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Comedian brings funny business to Forbidden City

2012-12-12 09:37 China Daily     Web Editor: Wang Fan comment

Comedian Guo Degang is laughing all the way to the bank as his cross-talk empire internationalizes.

Comedian Guo Degang caused a sensation when he appeared in the Forbidden City on a recent afternoon, as tourists from all over China crowded around to snap photos.

It was Guo's second visit to the ancient site. His first trip was made during his childhood.

He often incorporates the Forbidden City into his shows but hadn't had time to visit since settling in Beijing 16 years ago.

His recent trip to the imperial palace was to accompany his friend Daniel Andrews, the Australian Labor Party state leader in Victoria, whom he met in Melbourne two years ago. It was Andrews' first trip to China.

Guo keeps busy as one of China's most famous cross-talk (or xiangsheng, a form of traditional Chinese comedy) performers. He flies around the country every week to appear at performances, on TV shows and at other events.

He says he was happy to have the chance to guide Andrews between flying from Jiangsu's provincial capital Nanjing the day before and Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an the day after.

Andrews says his friendship with Guo will probably make him more popular in Victoria, which has a large Chinese population.

Australia is the first foreign country Guo has performed, in 2010 and 2011. This year, he has performed with his Deyun Co in New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

While only Chinese expatriates attend these overseas shows because of the language barrier, nearly all of them sell out in advance.

"I've found a big overseas market, because there aren't many chances for Chinese who live abroad to see cross-talk," he says.

"Performing anywhere in the world is the same to me. I'd like to tour more overseas."

Next year, Guo plans to return to Australia and the US, and debut in a number of European countries.

Tickets for Guo's US tour ranged from $68 to $398. The best tickets for his Australian shows last year cost 498 Australian dollars ($522).

Guo won thunderous applause during his US tour in October and November through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York. The audiences especially enjoyed his use of some English words.

"You must adapt to the local environment," Guo says.

"Different cities have different funny things, and I like to use them in my performances."

The Chinese audiences in the US responded to his jokes with the same "yuuuuu..." sound that home audiences make at earthy punch lines, which has been popularized through the Internet.

The audiences even recited some of Guo's popular lines in unison.

Guo performs more than 70 shows a year, but most people access his work online.

Most Internet videos of him were recorded on the mobile phones of people attending his live shows.

But Guo doesn't fuss about his intellectual property rights.

"More than 95 percent of the DVDs of me are pirated, and that's not to mention what's online," he says.

"I can't stop this. And, in a way, I believe it's good for the promotion of cross-talk."

Guo goes with the flow of the Internet age.

His Sina Weibo micro blog has more than 20 million followers, and each of his tweets easily gets thousands of re-tweets.

"Weibo is a very good platform for promotion and audience interaction," Guo says.

"With my Weibo, I feel like I own several newspapers."

Cross-talk became popular throughout North China throughout the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

However, the art form declined after the 1960s because of China's political movements and the planned economy under which cross-talk artists had to be recruited by State-owned troupes.

The genre has undergone a revival since the late 1990s, as independent artists have been staging more shows in teahouses and theaters.

Guo and his colleagues at Deyun Co are a major force in the revival movement.

He's certainly the most successful among the independent cross-talk artists and private troupes performing in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities.

He not only performs cross-talk, but also hosts TV shows and acts in films and TV dramas.

He owns five theaters where his contracted artists perform, a clothing brand and a restaurant.

He ranks 32nd on the 2012 Forbes China Celebrities Chart. He earned 27.1 million yuan ($4.35 million) this year, making him by far the richest cross-talk performer.

Guo was born into an ordinary family in Tianjin and didn't finish secondary school. But he made millions through witty interpretations of the urban poor's perspectives.

He's a hero for many youth with comparable backgrounds. More than 100 students from across the country apprentice under him through Deyun.

Guo gave talks about the culture of cross-talk at two top US universities — Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University — at the invitation of their Chinese students' unions.

One young woman at Columbia asked if she could become Guo's apprentice. He suggested she remain a listener.

"Listening to cross-talk is very easy and enjoyable, but performing it is extremely difficult," he says.

"Otherwise, why would you pay to hear me talk?"

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