Having a Laugh: Li Dan and His Stand-up Comedy Kingdom

Meet China’s ‘father of stand-up comedy’ who helped usher a subculture into the limelight

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9:23 PM HKT, Fri May 20, 2022 7 mins read

Walks of Fame is a monthly column covering renowned personalities from China (or of Chinese heritage) who have made waves in their respective industries. This month, RADII brings you none other than household name and stand-up comedian Li Dan.

“When I returned to China in 2013, I was more popular than stand-up comedy itself,” quips Chinese American comedian Joe Wang in the first episode of Rock & Roast’s fourth season, Tencent’s popular stand-up comedy contest. Both joke and keen observation rolled into one, Wang’s comment encapsulates stand-up comedy’s relatively late start in China.

Much has changed in the past decade, however. A constant figure in this rising phenomenon is Li Dan.

A standout comedian, Li is also the curator and host of Rock & Roast. Many credit him with introducing stand-up comedy, once a subculture, to the greater public in China.

Far from an overnight success, Li has had to work his fingers to the bone. But hard work usually has a way of proving worthwhile. In 2012, he made his steep ascent from scriptwriter to guest star on Shanghai’s Tonight 80’s Talk Show.

In the decade since his debut on the celebrated Shanghai TV program, the 33-year-old has worn multiple hats — comedian, poet, screenwriter, author, and ‘king of punchlines’ — and accumulated 8.8 million followers on Weibo.

Li Dan stand-up comedy

Li Dan on the red carpet at a fashion event. Image via VCG

One of his most quoted lines, “Be happy my friends; the world is not worth being taken too seriously (人间不值得),” has been pinned to his Weibo page for years — long enough for the phrase to spread like wildfire and be taken out of context, especially by proponents of the ‘lying flat’ generation.

Recognizable for his round spectacle frames, signature changshan attire, and carefree attitude toward life, Li is also responsible for the saying, “All pretty faces look the same; one interesting soul is to be found among a million (好看的皮囊千篇一律,有趣的灵魂万里挑一).”

Li, whose stardom represents the ‘Chinese dream’ and a ‘modern dilemma,’ is well aware of the contradictory tags attached to his name: ‘Pessimistic comedian,’ ‘nihilist businessman,’ and ‘lazy workaholic’ only just scratch the surface.

Li Dan of the Grasslands

Born in Inner Mongolia in 1989, Li grew up close to a mine — the source of his father’s income in post-reform era China. On stage, he has made no secret of having to drink contaminated water during his childhood.

Flocks of goats, wind, snow, and infinite solitude color his earliest memories. In his autobiography, he mentions that any traces of religiousness and spirituality in his personality can be attributed to growing up in the grasslands.

The harsh wilderness of his youth continues to feed his dark sense of humor.

“Many urbanites are fascinated by poetry, nature, and far-away places,” laughed Li in season one of Rock & Roast. “For those like me, who come from such a place, it’s not something we want to experience twice.”

“In Inner Mongolia, every kid has seen their father cry after getting drunk,” once said Li to Southern People Weekly. “So I learned from an early age that it’s okay not to be okay.”

The self-professed “naughty boy” was often punished by his father, but makes light of it now. In season one of Rock & Roast, he said, “Whenever I get criticized by the public, my dad always comforts me by saying that no one could possibly treat me worse than he did when I was a kid.”

Inner Mongolia

The wild, open expanses of Inner Mongolia autonomous region in North China, the landscape Li grew up in. Image via Depositphotos

The wisecracker’s sharp wit first surfaced at school. “I’d always tease the teacher and get punished or thrown out of the classroom,” confessed the comedian during an interview with Phoenix TV. “Then, in the hallway, I would meet other future stand-up comedians from other classrooms.”

Albeit being a bit of a troublemaker at school, Li’s mother, a high school English teacher, kept his grades in check — at least until high school.

“I discovered Milan Kundera, Wang Xiaobo, and other authors in high school,” said Li in an interview with columnist Xu Zhiyuan on the show 13 Reasons Why. Suddenly, he “found the traditional school curriculum uncool.”

Disappointing his parents and teachers, who had high expectations for him, Li failed the National College Entrance Examination (NCEE), better known as the ‘gaokao,’ and was made to retake the test. Eventually, he managed to enroll at a university in the megalopolis of Guangzhou, the capital of South China’s Guangdong province.

Relocating to Guangzhou served as a self-induced “exile.” In multiple interviews, Li has stated, “I just wanted to be in a warm place, far away from home.”

Despite his mixed feelings towards his childhood, his deep-rooted attachment to his homeland has never faded.

After making his big break on the online comedy show Roast! in 2017, he returned to Inner Mongolia for a time. There, he penned a profound realization on Weibo: “I prefer the North. The wind and the snow smooth out any illusions we might have.”

Drunk Poet to Stand-up Comedian

On 13 Reasons Why, Li stated that he studied sociology at university as a means “to explain things that were happening in the world.”

Instead of attending classes, however, he preferred to pour over classical literature, including the Buddhist canonical text Diamond Sutra, in his dorm.

“Everything that I had ever wondered or worried about was explained in the text,” said Li, whose fundamental values are based on Buddhism.

This rebellious period of his life was marked by alcoholism — an addiction he has never hidden from the public. He spent most of his time drinking, reading, and writing down his thoughts online. “I was bitter, angry with the world, and full of myself,” reminisced Li years later.

In 2009, Li joined the hoards signing up for the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, where he gained a niche following after publishing his first novel, Chatty Sutra. The book details imaginary conversations between two monks living at a temple and was praised for its nihilistic, humorous, and poetic tone.

