Where This All Began - Origins of Stand Up in Suzhou Part. 1
In honor of the opening of the brand new Kung Fu Komedy Club in Shanghai I thought now would be the most appropriate time to share the story of the first-ever open mic comedy show in mainland China.* This is part one in a multi-part series.
In the summer of 2009 I was five years into my China stay and experiencing that sinking feeling that you get when you know an era is ending. My band “The Jackie Treehorn Experience” was breaking up because our lead singer was moving back to England, and in general most of my original group of friends were on their way out.
Five years is about as long as a reasonable non-Chinese person can live in a struggling second-tier Chinese city, and our five years was up.
I was sad. The band had been biggest thing happening in a small town of 8 million people. We played all covers, which made it easy, and there were no other expat bands in town, which made it easier.
But we ripped.
Look how sure of ourselves we were! We were wearing shirts that prompted the audience to ask us for an encore.
We had a horn section, two guitars, keys, bass, drums and a singer who could belt it out. We would play two-hour sets with non-stop dancing and wouldn’t stop until the entire bar was a sweaty, steamy mess. We ranged from ages 23-37 and had Brits, Americans, Danes, Germans and a French dude in our band. One of everything! We were the party band from Animal House mixed with the Spice Girls. And then they all left.
However I wasn’t leaving. I was in the middle of building a growing ice cream business and needed to be on the ground in the P.R.C to chase my pot of gold.
I was left with an inner struggle. I had been playing in bands non-stop from age 13-27 and for this first time in my life was left without a creative outlet, but also without the energy to start over with a new group of musicians.
JTX Live at BadaBings! 2008 - There is nowhere to go but down from here.
I needed to do something else.
Then it happened. One night at The Drunken Clam this Australian kid Gino and I got really, really drunk.
“If you could do anything what would you do?” Gino slurred.
“I’d be a stand up comedian. Like Norm Macdonald” I said.
“Norm is the best” Gino said. “I’ve always wanted to do that too”.
At that moment Shaun the bar owner walked up.
“You guys want to do stand up?”
Shaun was a tall white guy in his late-20’s from Central California. He had a goatee he liked to stroke when he was pondering and a finger he liked to raise when he was making a statement.
Shaun was relatively new to town and, along with this new girlfriend, had just purchased the bar two months earlier. He took over the space from an old Chinese lady who had decorated the joint with flashing red lights on the street pointing the customer to a seedy long hallway which eventually lead to a hidden bar. The effect gave the place the look of a local prostitute bar however she wasn’t in the business of prostitutes. This managed to keep away the people who weren’t interested in the city’s seedy underworld and also keep away those who were. Not a recipe for success.
Shaun needed something new to turn the page, and he found us. Drunken, confident Turner and Gino.
Me being confident.
“Yeah we’re going to become comedians” I said.
“That comedian vibe”, Gino said. Not sure what that meant but I think he was confirming my statement.
“Why don’t I build a stage and you guys do it here”. Shaun called our bluff.
“Ok” I said with concern.
“Hell Yeah” Gino said with confidence.
I woke up the next morning at 1 PM to a text message from Shaun.
“The stage is going in now. Your show is scheduled for December 19th”.
*Note – If I’m wrong and there was some thriving open mic scene in 80’s that produced an entire generation of innovated stand up comedians who toured everywhere from Bengbu to Wuhu please let me know. Until that email shows up in my inbox, I’m declaring us the first.