paper, and at the top it said NOTICE TO ALL CUSTOMERS. B: What did it say? A: It said: “All revolutionary comrades who come in the revolutionary door of this revolutionary photography shop, before asking any revolutionary question, must first call out a revolutionary slogan. If any of the revolutionary masses do not call out a revolutionary slogan, then the revolutionary shopkeeper will take a revolutionary attitude and refuse to give a revolutionary response. Revolutionarily yours, the revolutionary management.” B: Really “revolutionary”, all right. It was like that in those days. As soon as you went into the shop it went like this: “Serve the People!” Comrade, I’d like to ask a question.
A: “Struggle Against Selfishness and Criticize Revisionism!” Go ahead. B: [to the audience] Well, at least he didn’t ignore me. [Back in character] “Destroy Capitalism and Elevate the Proletariat!” I’d like to have my picture taken. A: “Do Away with the Private and Establish the Public!” What size? B: “The Revolution is Without Fault!” A three-inch photo. A: “Rebellion is Justified!” Okay, please give me the money. B: “Politics First and Foremost!” How much? A: “Strive for Immediate Results!” One yuan three mao. B: “Criticize Reactionary Authorities!” Here’s the money. A: “Oppose Rule by Money!” Here’s your receipt. B: “Sweep Away Class Enemies of All Kinds!” Thank you.
The piece catapulted the young performer Jiang Kun into instant success, and more pieces followed. For a brief period of time, crosstalk had an officially sanctioned target and almost total license to attack it. This period of satiric openness did not last long. Once the brief period of letting off steam had subsided, political topics were once again off-limits. Those in power did not wish for discontent with recently-toppled regime to begin to spill over into the current one. Genuine laughter is liberating, contagious, and ultimately threatening to the established rule. However, crosstalk was at least able to return to its roots, and no one was more qualified to lead in this renewal than the art’s greatest living practitioner, Hou Baolin. Hou had been rehabilitated at the end of the Cultural Revolution after being branded as a “rightist”, and was now free to continue the work of revising and expanding the crosstalk repertoire. Hou Baolin was a self-taught performer with a prodigious memory and an uncanny ear. With a Buster Keaton deadpan face and a relaxed, understated style, his performances had an urbane sophistication lacking in many other performers. Hou’s strong point was not satire per se, but rather the basic skills of the art, which involved imitating dialects and opera styles, and capturing the rich range of Chinese speech in impressive vocal displays. With these techniques as a basis, he revisited and revamped the older pieces, recycling and playing with the rich set of plots and characters in traditional Chinese literature and mythology. As popular as he was, his performances could only be characterized as masterful museum pieces. They represented the (pasteurized) cream of the old repertoire. With his
undisputed comedic mastery, and with the content of his performances safely apolitical, Hou maintained a position as the premier crosstalk performer during the decades after 1949, becoming practically synonymous with the art itself. As towering a figure as Hou was, he was not the person to take on the task of incorporating subject matter relevant to Deng Xiaoping’s China. Jobs, family relationships, consumer behavior, social attitudes; all were changing at a dizzying pace, and for crosstalk to remain funny, it would have to begin to reflect these new developments. What the increasingly sophisticated audience was crying out for was comedy material that examined the current realities of Chinese life, jokes that dealt head-on with the new and often traumatic changes unfolding under the new market economy. The raw material for such humor was certainly out there in abundance, and by all rights the 1980s should have been a heyday for Chinese crosstalk performers. It didn’t happen. The task of producing effective crosstalk material was made nearly impossible by the fact that the government was still not allowing any content in the arts that smacked of criticism. Satire needs a target, but what social phenomena could performers possibly use as fodder for humor? The increasing ranks of laid-off workers? The chaotic collapse of the longstanding danwei (“work unit”) system? The gaudy excesses of China’s nouveau rich? The spoiled-brat “little emperors” resulting from the one-child policy? Such juicy topics were off-limits, effectively preventing crosstalk humor from even getting off the ground. Even more frustrating was the fact that all these topics were being lampooned in the rich underground repertoire of jokes, doggerel poems, and song parodies circulating among the public. The jokes being told by cab drivers were funnier than those of the professional comedians on TV. What were crosstalk performers to do? They rehashed old material. They parodied TV ads. They recited tongue-twisters. They resorted to slapstick. And the form continued its downward slide, with audiences becoming bored and disgusted with the increasingly irrelevant blather performers were forced to produce. For a very brief time in the late 1980s, however, it seemed as if one performer, Jiang Kun, teamed up with a talented young writer named Liang Zuo, might be able to put some