When Covid-19 descended upon the world, it brought many aspects of life to a halt, including the opportunity for strangers to get together and enjoy a comedy show. Suddenly, the idea of unmasked people sharing a laugh in a cramped bar became foreign, even dangerous.
Ben Frank holds a peculiar yet fascinating title — he was the first comedian to headline a show in Wuhan where the outbreak of the pandemic began.
His most recent comedy special, Live in Wuhan, is reflective and pioneering.
Filmed in July just three months after the lockdown, his special illuminates the contrast between a city trying to move forward, and the stagnation the rest of the world is still experiencing. While most major cities in the Western world are still in the grips of the virus, Wuhan was able to re-open its city gates within 76 days. The expatriates in the city who had been deprived of a physical human connection for nearly three months were ready to re-enter the world they once knew, and Ben Frank was eager to help them do that, microphone in hand, jokes in mind.
Ben begins his special by gauging the audience. As Eye of the Tiger blasts in the bar, the crowd seems half shocked that they are actually able to witness a live show once again. “Who was here for the whole 76 day lockdown? Who left?” The crowd cheers, establishing rapport as they begin to process the experience they had.
Ben, who started doing comedy in 2015 is part of a rare breed of jokesters. During the 2010’s, China’s comedy scene began to explode, led by expats who came to the country in search of work and opportunity, but found community in the power of laughter and storytelling.
As China began to claim its place as an economic leader in the 21st century, habitants all over the country were eager to learn about the world outside of what they knew. Comedy clubs were a part of this process. Open mics began to pop up in bars, helmed by foreigners who lead legendary clubs such as Kung Fu Komedy, and Comedy UN, which became home to transient expats who were either touring the country, or trying an open mic for the first time. Ben’s first experience with comedy was at an employee talent show held by his job. The acts were meant to break up the monotony of a series of department wide presentations. He did a handful of impressions, and they went well enough to inspire him to continue. The burgeoning Shanghai scene offered ample opportunities for him to turn early raw jokes into a set can now tour all over Asia. The online magazine Time Out Shanghai crowned him “One of Shanghai’s slickest and most recognizable comedians”.
Throughout his set, Ben takes the crowd on a mental walk through life as he sees it, telling intimate stories of his time in Shanghai such as the time he shared an apartment in the city with five women, and his experience dating in the 24 million person megalopolis, as well as reflections of his parents divorce from his teenage years.
Frank has established himself as a solid presence within the scene. He has headlined clubs all around Asia; from Mainland China, to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This list is still growing.
According to Frank, each scene has its own style; pieces of the local culture which influence what people find funny, or don’t. “As a touring comedian, your material has to be relatable and universal enough to resonate with people in countries that are very different from each other.”
What sets the scene in Asia apart from any other in the world is how welcoming it is of outsiders. While it is difficult to but not impossible to imagine a foreign comedian reaching the pinnacles of success in North America, the slate of comedians who have succeeded in Asia is notably diverse. Drew Fralick, an American from Michigan won the 2015 Hong Kong International Competition, and the 2017 China International Comedy Competition. Acts such as Mohammed Magdi (an Egpytian), Andy Curtain (an Australian) and Adam Hopkins (A Brit) have expanded past Shanghai, and brought their stories to a population of eager listeners. Arguably, one of the first people who wetted the Chinese appetite for comedy was Dashan, a Canadian who dazzled Chinese natives with his ability to speak Mandarin. His personality opened doors for him to become a mainstay in Chinese media, before he finally made it his mission in 2013 to bring comedy to the continent. These are some of the giants who Ben stands on the shoulders of.
The Asian comedy market that these foreigners pioneered in major Chinese cities is thriving, while shows in the original capitols like L.A. and New York remain a thought for the distant future.
However, comedy in Asia has its fair share of challenges. Unlike its North American cousin, the Asian industry is nascent, and didn’t really pick up steam until the 2010’s. Since stand-up comedy is a relatively new art form, many local venues don’t yet know how to give it the platform it deserves, while also navigating the strict rules of local and state governments. The history of comedy in Shanghai is one of back rooms in bars, where bartenders often shouted over the acts, and promoters were scammed regularly. Clubs such as Kung Fu Komedy, which held some of the largest comedy shows in the history of China from a small back room in the French concession, have succumbed to local bureaucracies.
Frank insulates himself from the dangers of being a comedian on the continent by tempering his topics. “there are certain places like China or Thailand, where talking about local politics, the government, and/or the ruling party or monarch is strictly off limits. In general, comedians and promoters are pretty good at self-policing on topics like this, as they all know speaking publicly about those things can endanger the existence of comedy for everybody”.
For now, Frank is focused on telling the next joke. The comments on his latest special are filled with encouragement. One viewer said “Funny man. Definitely worth the watch. Saw him in Changsha….” another said “Love it bro! You have a Seth Rogan vibe! Right on!”.