“Any success that I’ve found in life started from my online writing,” said the comedian.

His first journalism internship at Southern People Weekly, a respected magazine in China, opened his eyes to the real world.

“One day in the elevator, I overheard how editors got their train tickets through their guanxi (network),” Li later told columnist Xu Zhiyuan in an interview. “And I realized that there is no spiritual utopia on Earth; I had better obey the rules and play the game.”

Bruce Lee’s oft-cited quote, “Be water, my friend,” took on new meaning for Li, who added it to his Weibo profile. He finally understood the importance of ‘going with the flow.’

After a stint as a creative copywriter at Ogilvy Beijing, Li joined the founding team of Tonight 80’s Talk Show as a screenwriter in 2012.

“I used to live in a hotel when I first arrived in Shanghai,” said Li. “I never thought the show would last.”

Providing an early introduction to stand-up comedy in China, Tonight 80’s Talk Show focused on social issues and youth culture, with Li and his fellow stand-up comedians addressing work dilemmas, family situations, and relationships in a satirical and humorous style.

Despite resonating with audiences, the program failed to secure commercial sponsors, and its ratings dipped as millennials shifted from broadcast media to the internet.

After a strong run of half a decade, the Tonight 80’s Talk Show bid farewell to its fans, who still recognize it as the incubator of stand-up comedy in China.

In his 2021 Stand-up Comedy Workbook, Li wrote that one of the essential things he learned from his time was never to make the audience laugh intentionally.

“Respect can never be gained by giving audiences what they want to hear. Be yourself, be sincere, and be excellent in your script and performance. Only then will audiences seek you out.”

As one door closed in 2017, another opened: Li turned chief compliance officer (CCO) of Fun Factory (Xiaoguo Culture Company), joining its two other founders on a mission to make stand-up comedy mainstream.

Together with Tencent and members of Tonight 80’s Talk Show’s original crew, Fun Factory launched Roast!, a localized version of American’s Comedy Central Roast, which became the most talked-about cultural phenomenon of the year.

Each episode featured China’s top celebrities, who were invited to make fun of one another using satire. In a society where hierarchy is respected, and harmony is prioritized at all costs, many had never even dreamt of poking fun at ‘successful figures.’ The program shattered conventions and snagged the attention of China’s youth, with its first season raking in 3.6 billion views.

As a curator, lead comedian and overall mastermind of the show, Li was lifted to an entirely new level of stardom, seemingly overnight.

“He was always the first to finish his script,” commented fellow comedian and screenwriter Cheng Lu. “No one could compete with him.”

Instead of waiting around for inspiration to strike, Li understood the value of consistent practice and the 10,000-hour rule. “If you cannot write a good joke, then forget about it — write a bad one. The most important thing is to write,” he once said.

Another secret to Li’s success is his skill at the art of socializing, which entails convincing celebrities to be ‘roasted’ on-screen, recruiting new talent, and negotiating with potential sponsors.

Self-expression as a Lifestyle

Even at the height of Roast!’s popularity, Li knew the program would be short-lived.

“We’ll run out of celebrities to invite eventually,” explained the sage creative in response to queries about his reluctance to pursue further seasons. “We need to get the audience to gain a genuine interest in stand-up comedy itself.”

stand-up comedian Li Dan

Li Dan and fellow comedian Chizi. Image via VCG

Less ‘plan B’ and more ‘part two’ of Li’s master plan to cultivate a greater appreciation of stand-up comedy in China, Rock & Roast was launched on Tencent in August 2017.

Li himself hosts the stand-up comedy contest, which places both professional and amateur comedians from across the country under one roof to compete for the title of ‘Talk King.’

Comedians usually make fun of their own experiences and share their observations on various topics, such as relationships and professional life. The goal of the contest is to gain high-enough ratings and votes from four judges and a live audience to advance through various rounds.

Although the success of Roast! overshadowed Rock & Roast’s first season, the former’s ratings have witnessed steady growth over time.

Statistics from Tencent show that viewership nearly doubled between each of the first three seasons. Season three, which premiered in 2020, received 190 million views and rave reviews, while scoring 7.9/10 points on Douban.

Since then, Fun Factory’s in-person performances have never failed to sell out. More importantly, stand-up comedy is now deemed a mainstream entertainment genre for urban youth aged 19 to 35 years.

“In Shanghai, our comedy show tickets have become the new currency,” joked Li in season four of Rock & Roast.

In 2021, Fun Factory held more than 1,500 offline stand-up comedy shows and open mic sessions, generating more than 8 million RMB in revenue.

The growing interest in stand-up comedy is happening in sync with urban changes in China.

In an interview with Liang Jianzhang, CEO of tourism group Ctrip, Li credited his success to being in the right place at the right time.

“Stand-up comedy is a cosmopolitan form of art born in bars. The urbanization of China has encouraged the new generation to upgrade their consumption habits and to appreciate self-expression at its essence,” he said.

To further spread stand-up comedy’s appeal, Li encourages people from all walks of life to participate in Fun Factory’s open mics and online shows.

“Everyone can be a stand-up comedian for five minutes,” said Li in season four of Rock & Roast.

Something has clearly worked, as in 2020, almost 50 new comedy clubs opened their doors in China.

More at peace with himself than ever, Li claims to have found reconciliation with himself by creating value for others.

“I have let go of things to collaborate with the world,” he said in an interview with Esquire. “You don’t always need a purpose to start something. Just do it, and your purpose will reveal itself.”

Cover image via VCG

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