teeth back into crosstalk by adopting a tactic that creative artists under other repressive regimes have employed, namely incorporating subversive messages into their work while on the surface adhering to guidelines of political correctness. The first success of this duo was a piece called “Reflections in the Tiger’s Mouth”, the basic premise of which is as follows. A young man accidentally falls into a tiger pit at the zoo and finds himself face to face with a hungry tiger. Attempts to rescue him fail, and, suddenly forced to confront his own mortality, he frantically searches for some metaphysical consolation in his last remaining moments of life. But where to turn at this existential crisis point? His thoughts turn to a few communist slogans and the Four Modernizations, but these fail to provide either escape or spiritual comfort:
A: [Shouting to spectators looking down into the tiger pit] Hey, up there! Shouting slogans won’t do any good, the tiger doesn’t understand them! Hey, up there! If you really want to emulate the spirit of Lei Feng, some of you should come down here and rescue me! B: Did any of them come down? A: “Communist Party members follow me!” B: Are you a Communist Party member? A: Uh, don’t ask. Anyway, it was obviously me who took the lead in coming down here in the first place! . . . B: After all this time you haven’t thought of a way to escape! A: Take it easy! Wait till I discuss this with the tiger. B: Oh, so you’re going to discuss it with the tiger? A: We’re going to do a little “ideological work”. [addressing the tiger] “Tiger! Tiger! Open your eyes and take a good look at me. I’m pretty skinny — no meat!…Tiger, if you have mercy on me today and don’t eat me, if you let me get out of this, I. . . I promise I’ll lead a good life. I’ll not only work for the Four Modernizations, I’ll even work for the Eight Modernizations. I won’t show up late for work at my work unit, and in the evening I won’t leave early. I’ll do everything my superiors tell me. At home I’ll be a model of filial piety, I’ll cherish my brothers and sisters. On the street I’ll obey the traffic rules, and I won’t spit on the ground!” He then seeks some metaphysical solace in various religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism — but realizes to his dismay that he doesn’t know enough about any of these belief systems to take advantage of what they have to offer. When he is finally pulled to safety, he once again puts these metaphysical questions aside as he directs his attention to wooing the attractive young lady who helped organize his rescue. The genius of the piece is its two levels of meaning. On the surface it is merely a humorous vignette about a hapless Everyman frantically trying to save his own skin, and Jiang Kun delivers a manic Jerry Lewis-like performance that makes this reading plausible. But the underlying message was evident to those who could read between the lines: namely that the Party, in abandoning the legacy of Chinese history and replacing it with merely a bankrupt and empty ideology, had failed to provide ordinary people with any moral or ethical grounding for their daily lives. Jiang and Liang had a hit on their hands, a piece that truly resonated with audiences — and it made it past the censors! In another piece called “Self-Selection”, Liang Zuo manages to deal humorously with issues of gender identity, and even to flirt with the topic of homosexuality and bisexuality — issues
that were not then or now acceptable topics for TV humor. The protagonist goes to the doctor and is told that he has come down with an extremely rare gender disorder: he is now exactly half-way between a man and a woman — he is neither male nor female. There is, however, an operation that can be performed on a special a gland in the brain. If the doctor twists the gland to the right, the patient will become fully male again; if the gland is twisted to the left, the patient will become a female. The doctor, realizing that this is a momentous decision, advises the patient to go home and discuss the options with friends and family members. What follows is an exposition of the advantages and disadvantages of being one sex or the other in the Chinese social context. In the process of hypothesizing and weighing options, the protagonist keeps getting his gender roles confused: A: As a woman I would still have to find a mate... Hey, how about if I choose a man as a mate? B: Aren’t women supposed to look for men? A: ... Okay, I’ve got to make a careful decision. A matter of “Till death do us part”, I can’t choose just anybody. I’ll pick... Hey, how about Little Mengzi at our work unit? He’s in a leadership position. B: You have to decide this for yourself. A: Nah, Little Mengzi doesn’t have the right look. He’s only 1.65 meters tall.... He has these stupid-looking double-fold eyelids — his eyes look like two belly buttons! He’s so short and dumpy, yet he loves to wear blue jeans, his two little buns poking out so tight... I can’t figure out figure out why that Li girl would pick him. B: Huh? Little Mengzi has a fiancé? A: They’ve been engaged more than a year now. B: Then why are you butting in? A: Isn’t everybody advocating “the third party sticking their foot in the door” these days? [Chinese term for the third member of the triangle in an extramarital affair] B: Who’s advocating that? A: Well what are all these articles in the newspapers and magazines on the subject? B: They’re all opposing it!
A: ... Well, anyway, who’s “the third party” after all? Little Mengzi’s fiancé is the “third party”, not me! I’ve been sharing a bunk-bed with Little Mengzi ever since I started work at the factory. Has she ever spent the night in the same room with him? Plus, if I get married to Little Mengzi, it’ll save a lot of trouble. We wouldn’t even have to apply for housing, we could just move my bedding from the top bunk to the bottom bunk and that would be it! The housing situation is so tight these days, it would save the leaders of the work unit a lot of hassle! B: You’ve got an answer for everything! A: Sure! With so much competition for housing, you leaders have to think of some solution. If everyone did like I’m proposing, men marrying men and women marrying women... [pause] Uh, I guess that would be crazy wouldn’t it? B: You’re finally catching on. In the end the protagonist, having discovered that both genders have their advantages, chooses not to have the operation at all. “I’ll just stay like this — right in the middle!” he says. Again, for the vast majority of the audience, the humor of the piece is perceived to center around the protagonist’s obvious violations of “common sense”. But to hipper members of the audience — and especially gays and bisexuals — exchanges such as the above were knowingly evocative. In China’s homophobic society, where crowded same-sex dorm rooms and living arrangements are the rule, the situation hinted at here would be immediately recognizable to many as the only means for homosexuals to enjoy relatively safe, long-term clandestine sexual relationships. Furthermore, merely toying with the blurring of gender roles in a humorous context can lead to deeper reflection and awareness of these issues on the part of the average Chinese, who might never encounter an open and serious discussion of the subject elsewhere. As a piece of social satire operating in the context of the relatively more restrictive social environment, one might make a comparison to the 50’s Hollywood film Some Like it Hot, where cross-dressing and gender-switching were all played for laughs, yet a more challenging — even subversive — subtext was there to be read by anyone sensitized to it. The best Liang-Jiang collaboration was a piece entitled “Big News”, which was premiered as part of the televised Chinese New Year’s festival in the spring before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The piece was an immediate and phenomenal hit. The premise is as follows. A tells B that he has heard it through the xiaodao xiaoxi, (“back alley information”, i.e., “the grapevine”) that the government is about to come up with a bold new experiment: Tiananmen Square is going to be converted into an outdoor free market, where hundreds of getihu enterprises would be allowed to set up stalls and hawk everything from blue jeans to VCRs. The straight man is incredulous that the historic square would be converted to such a crass commercial venue:
B: Tiananmen Square is the window of China. How could it be appropriate to plunk an outdoor market down there? A: Window of China? Right! Foreigners don’t know what China is like. They can take one look at the square and say “An open-air market? Hey! China has a commodity-based economy!” Taking another look, they say “Hmm, and everything is pretty cheap, too! Okay, now we know!” And that’s the first step. B: Oh, so now they know. A: A window, you said. They take one look and get the picture. Foreigners take one look and think “Not bad!” ... It’ll put their minds at ease. “So much bustling activity, so much prosperity! Surely China will have no trouble repaying its debts!” The jokester proceeds to counter all of the straight man’s objections. You say the marketplace will clutter up the front of the Great Hall of the People? This has advantages for the leaders — when they get hungry during a particularly exhausting meeting, they can just step outside and buy a bowl of wonton soup! You say the open air market would be a distraction during important governmental activities? On the contrary, the market would provide visual aids; when the topic of the meeting came around to the problem of poor quality-control in industry, all the goods arrayed in the outdoor stalls could serve as handy examples. And so on. The piece was dynamite humor at the time. The ostensible premise was the perils of gullibly swallowing the absurd rumors circulated in the xiaodao xiaoxi, but more astute members of the audience were, of course, aware of the delicious irony of the true underlying subtext, which poked fun at the contradiction between China’s rapid economic reforms and its continuing rearguard political policies. Of course, “Big News” didn’t merely point out this dichotomy — it rubbed the government’s nose in it. Audiences at the time laughed gleefully at the incongruous image of the somber square filled with hundreds of small capitalistic entrepreneurs at their outdoor stalls catering to rowdy hordes of bargain-hunting shoppers. The piece continued to be performed and talked about during the following few months of 1989, as life imitated art: Tiananmen Square indeed came to resemble a kind of boisterous outdoor marketplace as the student protesters took over. The piece managed to achieve something close true political satire, a form of humor totally absent from the Chinese media. Then came the night of June 4. After the initial chaos of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a new ice age for the arts set in. “Big News” disappeared from the public record, and Liang Zuo himself became fed up with the crosstalk domain, turning to more lucrative TV serials. He died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 44. Crosstalk’s slump began to deepen, with the routines becoming increasingly perfunctory and aimless — and not funny. Some of the more talented performers jumped ship, crossing over into movies or cashing in on their fame by starting their own companies. What was left was a core group of veteran performers who
were reliably entertaining but increasingly irrelevant, and a rag-tag assortment of inexperienced rookies who could only recycle lame jokes or wail pop song parodies. And so the situation remains today. The result is that crosstalk’s presence on TV and radio has diminished significantly. Nor is the situation much better with live theater performances. Beijing, the center of the art form, now has virtually no venues where one can enjoy a performance on any given night. The more traditional city of Tianjin fares a bit better, boasting a few traditional performing arts teahouses (perhaps the Chinese equivalent of comedy clubs) where loyal fans can pay five yuan and spend an evening munching sunflower seeds and drinking tea while watching crosstalk. Unfettered by the time constraints of television, veteran performers are free to spin out the traditional pieces (some lasting as long as an hour) in more or less their full glory. Good as these routines are, some of the pieces are more than 50 years old. It would be as if New York audiences flocked to a comedy clubs to enjoy reprisals of Jack Benny or the Marx Brothers. Classic stuff, to be sure, but humor must reflect the times. Nobody is more painfully aware of these problems than crosstalk performers themselves. It is they who have to endure the nightly “flop sweat” arising from confronting bored and contemptuous audiences. The words of one veteran performer are typical: Naturally we all agree that crosstalk just isn’t funny anymore. It’s the computer age, but we’re still up there doing pieces about Peking Opera and peddler’s cries. The tragedy is, there is plenty of material out there. Everyone complains about the traffic in Beijing. Can we make a joke about it? No. It would be construed as a criticism of the municipal traffic authorities. Everyone is downloading porn from the Internet now. Can we mention this in a joke? Forget it. It would be admitting that Chinese people have sexual hang-ups, too… And never mind poking a little innocent fun at our political leaders. Never in a million years. So what’s the point of even trying to be funny? In fact, every facet of daily life is so politicized in China, that crosstalk performers actually find themselves avoiding indigenous Chinese subject matter for their routines. For part of his performance in the CCTV Spring Festival show for the Year of the Horse, Jiang Kun, the leading performer of his generation, simply revamped a couple of foreign jokes downloaded from the Internet. Surely one would think that some culturally relevant, home-grown Chinese humor would have been more appropriate for such an important TV event. Perhaps it was not worth the multi-leveled steeplechase that the censorship process entails. The result of decades of constant conservative pressure from these TV censors is that the general tone of all the entertainment media in China is now unrelentingly laudatory, saccharine and Pollyanna-ish. And this style has become so ingrained that any content that is the least bit irreverent, iconoclastic, snide, or mocking (i.e., anything displaying the essential attitudes of humor) is perceived as downright crass and socially disruptive. Such an atmosphere of polite, cheery civility is not conducive to the performing arts in general, but for the purely verbal humor of crosstalk, it is paralyzing.
The Chinese audience, now savvier and more internationalized, craves something spontaneous and honest, but crosstalk performers seem unable to provide it. One famous performer (who asks that I not use his name) laments that his career in the PRC has left him incapable of performing comedy in any other way: I’ve been overseas, and I’ve seen these American comedians like Robin Williams interacting with the audience, and so much of it is just improvised. My fans say “You’re so funny, and quick-witted. I bet you could do that, too. Why not just get up on the stage and go with the situation, play it by ear with the audience? People would love it.” But I say, no, it’s really too late for me. If right now you gave me the total freedom to stand up on the stage and say anything at all, in the end I’d just end up mouthing the same old things, falling back on the same routines. It’s second-nature to me now. There might be hope for the next generation, but for not for me. This is all I know how to do now. Yet where is this new generation to come from? The most serious sign of the crosstalk’s moribund status is that virtually no stars have arisen in the past ten years. Clearly, the art needs new ideas, new material and new faces, or it is in danger of extinction. But what new talent is going to want to embark on a sinking ship? I was once at a party attended by several crosstalk performers. As the evening wore on and the maotai liquor flowed, a few of them began to get up and tell jokes that were popular at the time, including this one about police corruption: A new cop, his first day on the job. After putting in a day’s work, he decides to go to a movie to relax. As he’s standing there in line, the person in front of him turns around, sees his police uniform, and says “You’re new, right?” The cop is surprised. “Well, yes, how did you know?” “Cops don’t wait in line, they just cut to the front of the line.” The cop thinks, “Great! One of the advantages of being a cop!” So he cuts into the head of the line, and indeed no one dares object. He pulls out his wallet to buy a ticket and the ticket seller says “You’re new, right?” “Why, yes, how did you know?” “Cops don’t have to buy tickets. They just go in for free.” The cop, increasingly pleased with the perks of this job, goes into the theater. He starts to look for a seat on the ground floor. Someone says “You’re new, right?” “Well, yes, how did you know?” “Cops don’t sit with the ordinary people. They go up to the reserved padded seats in the balcony.” The cop is pleased with this, and goes up to the reserved seats. As soon as he sits down, the person next to him says. “You’re new, right?” “Well, yes, how did you know?” “Cops don’t sit politely with their feet on the floor. They always lean back and put their feet up on the seat in front of them.” So he leans back and puts his feet up. And he’s thinking this is a pretty good job. Suddenly he receives a phone call on his cell phone. “We’ve just heard there’s a prostitution ring at the Chaoyang movie theater,” says the police dispatcher. “Go look around and get some evidence, and you can get a promotion!” What luck! The cop happens to be at that very movie theater. So he pulls out his flashlight and begins opening doors, looking for some prostitution activity. And sure enough, upon opening one of the doors, he sees a man in there with three hookers in bed with him. Triumphantly he says “Get up, all of you! You are all under arrest, including you, buddy.” One
of the hookers says “Hey, you’re new, aren’t you?” Now the cop is really dumbfounded. “Yeah, but how in the world could you possibly know that?” The prostitute points to the man in bed with them and says “You don’t recognize your own chief of police??” This joke is typical of the kind of humor that circulates among the general populace and gets sent around the Internet in China. Mild as it is, this joke could never be told on Chinese TV. After the laughter died down, the performer who told the joke complained to me: You know, there is so much resentment against the police right now. I would love to be able to tell this joke on the stage. The audience would go crazy, for sure. I always feel that this is the kind of humor we should be making, stuff that the audience can identify with, stuff that really reflects the kind of problems they meet in everyday life. As years go by, news events come and go, and all kinds of these jokes make the rounds, but they never get aired on TV. Year after year all sorts of marvelous humor is produced and then forgotten, and never makes in on the public record. Centuries from now, people will look back and say “Where was the humor in China after 1949?” Well, it was here, folks, they just wouldn’t let us speak it out loud. It is ironic that China, with the world’s largest population, also wastes more human resources than any country on earth. An entire generation of talent was effectively lost during the Cultural Revolution. And it could be argued that, since 1949, China has metaphorically shackled and silenced all its Lenny Bruces, Mort Sahls, Richard Pryors, Dick Gregorys, Eddie Murphys and Margaret Chos. Of course, all cultures are different, and such potential Chinese comedic geniuses would have undoubtedly produced standup comedy with “Chinese characteristics”. The pity is that we will never know what that comedy might have been like. If crosstalk is dying, it is not because of inexorable market forces, or because of some ineffable cultural difference. It is rather the fault of the Communist Party, whose paranoia and pathetic sense of dignity has produced a media environment in which nothing truly humorous can ever arise and flourish. It is the Party that killed the laughter. And this is truly no laughing matter.
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